Miss Emily Grierson, the Martyr:
Religious Allegory in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”
by Robert Russell
There has been much contention surrounding the interpretation of William Faulkner’s 1931 short story “A Rose for Emily.” Many critics interpreting from an historical approach argue the story is a representation of the clash between the divided North and South regions of a post-Civil War nation; that the protagonist Miss Emily Grierson is a symbol for the traditions, heritage, and history of the South who grapples with the townspeople and the authorities who in turn symbolize the progressive ideals of the North that threaten the values, morals, and lifestyle of Emily. Others argue that Homer Barron actually represents the North; that Miss Emily and Homer’s relationship depicts the tumultuous struggle between the South and the North, and Miss Emily murdering Barron represents an attempt by the South to retaliate against the North; and that Miss Emily keeping Homer’s corpse alludes to the South’s inability to shirk the ideals, progression, and changing culture inherent in the North.
However, these historical approaches to Faulkner’s story, the interpretations that the symbolism in the story relates to the a nation at odds, a clashing of the North and the South, and the national disharmony inspired by such conflict, all work to overshadow an important nuance buried in the text: religion. It is a connection that Faulkner himself spoke about during an interview first published in a 1957 edition of the scholastic journal College English. Regarding the story, Faulkner said, “It was a conflict not between North and the South so much as between, well you might say, God and Satan” (Gwynn and Blotner 2). If indeed William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is an allegory for Christianity, it follows that Miss Emily Grierson both symbolizes and is portrayed as a martyr. The content and form of the story–the plot and conflict as well as the structure and use of poetic devices–convey the Christian undertones that give rise to the aforementioned martyrdom embodied in the protagonist Miss Emily Grierson. Freeing the story from the interpretations limited to an historical approach enables the reader to discover these subtle themes and see that when considering Miss Emily Grierson, there is much more than meets the eye.
In the content of the short story, the conflict that drives the plot provides a connection between the protagonist Miss Emily Grierson and the concept of Christian martyrdom. Both the confrontation between Miss Emily and the townsfolk and the relationship between Miss Emily and Homer Barron reflect a fundamental tenet of Christian belief: the struggle between God and Satan, which is also to say the struggle between good and evil. In the exposition of the story, the first beginnings of struggle are detailed. The narrator says, “On the first of the year they mailed her a tax notice. February came, and there was no reply” and when the authorities confront Miss Emily about paying her taxes, she claims, “I have no taxes in Jefferson” and asks her servant Tobe to “show these gentlemen out” (Faulkner 41). Such a hostility towards authority and a lack of regard for the law appears to contradict any notion of holiness associated with Miss Emily. But in the assumption that Miss Emily has apparently been absolved of her obligation to pay taxes by former Mayor Sartoris who “remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity” (Faulkner 40), the authorities of the “next generation, with its more modern ideas” (Faulkner 41) infringe upon the lawful agreement founded by the previous institution of government. To force Miss Emily to pay taxes is to shatter the very foundation upon which the law is founded; in other words, it is hypocrisy. The authorities’ attempt to strip away Miss Emily’s right not to pay taxes is a violation of her perceived freedom. It is this perception of freedom that relates to religious belief. Miss Emily is a martyr because she is being condemned for what she believes is her right–that she does not have to pay taxes. From the offset of the story there is a sense that Miss Emily is a martyr to the system like what a martyr is to religion.
Furthermore, Miss Emily’s self-perception, which frequently clashes with the collective perception of the townsfolk, conveys an intransigent strength inherently found in the beliefs of a martyr. That Miss Emily feels she is above the law and does not have to pay taxes, as the exposition of the story suggests, spurs the notion that Miss Emily sees herself as impervious to the external forces that threaten her beliefs and way of life. The townsfolk of Jefferson County concur with the observation, as the narrator details, “When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to her; and in a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily. Being left alone, and a pauper, she had become humanized. Now she too would know the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more or less” (Faulkner 42). To the townsfolk, Miss Emily was an arrogant recluse who saw herself as elevated in class and society, and she was inhuman in the sense that she herself was beyond the rest, separated from others even on a human level. In the wake of her father passing, the townsfolk begin to see Miss Emily differently, as someone more human. It is in this particular moment that Emily has become a martyr, not simply in the Christian sense as one pilloried or condemned for their unwavering beliefs, but also in the sense that she has become a victim or, as the Oxford Dictionary defines it, “a constant sufferer” (OED). Miss Emily’s martyrdom fomented by the death of her father alludes to the idea that her father represented more than he actually was. As the narrator details, “We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will” (Faulkner 43). Miss Emily is not just a martyr because she suffers the death of her father; she is a martyr because she lost what her father represented: the belief that there is more to life than what she knew. He was her only source of affection, of compassion and love. Conversely, Miss Emily’s father was her most valuable possession, the object of her control. And the loss of that object sends Miss Emily into unrelenting grief which lasts until she meets Homer Barron.
The perception of the townsfolk and the sympathy they have for Miss Emily after the passing her father enables Miss Emily to reclaim a sense of martyrdom that extends until the end of the story. When Miss Emily meets and later marries Homer Barron, the townsfolk feel sympathy for her because they suspect the marriage will not last. The narrator says, “…he was not a marrying man. Later we said, ‘Poor Emily’ behind the jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon in the glittering buggy, Miss Emily with her head high and Homer Barron with his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove” (Faulkner 44). Miss Emily, in that moment, has reclaimed her sense of confidence, her imperviousness that comes as a result of believing to be above the rest of the town. In her confidence, she has won; she has not only married a man and defeated the grief spurred by the death of her father, she has replaced the role that her father had played. In marrying Homer Barron, Miss Emily has repossessed an object of affection, a possession to control. As it is revealed, the threat of potential rejection–the fear that Homer Barron like her father will abandon her as well–becomes too much for Miss Emily to endure and she murders her new husband so as to ensure she cannot be rejected again.
