Tradition versus Change
Through the mysterious figure of Emily Grierson, Faulkner conveys the struggle that comes from trying to maintain tradition in the face of widespread, radical change. Jefferson is at a crossroads, embracing a modern, more commercial future while still perched on the edge of the past, from the faded glory of the Grierson home to the town cemetery where anonymous Civil War soldiers have been laid to rest. Emily herself is a tradition, steadfastly staying the same over the years despite many changes in her community. She is in many ways a mixed blessing. As a living monument to the past, she represents the traditions that people wish to respect and honor; ...view middle of the document...
In every case, death prevails over every attempt to master it. Emily, a fixture in the community, gives in to death slowly. The narrator compares her to a drowned woman, a bloated and pale figure left too long in the water. In the same description, he refers to her small, spare skeleton—she is practically dead on her feet. Emily stands as an emblem of the Old South, a grand lady whose respectability and charm rapidly decline through the years, much like the outdated sensibilities the Griersons represent. The death of the old social order will prevail, despite many townspeople’s attempts to stay true to the old ways.
Emily attempts to exert power over death by denying the fact of death itself. Her bizarre relationship to the dead bodies of the men she has loved—her necrophilia—is revealed first when her father dies. Unable to admit that he has died, Emily clings to the controlling paternal figure whose denial and control became the only—yet extreme—form of love she knew. She gives up his body only reluctantly. When Homer dies, Emily refuses to acknowledge it once again—although this time, she herself was responsible for bringing about the death. In killing Homer, she was able to keep him near her. However, Homer’s lifelessness rendered him permanently distant. Emily and Homer’s grotesque marriage reveals Emily’s disturbing attempt to fuse life and death. However, death ultimately triumphs.
Emily is the subject of the intense, controlling gaze of the narrator and residents of Jefferson. In lieu of an actual connection to Emily, the townspeople create subjective and often distorted interpretations of the woman they know little about. They attend her funeral under the guise of respect and honor, but they really want to satisfy their lurid curiosity about the town’s most notable eccentric. One of the ironic dimensions of the story is that for all the gossip and theorizing, no one guesses the perverse extent of Emily’s true nature.
For most of the story, Emily is seen only from a distance, by people who watch her through the windows or who glimpse her in her doorway. The narrator refers to her as an object—an “idol.” This pattern changes briefly during her courtship with Homer Barron, when she leaves her house and is frequently out in the world. However, others spy on her just as avidly, and she is still relegated to the role of object, a distant figure who takes on character according to the whims of those who watch her. In this sense, the act of watching is powerful because it replaces an actual human presence with a made-up narrative that changes depending on who is doing the watching. No one knows the Emily that exists beyond what they can see, and her true self is visible to them only after she dies and her secrets are revealed.
A pall of dust hangs over the story, underscoring the decay and decline that figure so prominently. The dust throughout Emily’s house is a fitting accompaniment to the faded lives...