The three men in Emily Grierson’s life in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” shaped her life in different ways. Her father, Homer Barron, Colonel Sartoris represented different facets of masculine influence in a woman’s life. Their inputs created the “fallen monument” that Emily Grierson had turned into by the end of her life. Although every impact was important, her character and destiny were mostly moulded by her father who instilled in his daughter the views and perceptions that ultimately turned her life into a dreary existence in a closed house. Receiving this initial impulse toward unhappiness, she was unable to break free from her father’s influence in the relationship with the other men. Inspiring her to live a life bound by social convention, he deprived her of chances to find simple feminine happiness and has a share of blame for her awful deed. At the same time, the surrounding society with its fixed understanding of a woman’s role also contributed to Emily’s misfortune.
1. Emily’s Father as the Main Influence of Her Life
The older Grierson is only briefly mentioned in the story, but the readers’ knowledge of men similar to him allows the audience to recreate the picture of a despotic Southern father who rules his family with a firm patriarchal hand. Unfortunately for Emily, most of the time she is the only family he has and the only person he can truly control. Upon her, he seems to have lashed all his eagerness for power and control, shaping and moulding her life in any way he saw fit. His mutilating influence remains with her for a lifetime.
Grierson’s effort to control her life is demonstrated by the fact that it was he who had “driven away” all of Emily’s suitors. Faulkner does not mention it explicitly, but it seems that Emily was an attractive girl in her youth, able to attract a lot of men to compete for her hand. It was her father’s stubborn wish to keep within their station that deprived her of her chances to find a woman’s happiness in a sound relationship with men. A lone wolf who has severed ties with all their relatives over the estate of the deceased Lady Wyatt, Emily’s father deprived her of a chance to have any semblance of a normal family. Instead of being raised in a cheerful circle of aunts and cousins, going off to a stable family with one of the town’s men, she was confined to a household where she was controlled in every way by her father.
One can only guess to what extent her father’s impulse to drive away Emily’s suitors was inspired by the arrogance of a Southern aristocrat and to what degree it was motivated by his desire to retain control of his daughter. Faulkner creates a powerful image of Emily and her father imprinted on the minds of the town dwellers: “a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip”. Although the reader hardly expects the man to beat his daughter with the whip, this object seems to reflect a metaphor that exresses father’s power over daughter.
Whatever methods Grierson really used, he succeeded in making his daughter follow his will. Perhaps Emily did not have enough rebellious spirit to break away from her father’s wishes. It can also be that she caught on to his tales about their inborn superiority, half believing those herself. In any case, when her father died, she puts up a fight for his body, unwilling to part with her tormentor. This shows that Grierson was successful in making himself the only important person in his daughter’s life. Without him, she was not sure how to live. The people in the town guessed that, and concluded that the whole fight for the body happened because “with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will”. This is a rather sad picture: robbed by her father of simple joys of life, such as love and family, she nevertheless had nobody to cling to than her tyrant. Years after his death, she still kept his portrait in her parlor “on a tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace”. Retaining father’s portrait may be to her part of the familial aristocratic tradition that links her to the previous generations of Griersons. It can also be a way to indicate her connection with the only human being that had a real interest in her, except perhaps Homer Barron, the relationship with whom she definitely could not publicize.
2. Homer Barron: Failed Romance
Although Emily was certainly aware that people knew about her dating Homer Barron, she was bound by a bond of decency prescribed by the aristocratic etiquette that certainly excluded any emotional exchanges about her failed relationship. The narrator’s statement at the beginning that “the Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were” shows that Emily’s father could have been overdoing it in his effort at superiority. If Emily had been raised in a different way, she could have found herself friends to whom she could confide her problems. With the upbringing received in her father’s family, however, she was stuck alone with her problems.
This problem was not perhaps so unusual in other women’s lives. Girls younger than Emily most probably had more than one suitor who would make advances, then switch to another girl. Not always did these girls let men seduce them, but the whole situation with a broken heart was perhaps quite common. What was fleeting episode in other women’s lives turned into a tragedy for Emily. First, alone after her father’s death and having virtually no other human ties, she had most probably put all her life in the cheeky, careless Yankee guy. To see this sentiment discarded so easily was to her a disaster because it ruined almost the last hope of finding happiness and love.