Miss Emily murdering Homer Barron was her final attempt to thwart an encroaching opposition, a final act in the defense of her convictions, urges, and beliefs. It is not the townsfolk, not the law, not the external forces that threaten to infringe upon her rights and freedoms, but an internal threat that she fights against, one that Miss Emily had been stifling since her father died: rejection and abandonment. A martyr is a person who dies for their beliefs; Miss Emily Grierson is a person who kills for hers. She could not bear the idea that Homer Barron might leave her, so in order to ensure that he could not, she murdered him with the arsenic obtained from the druggist: “When she opened the package at home there was written on the box, under the skull and bones: ‘For rats’” (Faulkner 44). By murdering Homer Barron, Miss Emily is able to cement her resolute beliefs, which is what a martyr does. That she is able to make permanent the object of her desires, her possession, stripping free all agency or free will, Miss Emily is ratifying her sense of control, her beliefs, like a martyr who dies before his beliefs could be impinged. Conversely, the broken structure of the story seems to convey another portrait of martyrdom.
The form of the short story reflects the religious undertones that give rise to Miss Emily Grierson’s martyrdom. This notion is evident from the first line as the introduction by the narrator conveys his omniscience of events. The narrator states, “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” (Faulkner 40). By placing Miss Emily’s death at the beginning of the story, the reader attains an overarching close-ended picture of the protagonist’s story arc. The reader’s ability to see the beginning and the end simultaneously reflects the Christian notion of God’s omniscience as stated in the Book of Revelation: “I am the alpha and the omega, the First and the Last, the beginning and the end” (New International Translation Rev. 22:13). The nonlinear structure of the events–the fragmented timeline and use of flashbacks–is a technique mirrored in the mutability of the townspeople’s collective perspective regarding Miss Emily.
Furthermore, the use of poetic devices such as imagery and metaphor portray Miss Emily in a number of different ways, one of which instills the notion that she is a martyr. There are various metaphors that the narrator uses to describe Miss Emily that allude to how she is viewed by the other citizens of Jefferson County. After her father died, the narrator details, “we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows–sort of tragic and serene” (Faulkner 43). The descriptive comparison of Miss Emily to the angels in a church window evokes a keen sense of religiosity, an angelic aura attached to Miss Emily. That Miss Emily could be seen as similar to an image of a stained-glass window, alludes to the notion that the townsfolk too saw her as something saint-like, a martyr.
Moreover, a subtle detail about Miss Emily’s position further instills the connection to religion. Multiple times the narrator compares Miss Emily to an idol. An idol being “an image or similitude of a deity or divinity, used as an object of worship,” (OED), the comparison is not uneventful. The first mention of the description occurs when the narrator details the night when the Board of Aldermen, tasked with ameliorating a smell emanating from her house, saw that “as they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol” (Faulkner 42). The image of Miss Emily sitting stalwart and shrouded by a cast of light calls to mind a religious image. The narrator revisits the metaphor later after Homer Barron’s presumed abandonment: “we would see her in one of the downstairs windows–she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house–like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which” (Faulkner 45). She is compared to again as an idol, an object that is a source of holiness, that represents divinity. However, in the second comparison, Miss Emily is no longer in the upstairs, perched on an elevated position from which she peers downward to those below her. In the second mention, after Homer Barron has presumedly departed, his whereabouts unknown, Miss Emily is on the same level as those who pass by her house, the same level as the townsfolk. It is in this position that Miss Emily “passed from generation to generation” (45). She is defeated, torn down from her perch, and forced to assimilate to the level of the townsfolk, and inevitably she dies having never managed to break out of that assimilation.
William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a testament that the subtle contexts, the attributes of a character, plot, and diction, are crucial in scaling the depth of meaning in a piece of literature. At first glance, a reader may not notice the religious undertones, the position of Miss Emily’s stature, the psychological rationality behind her beliefs and the connections tied to Christianity. An on-the-surface reader may only gleam the historical connections, the connections to civil unrest, the symbolism of the clash between the North and the South. But to truly dive into the story, to delve into the various underpinnings, nuances and themes, a reader must not only read closely but pay close attention to the relationship between Miss Emily and the townsfolk, the conflict that drives the plot, as well as the structure of the narrative and the diction through which it is presented. Such a reading is the only means of moving beyond the conventional historical themes and penetrating into the contexts of a story that Faulkner himself said, “came from a picture of the strand of hair on the pillow. It was a ghost story. Simply a picture of a strand of hair on the pillow in the abandoned house” (Gwynn and Blotner 2). To read deeper is to examine the connections of religion in the story and discover first-hand how indeed Miss Emily is a martyr.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature 12th Ed. Edited by Michael Meyer and D. Quentin Miller, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020, pp 40- 46.
Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph L. Blotner. “Faulkner in the University: A Classroom Conference.” College English, vol. 19, no. 1, 1957, pp. 1–6. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/372272. Accessed 8 Nov. 2020.Copy
"idol, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/91087. Accessed 10 November 2020.
"martyr, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/114477. Accessed 9 November 2020.
New International Translation. Biblehub, https://biblehub.com/niv/revelation/22.htm. Accessed 10 November 2020.