The Immortal Past: It's Destiny in Death Gavin Stevens, the acclaimed author of "Requiem for a Nun", once wrote, "The past is never dead. The past is not even past." In Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily", this ideal of the immortal past actually surviving the merciless progression of time into the present runs deep, almost down to every written word. "A Rose for Emily" takes place after the Civil War, when the South is on the brink of a new century, in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. This theme of the past versus the present creates an eerie story surrounding the death of old Emily Grierson and her past life. Emily Grierson, the protagonist of this short story, represents the dying old traditions of the South. This representation is possible because she refuses to realize the present and relinquish the past to the continuation of time.
The present is largely represented through the words of the anonymous narrator, which the reader can assume is the town and its many facets speaking as a whole, since the story is told in the first person "we", and not "I." Through the existence of Emily and the narrator in "A Rose for Emily", Faulkner invents a story that personifies the abstract battle between the past and the present.
The past versus present theme is easily identified even from the first paragraph of the story when the anonymous narrator refers to Emily as "a fallen monument" (667). She is a "monument" because she epitomizes all the ideals of the old South or what the town sees as the past, in general. She had the gentility and grace of a traditional southern woman, who was also once completely controlled by one male figure in her life. These were all typical southern ideals of the past that Emily never seemed to release from her life. Emily was a monument, but a "fallen" one, because the picture of what she had been was subject to death and decay. Decay is an essential word because it depicts the way in which Emily's inability to let go of the past ate away at her and everything around her, even before her death. The word presents a classic case of time catching up with something, and in this case, it is the present slowly catching up with a reluctant past.
The story proceeds to paint a picture of the house that Emily lived and died in and the curiosity that surrounded it. The narrator depicts the house in this way: It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and gasoline pumps- an eyesore among eyesores. (667) The narrator also says later of the house that it "smelled of dust and disuse- a close, dank smell" (668). Notice that, once again, the word decay is used to represent the state of the house, much like the state of its owner. The house itself is an example of what was the past in Jefferson. However, it is no longer the past, the street is no longer "select" and both quotes show that the house is no longer grand. The quotes also show a direct conflict between past and present in the scenery. The cotton gins and gasoline pumps of the present are "encroaching" on the old house, which is symbolic of the past. These advances had obliterated many august names in this particular part of town, except for Miss Emily and her house. Until her death, the past thrived among the present. Emily had refused to succumb to the same fate as other people in her area, and again, the connection being that of the past refusing to succumb to the present.
To paint a better picture of the story's theme, Faulkner reverts to tales of Emily's life before her death. After the death of her father when she was approximately thirty years old, Emily was left nothing but the house, and the town took her under their wing, in a sense. The narrator writes: Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor- he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron- remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. (667) The town itself saw Emily as a traditional southern woman and she was their reminder of the past that had once been Jefferson but still lived on through her (Skei 157). But, this verbal agreement was not exactly solid, and eventually tension between the old and new arose. To the new generation of mayors and officials of the town, a verbal agreement was nothing more than illusion. They expected Emily to pay taxes, because there was no written evidence of an agreement between Colonel Sartoris, who had been dead for ten years now, and Emily. When these officials confronted her about the payments, she absolutely refused payment and also refused to accept the fact that Colonel Sartoris was dead. From Emily's very traditional stance, his word was given and that word knows no death. Once again there is a struggle between the past with its social dignity and the present, where everything has a written standard in the books (Rodriguez 1).
This distinction is also evident in the attitude of Judge Stevens. "A member of the rising generation" pressures him into taking action against Miss Emily because of the smell coming from her home. The young man says, "It's simple enough. Send her word to have her place cleaned. Give her a certain time to do it in, and if she don't"ÃÂ¦" Judge Stevens replies, "Dammit sir"ÃÂ¦will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?" (669). For, the young man, the problem can easily be eradicated through regulations and measures. Judge Stevens, and eighty year old man, does not find the task so simple because he also is a product of past traditions. In a traditional sense, saying something about the smell would be a rude accusation towards Emily. Again, the past and its social preoccupation came into conflict with the present and its regulations that disregard social reverence.