She was no longer young, too. A society severely mistreats women who did not marry before a certain age “deadline” varying from one culture to another, labelling them as spinsters. Emily was over thirty and not yet married, which was a threatening sign that she had failed to accomplish the most important task for a woman in her position – to create a family. Her age, too, in opinion of many, is forcing her to compromise and pay her attention to Homer Barron who would otherwise have been rejected as one below her stature.
It is difficult to determine what is most prominent in Emily’s desire to be with Homer – the desire to build, at last, a family that would create some sort of social framework around her, the chance to break free at last from her father’s influence, the wish to fulfil a woman’s mission and keep up appearances by becoming a married woman, or genuine love for the man. In any case, Homer is a very unfortunate partner for a despairing woman like Emily. Had she had more experience with men, she could have guessed that he was not the “marrying man”. Had she had an impressive legacy from her father, Homer could have considered marriage with more enthusiasm. As it happened, Emily’s happiness was thwarted once again by the man whose cold and unfeeling nature motivated him to place his own enjoyment above the chance to grant a woman’s happiness.
At this point Emily makes a move that is perhaps unusual for an average girl from another Southern family, but was quite logical for someone raised by a despotic father like hers. Much like her father kept her in control through oppression and intimidation, she decided to keep Homer by whatever means were available. When Emily realized that her attempts to persuade him in the usual feminine way failed, including perhaps even sexual intercourse, she resorted to a desperate move – she killed the man and locked him in a room in her house. In this way, she could retain him with her forever, forcing him to stay with her for a lifetime, even if dead and rotting. One can only guess how many times she entered the room where the corpse of her would-be husband was gradually turning to dust. In keeping him like that, Emily was following her father, finally becoming the despotic master of her own destiny with the means that were available to her with her limited outlook and knowledge of life.
3. Colonel Sartoris: Classic Southern Chivalry
Locked in a house with a corpse, Emily remained face-to-face with an old servant, ready to uphold her superior status as a descendant of a noble family by rejecting to communicate with others. The little community of Jefferson, also bound by fixed ideas about their own nobility, gave her this opportunity. To them her life was a special one, and she had to live it with decency that fitted her aristocratic origin. It is hardly surprising that they left her alone with her tragedy, unwilling to break her lonely, but dignified existence.
To let her keep up the appearances prescribed to her by her aristocratic origin, Colonel Sartoris remitted Emily her taxes, inventing some totally fantastic story: “Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying”. The author notes that such invention was only possible for men of Colonel Sartoris’ generation. With tax remittance, Miss Emily could at least in part escape poverty that was disgraceful for someone of her origin. Once again, a man was urging her to preserve outward decency. She accepted the donation with graceful indifference, as was proper for a woman in her position.
Since then, Colonel Sartoris became to her a pillar of society. Even when he had long been gone, Emily still believed that he was alive and maintaining her right not to pay taxes. Her stubbornness even won her the opportunity not to pay taxes, when the chivalry of the colonel’s generation was replaced by the practicality of the next generation. Emily, who has absorbed her perceptions about her own stature in this life from men like Colonel Sartoris who supported her aristocratic posture, absolutely refuses to lose her privileges. Her engrained convictions win her the right to continue her secluded life in union with her dead partner.
The unhappiness of Emily Grierson is the result of her father’s influence. He instilled in her aristocratic pride, cut off all the social ties she could have, and accustomed her to a solitary life. The society also persuaded her that she had to live a special life as a descendant of an aristocratic family. Colonel Sartoris, by remitting her taxes, kept up her beliefs in her special position and further limited her contacts with the outside world. This harmful influence of father and society led to the disastrous ending of Emily’s affair with Homer Barron, in which she killed him to keep hold of him for a lifetime similar to the way in which her father had kept control of herself.
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