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Grotesque in “A Rose for Emily” by W. Faulkner Essay

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Updated: Jun 19th, 2020


One of the most appealing aspects of William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily is that the readers’ exposure to the main character of Emily Grierson provides them with a better understanding of what accounts for the effects of the socially oppressive circumstances onto the process of an individual becoming mentally insane.

There is, however, even more to it – the concerned story makes it possible for readers to gain an in-depth insight into what the notion of ‘grotesque’ stands for. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this idea at length, while arguing that the character of Emily can indeed be referred to, as this notion’s actual epitome.

I will also aim to show that this character’s grotesqueness is being extrapolated by the fact that, throughout most of her life, Emily used to actively defy what the 19th century’s conventions of public ethics in America.

Body of the paper

Probably the main qualitative feature of the notion of ‘grotesque’ is that it is being essentially synonymous with the Freudian concept of ‘uncanny’: “An uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (Freud 2). These primitive beliefs derive out of one’s unconscious fear of the ‘unnatural’, as such that presupposes danger. And, it can hardly be argued that the story A Rose for Emily does in fact emanate the strongly defined spirit of ‘unnaturalness’.

The validity of this suggestion can be well illustrated, in regards to the utterly unnatural lifestyle of Emily, who consciously strives to act in the socially withdrawn manner: “After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her” (Faulkner 2). After all, in order for a person to be able to maintain its sanity, he or she must socialize with others periodically. This, however, is not the case with Emily – after having realized that she would not be able to live up to the patriarchal ideal of womanhood, she decides to cut just about all the ties, which used to connect her to the surrounding social reality. Yet, Emily continues to believe that there was nothing particularly odd about her socially secluded lifestyle. It is needless to mention, of course, that this alone makes it possible for us to discuss Emily in terms of a grotesque figure – the character’s very behavioral pattern reveals that she never experienced much of an emotional distress, while living in the ‘world of her own’.

Nevertheless, it is specifically the story’s shocking ending, which removes any possible doubts, as to the fact that Emily can indeed be deemed a strongly grotesque (in the sense of being unnatural) character. The reason for this is that, as this ending reveals, Emily used to share a bed with the corpse of Homer Barron – a man who was supposed to marry her: “What was left of him (Homer), rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay” (Faulkner 5).

The reason why Emily decides to poison Homer, is that she simply could not let him go, because it would result in the remains of her elitist sense of self-worth being thoroughly destroyed. Such a strong was Emily’s desire to live up to the socially constructed dogmas of public morality that, after having murdered Homer, she continues to sleep with his corpse for years. By doing it, she strives to reaffirm her worthiness as a ‘natural born’ wife. It is understood, of course, that Emily’s mental fixation, in this respect, cannot be described as anything but utterly grotesque, because it was prompting her to face life-challenges in the most unnatural manner, while nevertheless maintaining the posture of a well-respected ‘Southern lady’.

However, the sheer grotesqueness of Emily Grierson is not being solely reflected by the particulars of the character’s socially alienated lifestyle and by her ‘marital relationship’ with the corpse of a long-deceased Homer, but also by the fact that, without realizing it consciously, Emily tries to reverse backwards the flow of time – whatever improbable this may sound. Such Emily’s tendency is being extrapolated by the character’s mental fixation on trying to preserve the memories of her youth. Even though there is nothing unnatural about the fact that people do tend to cherish this type of memories, Emily’s preoccupation with the past appears to have a number of clearly pathological subtleties to it. For example, the character in question refuses to allow even the cosmetic renovations to be applied to the house where she resided: “When the town got free postal delivery, Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it” (Faulkner 5).

When assessed through the lenses of psychoanalysis, such Emily’s mental trait can be interpreted as the indication that, ever since she decided to live as a hermit, it was namely spending time, while reflecting on the way of the past, which accounted for the character’s main preoccupation in life. Yet, those individuals who think too much of the past, are being known for their often clearly defined inability to address the challenges of the present, which in turn makes them nothing less of ‘walking zombies’, burdened by their physical existence.

It appears that the character of Emily Grierson fits this description perfectly well – it is not only that her existence could be discussed in terms of ‘decay’ in the allegorical but also in the literal sense of this word. While deteriorating physically, she made a deliberate point in ensuring the presence of the decaying corpse of Homer Barron in her bedroom – something that radiates the unmistakable spirit of grotesque. Hence, the story’s literary appeal – A Rose for Emily does not only reflect on the notion of ‘grotesque’, but it also reveals this notion’s actual mechanic, by the mean of exposing readers to their own anxieties, in regards to what their unconscious psyche deems ‘unnatural’.


I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the idea that the character of Emily Grierson is indeed utterly grotesque, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, it is in the very nature of ‘grotesque’ to create an irreconcilable dichotomy between the affiliated person’s strive towards self-actualization, on one hand, and his or her inability to allow its existence to be affected by the environmental circumstances, on the other – the idea that has been explored throughout the paper’s entirety. This appears to be the main reason why the discussed character can be best described as both: tragic and somewhat frightening, which in turn creates the objective preconditions for her to be referred to as a rather grotesque but very memorable literary figure.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William 1930, A Rose for Emily. 2014. Web.

Freud, Sigmund 1919, . 2014. Web.

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