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A Rose for Emily: What the Symbols Meant in the Story?

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In William Faulkner’s popular story “A Rose for Emily”, the character of Ms Emily Grierson often leaves the reader questioning her mental condition. As the story unravels the obscurity of Ms Grierson’s mysterious life, we also learn about the significant elements such as the tradition, customs and values which were beautifully constructed in this interesting piece of literature. The story is set in a time where the society is going through a transition, and while the entire town is embracing the modern, the high-born girl Emily seems to hold on to the tradition.

A Rose for Emily” is a story that depicts the struggle the protagonist faces as she tries to maintain tradition in the face of widespread radical change. Emily, who was born in the elite Grierson family, is portrayed as the last remnant of the aristocracy in Jefferson. Even though the place and its people are quite unique in their own way, it projects an outlook of any American county during that era.

The character of Emily itself represents tradition. She stays the same over the years, even though the community is experiencing a lot of changes. Her image reflects the tradition that people wish to respect and honour; however, she is also seen as a burden and completely detached from the outside world, nursing idiosyncrasy that the townspeople fail to comprehend.

Emily lives in the world of her own making, in her own timeless vacuum. While the whole town has got familiar with the modern mail service, she refuses to have a metallic number affixed to the side of her house. Throughout the story, she remains quite aloof from the outer world. In fact, she seems quite oblivious to what is happening outside her sealed perimeters. The aldermen try to break with the unofficial agreement what was made between Colonel Sartoris and Emily, but as it appears she has no knowledge that Colonel’s been dead for years.

Even though Jefferson is portrayed as a place that’s embracing the modern with its open arms, it still highly regards traditional notions of reputation and honour. As a matter of fact, the narrator is critical of the old men in their Confederate uniforms who gather in Emily’s funeral. In this story, the past has been portrayed as not as a faint glimmer, but as an ever-present realm, at least for Emily. Her macabre bridal chamber is introduced in the story in a well-constructed setting where Emily had tried to stop time and prevent change, even if it is done by ending a human life.

How to approach your analysis essay on “A Rose for Emily”?

Writing a literary analysis of the various literary devices won’t be a simple task for you, especially if you are instructed to write a five paragraph-long essay. There are so many areas to explore in the literary analysis of a story, but since there is a limit on word count, you need to be very specific about what you discuss in the analysis. For instance, if you are assigned to prepare a literary analysis essay on “A Rose for Emily“, you should pick a literary element of the story (such as plot, characters or symbols) and give your analysis on that particular element.

Since it’s basically an essay, you need to consider the fundamental structure of an essay while drafting your analysis essay. It means your essay must have an impressive introduction, insightful body content and a compelling conclusion. Besides, you also need to include a thesis statement in the essay that will project the main idea of your argument. As you may realize, the whole point of the essay is to establish your argument by providing evidence.

If you are assigned with this particular story by William Faulkner, or you chose this yourself, the first thing you need to do is go through the whole store of “A Rose for Emily”. Without reading the entire piece, you won’t be able to analyze any literary element critically. Also, when you are reading the text, make sure to note down all the significant details that you think will be helpful in your essay along with the page number where the detail can be found.

As you are done reading, you need to critically analyze the whole content and find out what you are going to write in the essay. This exercise will help you create the thesis statement for the essay which will clearly state the main idea of the essay. Be very specific about the element that you are going to choose as the focus of your analysis. A lot of students end up writing vague essays which do not really establish any argument in the process.

You can refer to the following examples where the “power of death” and the “symbols” used in the story are critically analyzed.

Critical Analysis of the power of death portrayed in “A Rose for Emily

From the very beginning, death has been depicted as a major element in the story. The story starts with the death of Emily, and as the story goes back is time and describes Emily’s whole life, death remains a constant element that prevails over every attempt to master it. However, Emily does not give in to death easily. Through the description made by the narrator on the character of Emily, “a drowned woman, a bloated and pale figure left too long in the water” or “a small, spare skeleton” which basically meant she was dead on her feet.

Emily is portrayed in the story as a symbol of the old south, an aristocrat whose uprightness and charm have declined with time, much like the outdated sensibilities that are represented by the Griersons. In this story, we get the indication that the old social order will blur anyway, even though some townspeople try to stay true to the traditions.

