A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner, 1930
The magic trick:
Scattering Emily’s backstory into fragmented anecdotes for the reader to interpret and piece together
We’re doing something a little bit new this week at the SSMT website. For this, the second William Faulkner Week on the blog, I’m going to focus each magic-trick breakdown on the structure of the story. Obviously, that won’t provide any kind of complete picture of the magic at work in these stories, but hopefully it’s interesting nonetheless.
And so we begin with “A Rose For Emily,” one of Faulkner’s very best. It’s a masterpiece of story structure. He opens with Emily’s funeral, before filling in her biography one piece at a time. But it’s not that simple. The stories and incidents our narrator selects about her life don’t go in chronological order, nor do they properly begin or end. Instead, what we get are anecdotes and bits of information about her life that wind up raising more questions than they provide answers. The stories also overlap, which causes confusion but also ups the reader’s interest. It becomes an almost interactive reading experience. We are trying to piece together the different fragments of information so that it produces a complete puzzle.
The story ends in a kind of cursive O. You know how the big capital-letter cursive O connects at the top but then extends out for one more little loop. Well, “A Rose For Emily” circles back to her death at the end, but then it extends out for one more little loop by detailing the events that took place shortly after her death. It’s only then that the puzzle falls into place. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.
“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her word to have her place cleaned up. Give her a certain time to do it in, and if she don’t. ..”
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”
So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder. They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings. As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol. They crept quietly across the lawn and into the shadow of the locusts that lined the street. After a week or two the smell went away.