By Dr. Sami Breem


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Style and Meaning in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"


Dr. Sami Breem

Deputy Dean for Scientific Research

POBox 108

English Department

Islamic University, Gaza,


الأسلوب والمعني في قصة "وردة إلي إيميلي" للكاتب وليم فولكنر
د. سامي البريم

نائب عميد البحث العلمي

صندوق بريد: 108

قسم اللغة الإنجليزية

الجامعة الإسلامية – غزة – فلسطين

الأسلوب والمعني في قصة "وردة إلي إيميلي" للكاتب وليم فولكنر
ملخص: يهدف هذا البحث لدراسة أسلوب الكاتب الأمريكي وليم فولكنر في قصته " وردة إلي إيميلي" ومدي تأثير هذا الأسلوب علي القاريء لفهم النص. تروي القصة مأساة الشخصية الرئيسية الآنسة إيميلي جريرسون ومعاناتها المتأثرة بجذورها الجنوبية ( ماير 1996: 56). ويؤكد البحث علي أهمية التحليل اللغوي للنص بالإضافة إلي التحليل الأدبي حيث يستخدم الباحث نموذجاً أسلوبيا معدلاً كما جاء في( شورت 287:1996-286) والذي يشمل: معلومات جديدة مقابل معلومات قديمة، أدوات التعريف والتنكير، الإشاريات، التعبيرات ذات الدلالة، التقديم والتأخير والخروج عن النص. يوضح التحليل والمناقشة كيفية استخدام الكاتب لأسلوب لغوي يعكس التعقيدات المختلفة في حياة الشخصية الرئيسية بالإضافة لمساهمة هذا الإسلوب في فهم القاريء للعناصر المختلفة لهذه القصة: الشخصيات، الموضوع، الزمان، المكان، البيئة الإجتماعية، الرمزية، التناص وبنية النص.

Style and Meaning in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"

Abstract: This paper aims to examine William Faulkner's style in A Rose for Emily. The story is about the tragic life of Miss Emily Grierson and presents a personal conflict rooted in her southern identity, Meyer (1996: 56). The analysis in this paper adopts an integrated approach of language and literature. A modified stylistic model (Short 1996:286-7) is used for the purposes of linguistic analysis. The check-list, for the purposes of this paper, includes: given vs. new information, definite and indefinite articles, deixis, value-laden expressions and endophoric vs. exophoric references. The discussion and results of this research show how Faulkner's language is utilized in away to reflect the complexities in the main character's life in addition to enhancing the reader's understanding of the different narrative features in the story: characters, themes, setting, symbolism, intertextuality and structure.

1 Introduction

This paper focuses on William Faulkner's style in one of his short stories "A Rose for Emily". The language of the text provides a variety of stylistic features that may affect the readers' understanding of Faulkner's themes, characters and setting leading to a better appreciation of the story. Discourse stylistics is used as a tool to unlock the story through an integrated approach of language and literature which emphasizes contextualization of texts, Carter and Simpson (1989: 15). Several studies have voiced the importance of this approach in providing a systemic linguistic/textual description combined with other factors such as: readers, social environment, culture and history, Carter (1982), Carter and Simpson (1989), Stockwell (2002), Gavins and Steen (2003), Short (1996). The analysis in this paper adopts a modified check-list which is essentially derived from, Short (1996: 286-7) (see section 2 for more details).

1.1 William Faulkner (1897-1962)

William Faulkner was born into an old Mississippi family which had lost its wealth and influence during the civil war, Meyer (1996: 54). He lived in the South and wrote about it most of his works. At First, he attempted writing poetry, then he tried his hand at fiction. Starting with Soldier's Pay (1925) followed with a succession of remarkable novels including: As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959) and The Reivers (1962). In addition, he produced a number of short stories published in The Collected Stories of William Faulkner (1952).

Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. At his acceptance speech, he said, "…the young man or women writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat," Faulkner in Daniel et al (1997: 723).

Interestingly, Faulkner found his great themes in, "the American South as a microcosm for the universal themes of time, the passions of the human heart, and the destruction of the wilderness. Faulkner saw the South as a nation unto itself, with a strong sense of its noble past and an array of myths by which it clung to its pride, despite the humiliating defeat of the Civil War and the acceptance of the distasteful values of the industrial north," Daniel (1997: 713). Moreover, Miller (1982: 83) notes that, "Faulkner's fiction Draws inspiration from the traditions, myths and historical conflicts of the South. But his work surpasses regional limits, for Faulkner is a poet of the human condition, portraying the strivings of individuals against alienation and loss of values."

