The two most-anthologized short stories by William Faulkner are “Barn Burning” (1939) and “A Rose for Emily” (1931). His novella, spanning five generations, “The Bear” in its 1942 incarnation, expanding on the 1935 magazine version is also widely anthologized.
The syntax of “A Rose for Emily” is simpler than that of “Barn Burning,” “The Bear,” let alone of his masterpiece novels, and an unnamed lifelong resident of Jefferson, Mississippi of unspecified age presents the flashbacks in chronological order of their occurrence. I remembered Miss Emily in the company of Miss Haversham from Dickens’s Great Expectations and Granny Weatherall from Katherine Anne Porter’s (1930) “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” My fallible memory was right in this instance in that all three elderly women nurse the pain of long-ago rejection… of which more than traces remain in their homes.
The home she has inherited in Faulknerland (city of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi) is all the spinster Emily Grierson retains of the prosperity of her forbearers (which we can assume rested on slave labor). In 1894, decades back, the late Colonel Sartoris (see The Unvanquished) decreed immunity from property tax for Miss Emily, concocting a face-saving lie that her father had lent money to the town.
A later generation of city officials sought to abate the nuisance of a bad smell emanating from the house (afraid to confront her, they had lime spread around the base of the house one night). After the recluse had ignored tax notices, a delegation went to her house and was dismissed with directions to “go ask Col. Sartoris).
Her father seems to have rejected suitors and Miss Emily maintained an exaggerated sense of her (family’s) social status, but some years back seemed to have sought/expected to marry Homer Barron, a construction contractor from the North, who “liked men and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Club,” which I take as indicating a love that was unprintable in mass-circulation American magazines in 1931).
A bit on the Grand Guignol side, the story shows Faulkner’s leitmotif about the stranglehold of the past on Southerners (pretensions or aristocracy in particular, but also, very often, unspeakable deeds, whether breaching or defending the codes of honor and caste). Miss Emily is far from being the only scion of a locally elite family that has lost its wealth but not its pretensions in Faulkner’s fiction, nor the only one to strike this reader (and some Jeffersonites) as pitiful. The nearly unreadable Absalom, Absalom! Is the epitome of this leitmotif (with male leads and more homosexual bonds).
I admire Faulkner’s solution to the “problem of perspective,” both in general and in this instance in which the narrator relates what he knew of Emily Grierson. (From a slam that only women would believe the fiction of a past loan to the town, I infer that the narrator is male.) As a work of Southern Gothic, A Rose for Emily” is nearly perfect, eschewing the baroque sentences that often obscure what is going on in Faulkner fiction. There are a few adjectives I’d cut, but I was raised in the laconic Upper Midwest (like Hemingway) and later lived in the laconic Southwest (and have never set foot in Mississippi).
As in “Barn Burning,” there is a profusion of instances of the n-word. Though in character, they still seem gratuitous to me. Not that Faulkner’s fiction provides role models. Certainly, Emily Grierson is not one. Faulkner explained that he provided “allegorical title; the meaning was, here was a woman who has had a tragedy, an irrevocable 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.” (I don’t see why this is allegorical, but it is clear that the creator of her narrator pitied where pride and desperation drove Emily Grierson.
BTW, “A Rose for Emily” is not “juvenile fiction” in the sense of being about juveniles. Its reading level is lower than any Faulkner novels I’ve read (I’m working my way up to the only major one I haven’t read), but I question juvenile readers understanding what is edifying about this story or caring about a difficult old woman of roughly a century ago.