A Rose for Emily is a story concerned with the nature of change, transition and with capacity for an individual to exist in a liminal space between between historical periods. The figure of Emily is one such character; some who who is treated as a “curiosity” and a “monument” by her neighbors, but who is nonetheless capable of committing seemingly appalling crimes (Fualkner, 1990, 3). While it can be argued that Emily herself functions a signifier and a symbol for much of the story, it is her house which most obviously encapsulates and expresses the themes of decay and change with which Faulkner is concerned. Again, like the Emily herself, the house is presented as being an irreducible historical remainder which both challenges the present and has been almost entirely left behind by it.
The symbolism of the house if first made when Faulkner describes the transition which it has been a part of. He states that, a one point, the house had been “decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies […] but garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of the at neighborhood” (3). The notion of encroachment is crucial to this presentation. It is not simply the case that the world around the house has been replaced or modified, but rather this process of change is described explicitly as having taking place over a significant period of time. In this, sense although the house itself is still standing, it is a monument to the process of historical erosion that defines it, as that also defines the character of Emily.
At key moments in the story, the house also functions as a border and a boundary space which physically separates Emily from the rest of the town and that, by doing so, generates the sense that two historical periods rub against each other without interacting directly. This effect is generated clearly in a passage in which Faulkner describes men from the town spreading lime around the house in order to attempt to deal with foul smell emanating from it. Faulkner describes how these men refuse to enter the house or speak to Emily, but instead patrol its boundary. He writes: “They [men] broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the out buildings. As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol” (1990, 7). In this scene, the house is affirmed as both a material and a symbolic border, as well being somewhere for Emily to look out from. Faulkner describes Emily’s position within the house as if it was that of an ossified historical object, something which the men of the town refuse to approach directly, and whose actions they fail to fully understand. As such, at the same time that house provides Emily with shelter, it also acts as a real material boundary between her and the world; a boundary only crossed by the smell of a corpse. In this sense, the house may also be seen to function as a symbol of the world that Emily constructs for herself, and also of her own inability to enter into a living relationship with the present.
In conclusion, therefore, the house in A Rose for Emily functions both as a physical boundary and as a symbol of the historical shelter in which Emily lives. In this way, it encapsulates and expresses the key concerns of change and transition that are expressed within Faulkner’s story.
- Faulkner, William. A Rose for Emily. London: Perfection Learning, 1990. Print.