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Nobility vs. Femininity: Overcoming Gender Norms in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” Research Paper

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Updated: Feb 12th, 2022

Gender norms are present in every society throughout history and affect people’s behavior and expectations. Every society prescribes certain roles for both men and women, and they have to follow them or risk judgment and criticism. It is entirely natural that the theme of gender has a strong role not only in social relations, but also in culture and, specifically, literature. There are many different topics in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and gender is one of them.

The plot of the story follows the life and death of a Southern woman Emily Grierson, mostly in the period after the Civil War. The main event of the plot is her attempted relationship with Homer Barron, a Northern wage-worker, and his fate after his disappearance one day is the main mystery until the end of the story. In this paper, I will explore how Faulkner portrays the issues of gender in “A Rose for Emily. Social norms prescribed to women and men are a central theme in the story, and the close reading suggests that Emily violates some of these norms because she considers herself better than the others.

From the very beginning, the story demonstrates that gender issues and gender roles will play a significant role in its progress. Many remarks point to things expected or required from either men or women in the small Southern town of Jefferson. For example, the author writes about different motivations for men and women to visit Emily’s house after she dies. According to Faulkner, men did what they did to her house because of “respectful affection for a fallen monument” (1).

On the other hand, women came to Emily’s home “mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house” (Faulkner 1). In this passage, the author shows that it is obvious to the narrator that men and women have different motivations. In Curry’s words, “gender motivation splits between respect and curiosity” (1). Another example is that colonel Sartoris, a former mayor of Jefferson, was most famous for issuing an edict “that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron” (Faulkner 1). Gender is a theme in the story that constantly appears from the first lines.

Emily Grierson is the main character in “A Rose for Emily,” and she is a single woman from a respectable Southern family. She is described as “a small, fat woman” with grey hair and aristocratic arrogance (Faulkner 2). When the narrator refers to Emily, the respect for her name and her family is usually obvious in the text. At one point, the story tells that Griersons was one of the “august names” (Faulkner 1) of Jefferson.

One should not interpret it literally in the sense that Griersons were royalty, but it goes to show that Emily’s family was always important and respected by townsmen. Another example is that, when the narrator tells about the smell coming from Emily’s house, the “gross, teeming world” is put against “high and mighty Griersons” (Faulkner 2). Emily’s family is very respectable and well-known in Jefferson, and Emily is its last living member and takes this respect for granted.

Emily has lived with her father until his death, and the narrator describes him as a very strict person with impossibly high standards. In fact, Emily’s father was so demanding that he never permitted her to marry anyone who tried by “warding off unacceptable suitors with a whip in his hand” (Allen 686). From inspecting this passage, I can say that Emily’s father likely viewed her as too good and precious to give her away to anyone at all.

In his eyes, Emily was so much better than any man Jefferson had to offer that there was simply no way that anyone in town would be good enough for her in marriage. The text also shows that Emily loved her father very much, and he was probably the most important person for her in life. When he died, she denied the fact and insisted he was alive for three days straight before finally letting the townspeople dispose of the body (Faulkner 3). Based on that, we can see that Emily, who respected her father so much, accepted his belief that she was better than everyone else in Jefferson.

The people in town have their own ideas about gender and expect Emily to be an example of what it means to be a Southern woman. There are many instances in the story when this becomes obvious, but one of the most significant ones is when a bad smell starts coming out of her house. When a younger member of the Board of Aldermen suggests simply asking Emily to clean her house up, the older members disagree.

Their motivation is that it would be impolite to “accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad” (Faulkner 3). It is known that gender relations in a society are based on the norms created for women and men. It is as Curry says: “in a pure and public patriarchy, no language exists to address the foul smell exuding from a woman’s house” (3). The townspeople cannot ask Emily to stop the smell because they cannot even publicly admit that anything related to a lady may have a bad odor. Emily is important for Jefferson because she is a Southern lady and plays this gender role.

