‘Southern Gothic’ is a literary tradition that came into existence in the early twentieth century. It has its origin in the Gothic style, which had been popular in European literature for long time. Gothic writers were inventing desolate, upsetting scenarios in which mystery, secrets, sometimes supernatural occurrences, and protagonists’ extreme characteristics, were combined in order to create a suspense and involved reading experience. Southern Gothic writers were interested in exploring the antisocial behaviors that were often a reaction against a confining code of social conduct. They often hinged on the belief that daily life and the refined surface of the social order were fragile and illusory, disguising disturbing realities or twisted psyches.
William Faulkner traditionally stands outside this group of practitioners. However, “A Rose for Emily” reveals the influence that Southern Gothic had on his writing: this particular story has a gloomy and oppressive ambiance: a decaying house, putrefaction, and weird as elements used to highlight an individual’s struggle against an oppressive society in the South that is undergoing rapid change after the American Civil War.
Faulkner’s attitude toward the short story genre is not easy to characterize, even less to summarize. In his youth he wanted to become a poet and several times he described the short story as second only to poetry. He also brought to that genre the vision and skills that can be used to create the novels. Therefore, the content of Faulkner’s short stories and the types of characters upon which he builds them, their physical and social settings, and their themes, by use of dense and multilayered technic, are similar with the content and way of writing his novels.
Faulkner was a realistic writer during the period when he was writing his short stories. His primary interest was in the individual: the social forces that molded a human being and the attitudes that controlled his thinking and behavior. His stories sought to portray the struggle between the society and individual, the tradition and the present. He was trying to penetrate the individual mind and soul in order to discover the sources of the conflict in the psychological history of the personality, confronted to the heritage of the past, the society, and the familial relationships. During this period of his career, Faulkner’s fictions, long and short, probe into the past to discover the truth that explains the crisis of the present.
‘A Rose for Emily’ by William Faulkner is a short story published in 1933. It takes places in Faulkner’s fictional city of Jefferson, Mississippi, in the fictional southern county of Yoknapatawpha. Faulkner described the title as ‘an allegorical title, the meaning was, here is a woman who has had a tragedy and nothing could be done about it, and I pitied her and this was a salute… to a woman you would hand a rose.’
It tells the story of Emily, a middle aged woman whose father and sweetheart died recently, her way of denying their deaths when they happened, the reactions of her fellow citizens, but ignoring the problem of her mental health deteriorating, figured in the text by different conflicts she had within the society.
This story follow the themes of Southern gothic, which explore the anti-social behavior of southern culture, their harmful behaviors such as the racist treatment of black people, and their attempt to act as if their daily life is unchanged by recent events. Emily’s situation becomes the town shameful secret that no one’s talks directly about.
By describing the past events after more recent ones, Faulkner shows how Emily’s past influenced her life. An overbearing father controlling her life and shown as powerful and in control of her: ‘We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip.’
‘Rose for Emily’ moves forward and backward in time and is told through a third person narrator. However, toward the second party of the text, it sounds like a story being told by one of the neighbors directly to us.
The focalization shift can be seen from an external narrator describing through the voice of multiple characters the events as they happen directly: ‘But what will you have me do about it, madam?'(line 9-10) to an internal one that explains the events after they happened: ‘That was when people had begun to feel really sorry for her (line 28) the narrator is like the voice of Emily’s neighbors. The story is told through a nonlinear fashion and by multiple tellers with the beginning of the story talk about event that happened after the events described at the end of the text.
Emily’s is described only from an external perspective, so we cannot be certain whether her acts of keeping the corpse of her father for three days and refusing to admit he is dead, is a conscious act of defiance against a town that pity the fall of her family from wealth, intentional refuse of all social changes and unacceptable reality, or is it just an example of the decaying of her mental stability.
In this short story we can also see that the narrators, though participants in some of the events described, are sometimes critical of the town and sympathetic toward Emily. A Rose for Emily, then, shows us not only the barriers to understanding and sympathy that lead inevitably to suffering, but also the means of overcoming those barriers through compassionate human sympathy, i.e., making the effort to understand another through understanding who they are rather than in terms of rigid codes of the conduct in the society.