In multiple occasions, Emily has made an attempt to exert power over death by going into denial about the fact of death itself. Her peculiar connection with the dead bodies of the people she loved (which can be called Necrophilia) is first revealed when her father dies. Even though her father wasn’t ideal father figure, yet she loved him in her own extreme way. As the narrator tells, Emily clings to the body for her controlling father with a complete denial, not ready to accept that her father is gone forever. Even though she eventually gives his dead body up, she does that with reluctance.

When Homer Barron, the person who was in intimate relationship with Emily, dies, Emily refuses to acknowledge it once again. However, this time she was the one responsible for the death of a person. By killing the person she loves, Emily was able to keep Homer near her. Although, her attempt to keep him near him made her permanently distant from her. As the story reaches its end, the townspeople discover the remnants of Homer’s lifeless body and the silver toilet set which indicated their grotesque marriage, revealing Emily’s disturbing attempt to fuse life and death. This only proves that it is death that ultimately wins.

The symbols used in “A Rose for Emily

The story written by William Faulkner is filled with symbols and imageries, starting from its title where the “rose” signifies pity that the readers will have as they go through the lonely and challenging life of Emily Grierson. Here are two of the most significant symbols that were used in the story to reflect much deeper meaning.

Emily’s house:

Just like the character of Emily, her house is a monument that is the only remaining symbol of Southern Aristocracy when the whole world is embracing the modern. As the house is described in the story, it is large, square frame house that is lavishly decorated. In fact, the architecture of the house (with the cupolas, spires, and scrolled balconies) gives an outlook of a building which is built in the 1870s. Although, when the story takes place, things have already started to change, and the streets and neighborhood that once were affluent and pristine, have lost their glory with time.

The house symbolizes the character of Emily – stubborn and coquettish. It also signifies the endurance and preservation of the tradition which now seems out of place with all the cotton wagons, gasoline pumps and other industrial lands surrounding it, just as the Southern values are now out of place in the society that is transitioning. In another context, the house also represents mental sickness, alienation and demise. It is a living example of the glorious past, where the sealed bedroom is Emily’s macabre trophy room where she keeps the man she desires and never wants him to leave her side.

The townspeople skulk along the edges of Emily’s life and property when they sprinkled lime around the house to repel the foul smell. For the people, the house is an object of fascination, much like its owner. They create their own fantasies and interpretations onto the crumbling structure and the mysterious person living inside it. When Emily died, the people of Jefferson got the opportunity to peak into the forbidden territory and confirm their wildest imaginations about the place and its owner and have their own interpretation of what had occurred inside the house.

The strand of hair:

The strand of hair symbolizes the love that is lost and the things people do to attain happiness in life. The strand of hair also gives a glimpse of the inner life of the woman who always lived on her own terms without caring about what other have to say about her actions. Despite her peculiarities, Emily stays rigid on her moral code and occupies a world of the own creation, where even murder is justified.

Before learning about the long hair strand of hair on the pillows, we get to know about the physical transformation Emily goes through as she ages. The colour of her hair turns more and more grizzled and finally becomes “vigorous iron-grey”. The strand of the hair that was left on the pillow ultimately signifies the last sign of life that is left to fade away, quite similar to the remnant of Emily’s former lover, Homer’s body.

While reading the story, one may wonder why the title says “A Rose for Emily” when the story does not mention any rose. The word “rose” is used in the content for particularly four times, and among those four times, it was used twice as a verb. Well, as mentioned before, the rose is used as a symbol. Her whole life, Emily has watched the world through rose-coloured glasses, and as the story depicts, she takes the idea to an extreme. When she realizes the person she loves doesn’t want to be with her, she kills her and creates a macabre bridal chamber.

The title was used as an allegory. It meant the woman had had a numerous tragedy in her life and nothing could be done about it; nobody actually did anything about it. The only thing people did was pity her. She is a woman whom one would hand a rose as a sign of pity. Maybe it is to ask the readers to be more compassionate about the character.

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Lachlan Nguyen

Hi, my name is Lachlan Nguyen. I have been an English writing expert for for the past seven years. I have loved English and Literature all my life. That’s the reason I pursued a PhD in English and made a career in the same. I’ve written a couple of blogs on English writing for some of the most prominent academic websites. You can find some of my write-ups published on sites like ABC, LMN, and VFX. There’s one more thing that excites me just like English and Literature - Photography. When I am not working, you can probably find me clicking at some breathtaking destination. 

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