Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Adventure classics -- How not to leave a lover

“A Rose for Emily”

by William Faulkner


At one of our weekly meetings to write (or at least, talk about writing), my friend Robin confessed she was listening to an audiobook of one of William Faulkner’s novels and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I was too embarrassed to admit I planned to feature Faulkner’s gruesome short story, “A Rose for Emily,” on this blog as part of Adventure classics’ month of Halloween horror.

At least Faulkner’s 1930 love letter to the murderous and obsessed, if not positively demented, Emily Grierson is one of the more accessible works by the father of Southern Gothic.

The story deals with an impoverished Southern aristocrat whose father has thwarted the marriage proposals of all her suitors. After her father’s death, she is courted once more, this time by a stranger the inhabitants of her rigidly provincial small town consider “beneath” her.

Faulkner narrates the story in first person plural, as the Greek chorus of townspeople gleefully anticipate Emily’s social downfall. But the suitor vanishes mysteriously, leaving Emily to withdraw into eerie seclusion as Faulkner’s decidedly nonlinear narrative loops through multiple time periods.

Faulkner said he offered Emily the symbolic rose of his story out of admiration. From the distance of decades, it’s tempting to confound her to some extent with Faulkner’s wife, Estelle Oldham, whose marriage decisions also suffered from parental pressures. Although Faulkner had known Estelle since they were teenagers in Oxford, Mississippi, her parents insisted she marry another man they considered more suitable.

When Estelle’s marriage inevitably ended in divorce, she married again -- this time to Faulkner -- the year before his most famous short story was published.

I was at first annoyed, then amused, to find “A Rose for Emily” in the Dallas Public Library’s edition of The Faulkner Reader heavily marked, fortunately in pencil, by a previous reader.

The would-be editor lined out most of Faulkner’s inimitable descriptions, such as the “heavily lightsome style” of Emily Grierson’s decaying mansion, but found himself (or herself) vanquished in the attempt to straighten out the story’s shift, leaving me to wonder, if nobody had seen Miss Grierson for decades and her servant, her only human contact, never spoke, how did the townspeople know she was dead? If the closed room upstairs hadn’t been opened since before Emily’s hair began to gray, why was a strand of gray hair found on the bed? And who was the never-named servant, her only human contact, who “walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again”?

But Faulkner was interested less in logic than in detailing the intricate byways of the human heart. Since Faulkner’s works are widely available at and other sources, treat yourself this Halloween to a rose from Miss Emily’s grave.

(Next Friday, I want to finish Adventure classics’ October of Halloween horror with one of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. But which one? Let me know your favorite, or prepare to hear my own.)

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