Only when the present has become the past can we reflect on what we could haveor should have done. Yet our society is so obsessed with keeping track of timethat we spend millions of dollars a year to keep a set of atomic clocks tickingthe time. These clocks are so accurate that they must be reset once a year tocorrect for the earth’s imperfect orbit. Our base-60 measure of time is anabstract idea dating from the Babylonians.
All this, and what most human mindsintrinsically understand about time is the past, present and future. I say mostminds, because not every mind does comprehend these abstract ideas. Many peopleare able to survive in the present, but give little or no thought to the future,and these people usually live in the past. Such a mind is the mind of Miss EmilyGrierson in William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. Emily Grierson survives in thepresent, but lives in the past. The morbid ending is foreshadowed by the story’sopening with Miss Emily Grierson’s death and funeral.
The bizarre outcome isfurther emphasized throughout by the symbolism of the decaying house, whichparallels Miss Emily’s physical deterioration and demonstrates her ultimatemental disintegration. Her life, like the house which decays around her is adirect result of living in the past. Part of living is death, and the futureconjures life, the past, and death. Emily’s imbalance of past and present causesher to confuse the living with the dead. Perhaps the most prominent example ofEmily’s confusion is the carcass of Homer Barron lying in the honeymoon room ofEmily’s house. This division is exemplified by the symbolic imagery of Faulkner.The rose colored room, a color of life, is covered thickly with dust, a symbolof death.
Of course, this is not the first time we learn of Emily’s confusion.Previous to Barron’s discovery, her father dies, and she denies that he is dead.Faulkner gives the reader a taste of this confusion early on when Miss Emilyinstructs the town tax-collectors to consult with Colonel Sartoris about hertaxes, though he had been dead for ten years. At this foreboding point in thestory, Emily seems to be a senile old maid; this could not be further from thetruth.
The external characteristics of Miss Emily’s house parallel her physicalappearance to show the transformation brought about by years of neglect. Forexample, the house is located in what was once a prominent neighborhood that hasdeteriorated. Originally white and decorated in “the heavily lightsomestyle” of an earlier time, the house has become “an eyesore amongeyesores”. Through lack of attention, the house has evolved from abeautiful representative of quality to an ugly holdover from another era.
Similarly, Miss Emily has become an eyesore; for example, she is first describedas a “fallen monument”, to suggest her former grandeur and her latergrotesqueness. Like the house, she has lost her beauty. Once she had been”a slender figure in white”; later she is obese and “bloated,like a body long submerged in motionless water with eyes lost in the fattyridges of her face”. Both house and occupant have suffered the ravages oftime and neglect.
The interior of the house also parallels Miss Emily’sincreasing degeneration and the growing sense of sadness that accompanies suchdecay. Initially, all that can be seen of the inside of the house is “a dimhall from which a staircase mounted into still more shadow” with the housesmelling of “dust and disuse”. The darkness and the smell of the houseconnect with Miss Emily, “a small, fat woman in black” with a voicethat is “dry and cold” as if it were dark and dusty from disuse likethe house. The similarity between the inside of the house and Miss Emily extendsto the “tarnished gilt easel” with the portrait of her father and MissEmily “leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head”. Insideand out, both the building and the body in which Miss Emily live are in a stateof deterioration like tarnished metal. Finally, the townspeople’s descriptionsof both house and occupant reveal a common intractable arrogance.
At one pointthe house is described as “stubborn” as if it were ignoring thesurrounding decay. Similarly, Miss Emily proudly overlooks the deterioration ofher once grand residence. This motif recurs as she denies her father’s death,refuses to discuss or pay taxes, ignores town gossip about her being a”fallen woman,” and does not tell the druggist why she is purchasingarsenic. Both the house and Miss Emily become traps for that strongestrepresentative of the twentieth century, Homer Barron, laborer, outsider,confirmed bachelor. Just as the house seems to reject progress and updating, sodoes Miss Emily, until both of them become decaying anachronisms.
Throughdescriptions of the house that resemble descriptions of Miss Emily Grierson,”A Rose for Emily” emphasizes the way that beauty and elegance canbecome grotesquely distorted through neglect and lack of love. In this story,the house deteriorates for forty years until it becomes ugly; Miss Emily’sphysical and emotional condition dissipate in a similar manner.