Although Jefferson respects Emily and her family, the townspeople also criticize Emily when they think her behavior is inappropriate for a woman of her position and social status. When Emily starts seeing Homer Barron, a wage worker from the North, the people in the town are initially calm about it. Everyone in Jefferson believes that “a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer” (Faulkner 4).

The townspeople expect Emily to follow her gender role as an aristocratic Southern woman. It is especially important for them after the Civil War because they want the South “to vindicate its integrity and cultural identity by projecting its inviolable and unvanquishable values on females” (Lee 69). In the eyes of the people of Jefferson, Emily has to be a shining example of feminine virtue and embody everything good there is about a Southern woman. This gender role is what society prescribes to and expects of Emily.

However, Emily is not inclined to follow the expectations of society that are related to her gender. She continues seeing Homer even though the older people say that “even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige” (Faulkner 4). Even though the others insist that her behavior is “a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young,” she pays no attention to accusations (Faulkner 5). By openly spending her time with a Northern man of inferior social status, Emily becomes a fallen woman in the eyes of the townsfolk. This fall makes her not a manifestation of the best feminine qualities but a “scapegoat onto whom all the sins and defeatism of the South [are] transferred” (Lee 70).

However, Emily does not care and even denounces the preacher who comes to convince her that her behavior is wrong (Faulkner 4). She goes against the gender role that is expected of her and pays ho attention to the opinions of others. Emily simply considers herself so much better than the rest of the townspeople and does not feel that their ideas of gender apply to her.

Apart from the general population of Jefferson, there is also another party whose ideas of gender do not coincide with those of Emily. Homer Barron, Emily’s love interest and the only man she openly dates in the course of the entire story is that party. At one point in the plot, the narrator mentions that Homer had openly declared that he was “not a marrying man” (Faulkner 5). Just like Emily, Homer has a gender role of his own, and this is the role of a merry bachelor. Even though he likes ladies, he would not seriously consider marrying any of his sweethearts and forswearing his freedom and all the opportunities that go with it. This attitude eventually puts him at odds with Emily because, as far as she is concerned, the only fitting conclusion to a romance is marriage.

However, as the story shows, Emily does not pay more attention to Homer’s ideas of gender than to those of the townspeople. After Homer’s unwillingness to enter serious relationships becomes common knowledge, the town begins to discuss whether Emily will yet manage to persuade Homer to marry her or will kill herself in despair (Faulkner 5). However, she finds a completely different decision that also demonstrates how little she cares for Homer’s opinion about what is fitting for a man of his station and what is not. After buying arsenic in the local drugstore, Emily poisons her love interest and spends the next few decades alongside his decaying corpse.

By doing so, Emily imposes her will upon Homer: despite his dislike of commitments, he spends dozens of years with the same woman. Thus, in the central plot twist, Emily demonstrates once again that she considers herself to be above other people’s ideas of gender and does not care if she violates them.

After inspecting the theme of gender in Falkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” I can conclude that the main character vies herself as superior to everyone in her town. The story makes it clear from the very beginning that gender is an important theme, and the narrator emphasizes that men and women should act differently and have different motivations. The people of Jefferson respect Emily’s family and Emily herself and expect her to fulfill the gender role of an exemplary Southern lady.

However, Emily has her own ideas about how to act and behave regardless of what the townspeople think. She starts seeing Homer Barron, regardless of how the people of Jefferson expect her to behave according to her status and gender. She also forces Homer to stay with her, albeit as a decaying corpse, despite his unwillingness to marry her. This utter disregard toward other people’s notions of gender likely happens because Emily considers herself to be superior to everyone, just as her father taught her when he denied all suitors.

Works Cited

Allen, Dennis W. “Horror and Perverse Delight: Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Fiction Studies, vol. 30, no. 4, 1984, pp. 685-696.

Curry, Renee R. “Gender and Authorial Limitation in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 3, 1994. Class Handout.

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Class Handout.

Lee, Yongwa. “Emily’s Desperate and Murderous Fight: The Tragic Manifestation of the Condition of Women in the Postbellum South.” British and American Fiction, vol. 18, no. 2, 2011, pp. 67-88.

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