Applying Social Anthropology to Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily

Literature has always served as a great resource for documenting the past. Despite its fictional qualities, its ability to represent people of a specific generation makes it a valuable instrument to help social anthropologists characterize societies.

In particular, William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily provides details about the Southern American people in the early 1900s. Reflecting on the story’s characterization and angle of narration, readers can easily come up with a view of Southern people’s attitudes and values.

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Certain attitudes and values are reflected in the story as it focuses on a single major character, Miss Emily Grierson. Born in an aristocratic family in the early 1900s, Miss Emily is bound to submit to strict family rules and traditions that her society imposes, one of which is giving utmost respect to her father, who raises her up on his own.
Pictured as a woman with very strong attachment and dependence on her father, Miss Emily finds it too difficult to move on after the death of the old man. Such implies the importance the Southerners gave their family, especially their parents, but also reveals the drawbacks of authoritarian parenthood practiced in those times.
With her father as her only guide, Emily is treated with preciosity (West 193). This makes her believe that she is different from other girls, and that no man truly deserves her. This mindset greatly affects the way she relates with others, especially with men. Her father’s restriction on her, which is mainly due to the social standing they try to maintain, severely affects Miss Emily’s view of life and relationship.
As the story suggests, preciosity leads to a psychological imbalance, which is made worse by the loss of her father. Her refusal to bury her father, her murder of Homer, and the years she spent sleeping with the latter’s cadaver suggest a distorted mentality and family orientation.
In Littler (cited in Akers), Faulkner himself expressed sympathy towards his character. This explains the reason why he created Miss Emily’s character.
Having observed the effects of aristocratic family system, Faulkner attempts to make his readers feel ridiculous about Miss Emily’s fate, thus implying the need to revisit certain family values practiced during his time. However, while his attempt to provide social criticism may arouse sympathy towards women like Miss Emily, it may also cause readers to ridicule the characters and the society they live in considering the story’s angle of narration.
Narrated by limited-seeing narrator, the story suggests bias on the part of Miss Emily and even the townspeople. Beginning with the protagonist’s funeral, the narrator may be assumed to be of younger age than Miss Emily. If the story begins with Miss Emily’s childhood, readers may be led to believe that the narrator is Miss Emily’s contemporary. However, since it highlights not only the funeral but also the gothic elements (Littler, cited in Akers) in Miss Emily’s life, one may be inclined to believe that a lesser attachment exists between the narrator and the main character, despite Faulkner’s expression of sympathy towards women like Miss Emily.
As the narrator comments, Miss Emily has been “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.” This statement supports the view that more than sympathy, Miss Emily’s character is looked upon with contempt and ridicule. Notably, the narrator highlights events leading to Miss Emily’s fall and the town’s discovery of her insanity. The respect that the people once had is suddenly lost along with the death of her father.
This means that the people paid respect to Miss Emily and made her a “duty and a hereditary obligation” owing to what her father has done for the people, and not because of the way she conducts herself in society or how people feel generally about others. Although divided into five parts, the story presents three timelines namely, the remote past, the immediate past and the present. The remote past hints on how Miss Emily is raised in seclusion and is made to believe that no one is worthy of her.
The immediate past includes her father’s death, Homer’s disappearance, Miss Emily’s purchase of a rat poison, her refusal to pay land taxes, and the foul smell from her house that the people complain about. These two timelines present ideas that could lead readers to a contemptuous reaction towards Miss Emily’s character. Moreover, the present time where the people find “a long strand of iron-gray hair” further suggests the anomaly in Miss Emily’s life, making her look more horrible and loathsome.
Considering the angle of narration, it is more conclusive that readers would see Miss Emily’s characterization in a negative view. The events leading to her tragic end portray Miss Emily in a negative manner, thus soliciting a negative reaction from the readers and implying how the narrator feels about the main character.
However, it is equally important to consider that the shift in timelines suggests change in the way people regard Miss Emily. It should be noted that the Old Grierson’s death is what brings Emily to her downfall and the decrease in the amount of respect she gets from the neighbors. This change in the people’s treatment of a once respected figure mirrors the way Southerners value family reputation and tradition.
As the narrator reveals, the people respect Miss Emily for what her father has done for the community. Honoring people’s contribution to society is a sign of respect still demonstrated by the Southern American society until now. However, in the case of Miss Emily, questions regarding her morality and seclusion also lead the people to feel otherwise.

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