Power and Love in “A Rose for Emily”
One of the most frequently anthologized stories by William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily,” is the remarkable story of Emily Grierson, an aging spinster in Jefferson, whose death and funeral draws the attention of the entire town, “the men through sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity.” The unnamed narrator, which can be identified as “the town,” in a seemingly haphazard way relates key moments in Emily’s life. In this story, Faulkner discusses the struggle for power relative to love. Emily believes that power and love are synonymous.
The first part of Emily’s life is spent with her father, Mr. Grierson. Two cousins visit her a while after her fathers death, but otherwise no other family members are mentioned. Emily’s father has great control over her actions. He has power to keep her from finding a life outside of his: “We remembered all the young men her father had driven away.” Emily learns through her relationship with her father that the only way to love is through power. He dies when Emily is about 30 years old, and, while it gives her freedom, she mourns his death. The power held over her, which Emily interprets as love, is gone.
Emily never experiences a normal relationship. The townspeople do not feel affection for her in the traditional sense. Instead, they regard Emily as “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.” Emily is somewhat of a recluse. After her fathers death, she is not seen “for a long time.” Two years later, after her lover Homer Barron disappears, she stays alone inside her house for at least ten years. During this time, her only relationship with another person is with her manservent, or “Negro,” Tobe. This relationship mimics that with her father in that she holds power over him. Faulkners reference to Tobe as “the old Negro” rather than by his name, while congruent with feelings of that time, reinforces the nature of their impersonal, servile relationship. Once again, Emily replaces affection with power.
After her fathers death, Emily is finally able to have a romantic relationship. She has a fling with a Yankee road paver, Homer Barron. It seems, however, that she is more infatuated with the relationship than he. Emily “had been to the jewelers and ordered a mans toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each piece. . . .We the town said, They are married.” Homer, however, remarks that “he was not the marrying type.” Emily then uses the only means she knew how to hold onto her lover. She embraces power by murdering him to hold him down and keep him at her side forever.
As we can see from the tragic ending of the story, power does not always give us everything we desire. Emily had power over Homer Barron, but she did not obtain his love. Instead of holding a lover by her side, Emily clung to a lifeless, rotten body. In the story, Faulkner indicates that Emily may have realized this. Her hair turns gray and she becomes grotesquely fat. That she no longer has power over her own physical appearance symbolizes that she no longer loves, or has confidence in, herself.
Forty years after Homers death, Emily dies at age 74 and her secret is discovered. Tobe becomes free at the death of his master, symbolizing the release of power and its disassociation with affection. In the very last sentence, “we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair,” we realize the pathetic nature of Emilys life and sympathize with her. She never experiences true love outside of the restrictive reigns of power.