Returning to the death of Emily's father, the narrator tells of her subconscious inability to cope when ladies came to her door to give condolences: Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body. Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down and they buried her father quickly. (670) Emily is unable to accept the fact that time has caught up to her father. It would be easy for to continue in her usual manner and keep her father's body, and still believe that a part of her beloved past had not died with her father. He was one of the major reasons that Emily so easily kept the past sacred and alive, because he was a symbol of that past in her eyes.
Emily's attempts to control time and preserve the past, and this in contrast to the inevitable flow of time into the present, are also seen in the gold watch she wears. When visitors come to the house they notice "a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt" (668). The visitors later hear "the invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain" (668). Emily obviously tries to hide the watch, which is her means of controlling and preserving time. However, the presence of the watch cannot be ignored because of its loud ticking, divulging the present time and its endless progression (Schwab 1).
The narrator uses the town's older generation of men, offering condolences at Emily's funeral, as portals to a message of time in the present versus the past: "ÃÂ¦and the very old men- some in their brushed Confederate uniforms- on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years. (673) It is important to notice that the narrator specifies the past as something sacred, almost as through the eyes of the older generation that is beyond the limits of time and never really sees an end. The past is clearly sacred because "no winter ever quite touches it" and it is "not a diminishing road." In contrast to this sacredness, the narrator also classifies time as a "mathematical progression", which the reader can assume is the view of the modern generation. But, it is not that the past ever leaves, but just that it is left behind the shadow of the present. In this passage the reader can see the hidden past trying to stay bright behind the dark covering of the present's shadow. The old men come in their old Confederate uniforms and they speak of Emily as if to honor her as a symbol of their past. In a sense, through Emily's death, the past is revisited.
Still at the scene of Emily's funeral, the final twist of her life is discovered. In one room lay the ultimate battle against time. But, in order to understand the twist, the reader must also understand the story of Homer Barron.
When Emily's father died, she met a Yankee man named Homer Barron. Homer was the foreman of a construction company that had been hired to pave the sidewalks of Jefferson. After a while passed, Homer and Emily were seen in each other's company very often, and most of the town believed that the two would get married. In Homer, Emily found the love that she had waited for all of her life and gave the love that she was never permitted to give. This man was a treasure to her, but she realized, as most of the town did not, that Homer was not going to marry her. When the sidewalks were finished and the summer had passed, Homer mysteriously disappeared and was never heard from again. In the town, it was common knowledge that Homer had left Emily. From that day forward, Emily was a recluse and was not seen in the town for almost forty years.
When those offering condolences at the funeral decide to explore the house that held so much mystery within its walls, and for so many generations, they did not have the slightest idea what they would find.
A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man's toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured. Among them lay a collar and tie, as if they had just been removed, which, lifted, left upon the surface a pale crescent in the dust. Upon the chair hung the suit, carefully folded; beneath it the two mute shoes and the discarded socks"ÃÂ¦ The man himself lay in the bed"ÃÂ¦ Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One pf us lifter something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair. (673) For Emily, the only way that she could defeat the progression of time into the present and preserve the past was to create a permanence in the love that she was about to lose. So, she killed Homer Barron with rat poison, and now he would be by her side forever. However, the death of her father and the death of Homer are comparable and contrastable. In the death of her father, she was in a fight against the reality of the present because she would not and could not realize that her father was dead. She was also forced to give up her father's body, when it is very likely that she would have done the same with his that she had done with Homer's. In the death of Homer, she also fought the reality of the present. The only difference was that she took the matter into her own hands, and without anyone's knowledge of the events that occurred, she was able to hold onto love and the past- which is Homer, dead or alive.
In addition, the rose-colored room is Emily's timeless meadow. It is where she and the dead Homer could remain together as though not even death could separate them. It is said that death conquers all, but in this case, it is the preservation and continuance of Emily's love. Still, on a certain level, death itself is the past, and that past would be with Emily until she no longer was forced to participate in her fight against the present.