In “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner explores what encourages and what happens due to insanity. Emily Grierson’s life is narrated through, we can assume, a member of the community….
The Conflict between the Individual and the Society in A Rose for Emily
One of Faulkner’s most famous short story, A Rose for Emily is based on the theme of the stark conflict between the individual and the impersonal voice of the community. To emphasize this idea, the story is rendered through the collective point of view of the community that includes Miss Emily.
Not accidentally, the plot of the story is set in a small town, where the relationship between the individual and the society is a very tight one. Moreover, the narrator of the story locates himself or herself among the people in the town and even speaks in the first person plural, maintaining therefore a collective view of the events.
The heroine of the story appears therefore even more singular and isolated, when regarded through the inquisitive lens of the community. The complex relationship between the individual, Emily Grierson, and the society, is emphasized in several ways.
This conflict arises because Emily, an aristocratic woman of a high social standing, rejects all the social norms and conventions and enshrouds herself in her own fantasies and obsessions instead of actively participating in the social life.
The psychotic mind of the main character is therefore opposed to the gossiping community, which is limited to the role of a witness in this story. The reason for Emily’s power is precisely her madness which also gives her an absolute and lawless freedom of action.
What is striking is that Faulkner draws the portrait of a disturbed and obsessive individual, by setting it at a distance from the reader’s immediate perception.
If, in most of his novels, Faulkner employs multiple point of views and the technique of the streams of consciousness to narrate the events, in A Rose for Emily the protagonist is analyzed from the point of view of an entire community.
The perspective that the townspeople offer on Emily’s story is, however, equally unreliable. Miss Emily is described from the point of view of the community as a very haughty person, respected by everyone on account of her nobility but largely misunderstood.
The gossiping, ghostly voice of the town is left outside the premises of the house where the woman isolates herself. Her refusal to pay taxes as well as all her other whims and peculiarities are accepted by everyone without argument, merely because she is part of the upper, aristocratic social class.
When she dies however, the same community is shocked when they realize Miss Emily had entertained a perverse obsession during her secluded life, and had slept with the dead body of her former lover, whom she had poisoned herself.
Thus, the struggle between the woman’s desires and the opposing forces is now apparent: she stubbornly holds on to the memory of her father and to the body of her dead lover, unwilling to relinquish her feelings for them. Emily’s obsession first with her father’s corpse and with that of the lover is at the core of a morbid marriage fantasy that is the motif of the story.
Therefore, Emily violates all the basic principles of her community, beginning with the laws of social interraction–she isolates herself and rejects all human contact- and continuing with tax evasion and even with the concealment of the corpse of her lover, Homer Barron in her own room.
She is therefore a murderer or in any case an obsessive or mad individual who nevertheless manages to evade social punishment. Through her, Faulkner draws a vivid portrait of madness and the way in which an individual manages to literary live out the most psychotic fancies in the middle of a normal small-town community. By definition, madness is characterized as a serious deviation from the accepted human behavior.
Without being openly irrational or incontrollable, Emily Grierson has a definitely obsessive mind which leads her to react against the laws of society. Her purposeful self-incarceration in her own house and her obvious withdrawal from the normal life of the community points to the conflict between the individual and society.
Emily revolts against social norms and chooses to live in her morbid dream instead. She prepares for a ritualistic marriage that she feels she cannot fulfill otherwise than through death.
Her seclusion from society is also significant, as she withdraws in the safety of her own fantasy and rejects the assumption of a pre-established social role. The morbid gesture of violence that Emily performs is a poignant rejection of social conventions related to gender and marriage.
However, her rejection of social existence does not point merely to the ongoing tension between individuality and community: Faulkner represents here the gap between the individual consciousness and the collective voice.
Although the impersonal narrator would seem to forbid psychological inquiry in the story, the voice of the community itself creates psychological tension. Despite her willful isolation, Emily’s madness can therefore only be understood as a reaction to social constraint.
The author emphasizes the obsessions that consume Emily as part of her response to social pressure. While the woman lives her obsession is silence and solitude, the society watches all her movements keenly and with undiminished interest.
The most curious phenomenon in the text is actually her existence as an individual among the other ordinary people of the community, and the way in which she manages to evade the control of society over her own life.
The community described here by Faulkner has a gossipy and even haunting voice that hovers over the household where Emily lives in complete isolation.
As the story is told from the point of view of this inquisitive and restless community, the reader gets a glimpse of the way in which Emily Grierson moves quietly on, from one generation to another, closely watched by the members of her social environment.
What is curious is that, with all its regulating force, the community fails to control Emily and her madness: “Thus she passed from generation to generation–dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse” (Faulkner 1970, p. 179).
Faulkner emphasizes this fact by referring to Emily’s oddly strong and pervasive influence as a conquest of the social power.
In this story, the individual seems to triumph over society and madness triumphs over norm. Interestingly, the murder of the lover is in itself an anti-social act as well as a token of Emily’s obsessive nature. However, the fact that Emily manages to escape social control to a certain extent does not make her a free person.
Her marriage fantasy is the token that her behavior is determined, at least partially, by her response to social influence.