A Rose for Emily is a short story written by William Faulkner. The action in the story takes place in 1894. In the 19th century, women were considered to be unequal to men and had unequal rights. They had to take care of their husbands, children, and homes. The public frowned upon those women who did not meet those standards. In Faulkner’s story, Emily Grierson is portrayed as a dependent and weak woman that could not resist men’s oppressive world or adapt to the loss of the old morality by the new generation of men. A Rose for Emily is not just a story of a conflict between the old and the new orders, but it is also a story of sexual and gender conflicts within the patriarchy of the North and the South. Therefore, it can be studied through such a literary criticism approach as gender critics.
Gender critics explore issues of gender, the nature of masculinity and femininity, and sexuality. Gender critics can be divided into feminist criticism and gay and lesbian criticism. To start with, feminist criticism uses an analytical approach to literature “by both men and women in an effort to understand literary representations of women as well as the writers and cultures that create them” (Meyer 1549). A Rose for Emily is a story of a woman who was betrayed and victimized by the system of unfair sexual politics. Women were considered to be weak and not as smart as men. The gender differentiation that existed in society in the late 1800s is evident in the very first sentence of the short story,
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant – a combined gardener and cook -had seen in at least ten years. (Faulkner 55)
This sentence describes the reaction of the community to the death of Miss Emily Grierson through gender differences. The men and women are the same in their desire to attend her funeral; however, they differ in their motivation. Emily reflected the society she lived in with all its gender contradictions.
For the purpose of reducing these contradictions, Faulkner’s narrator has an undefined gender. The narrator talks from the name of the whole town; therefore, his narration is bisexual—from the name of men and women at the same time. However, the image of Emily is not objective completely as the narrator looks at her through a patriarchal lens.
Emily herself is a prisoner of men (her father and her lover Homer Barron) in the male-dominant society. From early childhood and throughout Emily’s life, her father had an enormous impact on her. Faulkner describes Emily as “a slender figure in white in the background” (58), which indicates her purity, delicateness, and submissive nature. Her father is described as “a spraddled silhouette in the foreground,” which reveals his authority in the family. The fact that “his back to her and clutching a horsewhip” (Faulkner 58) implicates that he is uncompromising in his judgments; he never listens to his daughter and manipulates her. His power over Emily seems to be even more enormous when one starts to realize that Emily was growing up without mother or any other relatives and had no friends; therefore, she had no protectors from the oppression of her father.
Having endless power over his daughter’s life, Mr. Grierson made decisions instead of Emily. For example, he rejected all her suitors as he thought that “none of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such” (Faulkner 58). After Mr. Grierson’s death that became a real shock for his daughter, Emily got rid of his obtrusive presence in all aspects of her life. However, his presence was felt once again. At Emily’s funeral, above her body was “the crayon face of her father musing profoundly” (Faulkner 61). Thus, Emily’s father dominated and shadowed all her life and even afterlife.
In A Rose for Emily, the issue of homosexuality is mentioned. Faulkner represents homosexuality through Homer Barron, Emily’s lover who “liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men […] he was not a marrying man” (Faulkner 60). He did not want to take any responsibility for women as he was a representative of a new order of the North. Barron’s homosexuality and irresponsibility could have been the reason why he rejected Emily. For Miss Grierson who was looking for protection and understanding of men, Homer’s refusal to be with her became a real shock, the second strike after her father had left. Emily needed permanent men’s presence beside her; that is why she murdered her lover and hid him from people’s eyes to make his body stay with her forever and hold it from being buried. The fact that a woman of those times killed a man seemed to be unreal, as even when Emily was buying the poison, the community was sure that she was going to commit suicide, not homicide. Emily’s murder of her lover was some kind of protest against the social system that oppressed women and her revenge for a grotesque “lady” identity that was a cage she could not escape from.
William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily raises not only the conflict between the old and the new orders, but sexual and gender conflicts within the patriarchal society of the North and the South. A deeper study of the story through such a literary criticism approach as gender critics helps to understand the main character Emily and her motives better. However, the price of Emily’s wordless rebellion against gender inequality and discrimination, and unfair sexual politics. A rapidly changing public image of being female or male was too ultimate and it was not worth fighting for.