“Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer”
This line from the short story A Rose for Emily is in reference to the view point of the people of Jefferson when they see Emily Grierson, a lady from the upper class, falling in love with a man from the working class. The story brings to light the tragedy that unfolds in the town of Jefferson due to its class conscious society. Since class and social standing plays an important role in the story, Marxist reading becomes essential to understand the central issue of this text. According to Marxism, literature reflects those social institutions out of which it emerges. It believes that literature reflects class struggle and materialism. So Marxist reading of a text involves the study of the role of class relations, a character’s oppression due to the class s/he represents and at times some suggestion in the form of a solution for it. At different times and places in the American history, the traditional class system has been the factor that determines one’s standing in the community. We can decipher the remnants of this kind of class system operating in A Rose for Emily.
The readers are made aware of the rigid class system in the town of Jefferson where Mr. Grierson thinks it important to maintain the illusion that he has a fortune appropriate to his rank in the society. He prefers his daughter to live a life of spinsterhood than to get married to someone “beneath her”. It is only after his death that the façade comes to an end leaving Emily alone and penniless. But by this time even Emily has internalized the classist ideologies. The metaphor Faulkner uses for Emily is that of a “fallen monument”. Her pre- civil war aristocracy is fading away but this does not stop her from acting like a member of a “superior” class. Readers are told that she used to teach painting designs on China dishes which was in earlier times considered a pastime of refined young ladies. Also she is always described as carrying herself with a certain dignity- whether she goes out to buy rat poison or on long romantic carriage rides with her lover. The narrator remarks about her “she carried her head high enough- even when we believed that she was fallen.” So high is her self- esteem that Colonel Sartoris has to device a false story about Emily’s father’s generosity to the town in order to convince her to not pay the taxes. This example depicts that Colonel Sartoris, a representative of the older generation, is a believer of class based society and therefore he indirectly extends financial help to a “lady” which is not possible otherwise.
The town of Jefferson is one of the most important and active characters in the story. The attitude of the town towards Emily is predicted by her social standing. They respect her for her social rank. To them Emily is not a human but “a tradition”, “an idol”, “an angel” or a “tableau”. This becomes the ultimate reason for Emily’s victimization and ostracism as the community is unable to perceive Emily as anything but a “high and mighty” Grierson. There are several examples in the story where the people of the town act in a certain way due to the class to which Emily belongs. They prefer crawling into Emily’s lawn like burglars to sprinkle lime rather than to tell her to her face about the foul smell coming from her house.
Emily’s social class is in no way a boon to her. It not only dehumanizes her in the eyes of the townspeople, it also incites a tinge of jealousy amongst them. They subtly enjoy when Emily becomes a pauper for it is the only way she can be seen as a normal human being with problems. The respect that they show towards her is also in a way forced and superficial for when alive she is no more than “a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” and when dead is only interesting enough to stir the “curiosity” of the women of the town. Her life becomes open to criticism due to the burden of being a “noblesse oblige”. The people feel that Emily has brought “disgrace to the town” when Homer Baron, a working class Northerner begins to court her. Homer Baron is considered a warm and friendly man. He is a fine fellow but not fine enough to court Emily for he does not enjoy the social status equivalent to her. Emily’s affair with Homer Baron can thus also be seen as her way of rebelling against the society which is bent on fixing her to her class. One can also argue that the main reason Homer Baron courts Emily is to attach himself to the high social class because with no money or beauty to boast of, it is the only attraction that she has. However their love fails to blossom amidst the class created boundaries. The people of the town try all they have in their power- from family pressure by snobbish cousins to the interference of a religious head. They finally succeed in tearing the lovers apart. This ends in the mysterious disappearance of Homer Baron and the total isolation of Emily thus leading the story to its tragic end.
As a reader of the twenty first century, especially in India, it is not difficult for us to understand the stratification of society in the name of class. This obsession with class thrusts upon the people certain obligations. For example in India the system of royalty has long been abolished but still the successors of royal families, especially in Rajasthan, try hard to maintain their status and legacy. Even people like Saif Ali khan are still referred to as Nawab of Pataudi though they do not have any significant place in the political arena. One can also not deny that even today when it comes to matters like marriage, it is a socially accepted norm to marry within your own class. Doing otherwise leads to a lot of speculation and criticism. We can then conclude that the society we live in today is not very different for Faulkner’s Jefferson and this is scary because if in reality there can be a society like Jefferson, there can also be victims like Emily Grierson.
To conclude, it would then not be wrong to argue that classist ideology harms all of the story’s main characters. Classism isolates both Mr. Grierson and Emily from the rest of the community. It deprives Emily of the chance to develop the interpersonal skills that she needs in order to make a life for herself after her father’s death. In fact we might say that, given the extreme degree of Emily’s isolation, Classism drives her mad. Social status very probably plays a role in Homer Baron’s disappearance or death because it is probably his attitude towards social rank that inspires him to court Emily and it can be Emily’s classist pride which motivates her to live with her lover’s dead body than to be seen with him in public.
- Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory, An Introduction to literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Viva books private limited, 2014. Print
- Kirk, Robert w. and Marvin Klotz. “A Rose for Emily”. In Faulkner’s People: A complete guide and index to the characters in the fiction of William Faulkner. Berkeley: university of California press, 1963
- Nayar, Pramod.Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory. Delhi: Pearson India Education Services private limited, 2010.Print
- Wagner-Martin, Linda. William Faulkner: six decades of criticism. Michigan state university press, 2002.