Commenting on Faulkner's style, Daniel (1997:722) states that, "Faulkner often forces the reader to piece together events from a seemingly random and fragmentary series of impressions experienced by a variety of narrators. Faulkner's style often strains conventional syntax; he might pile clause upon clause in an effort to capture the complexity of thought." His language/style offers so many levels that will be the focus of this paper.
1.2 The Text: A Rose for Emily

A Rose for Emily is one of William Faulkner's most studied short stories. It was written in 1930 and published in The Collected Stories of William Faulkner in (1950). It is a gothic story about the mysterious life of Miss. Emily Grierson. It skillfully represents the numerous conflicts in the main character's life, illustrating the effect of social change on the individual and how her tragedy is rooted in her southern identity.

The story illustrates Miss. Emily's miserable life from the town people's perspective. The third-person plural narrator represents the voice of the whole town. The story is known to all: men and women. They go to her funeral, 'men through a sort of respectful affection' and women 'out of curiosity to see the inside of her house which no one…had seen in the last ten years.' The unnamed narrator provides details about the mysterious life of Miss Emily: the archaic house, Colonel Sartoris remitting her taxes, new generation demanding tax payment, the nasty smell coming from the house, peculiar relationship with father and later with lover, keeping father's corpse for three days inside the house, and keeping homer's corpse for nearly forty years in one of the upstairs rooms. After her death, the town's people 'noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head…we saw a long strand of iron-grey hair.' This suggests she was sleeping with the corpse after she had poisoned him with arsenic.

Moreover, the text lends itself to different interpretations and themes: Miss Emily's tragic life, father-daughter relationship, southern identity, north and south, love and marriage, old generation and new generation, change in the American south and its negative effect on Miss. Emily, past and present, racism, slavery, social norms and time and its effect on the main character.

2 The linguistic Model

For the purposes of this paper, a modified model will be introduced for the analysis of Faulkner's style in A Rose for Emily to show how he controls viewpoint at a more detailed level through the choice of particular words and constructions, and how his manipulation affects the reader's understanding of the story's meaning: themes, characters, structure and setting. The check-list is essentially derived, with some modification, from Short (1996: 286-7). It includes: 'given' vs. 'new information'; 'definite' vs. 'indefinite' references; 'schema oriented language'; 'deixis'; 'value-laden' expressions (evaluative nouns, adverbs and adjectives); 'endophoric' and 'exophoric' references. However, it must be stressed that this check-list constitutes only a few of the many linguistic indicators of point of view (see Stockwell 2002: 40-57 for more details on deixis).

3 Analysis of Faulkner's Style in 'A Rose for Emily'

The following sections, for the limits of time and space, deal with some aspects of William Faulkner's style in A Rose for Emily.

3.1 The Title

The title of the story, A Rose for Emily constitutes four words. On the first reading of these words, readers may expect a love story with a happy end. 'A Rose' is one of the symbols used in the story inviting the reader to think of: love, affection, admiration, and sympathy. In an interview, Faulkner answered a question about the meaning of the title of the story, "Oh, it's simply the poor woman had had no life at all. Her father had kept her more or less locked up and then she had a lover who was about to quit her, she had to murder him. It was just "A Rose for Emily"-- that's all," Faulkner in Meyer (1996: 61).

In addition, the reference in the title to the main character, using the first name, without the social title (Miss.), is an example of how social deixis can be effective in understanding relationships between speakers in the text. It suggests a close relationship between the speaker/author and the Miss Emily. He is deeply sympathetic with her and what she represents as a victim of her society's rotten values of past and present.

3.2 The First Paragraph

The first paragraph is significant with many examples of new information and value-laden deictic references. It begins with the social title and the complete name of the protagonist which suggests the distance between the speaker/narrator, the town's people and Miss Emily. She belongs to the Grierson family while the town's people belong to the working class.

The story begins from the end of events which is the death of Miss Emily: the funeral. Then, the events that follow are like flashbacks to different episodes in Emily's life. Faulkner seems not to conform to Aristotle's plot-line; therefore, the story employs an odd structure (see section 3.5).

Men and women go to the funeral for different purposes: men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument and women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house. This allusion hints to cultural and social practices at that time in addition to creating suspense on the reader's side to join women in their desire to learn more about the mysteries in Miss Emily's house/life.

No one had seen the inside of her house in at least ten years; the time reference in the first paragraph invites the reader to speculate about what is going on in the old house.

Moreover, the reference to the old manservant also suggests that he is the only person who probably knows Miss. Emily's secrets. Ironically, the Negro manservant disappeared after the funeral, he let the first of the ladies in and walked right through the house and out of the back and was not seen again. Miss. Emily's life is kept unknown to the outside world pointing to the life-style of aristocratic families in the South.

3.3 The House

The house is one of the literary symbols which are skillfully employed by the author to foreground the effect of place in understanding the main character's world. It embodies the major part of the setting in the story where most events have happened. Faulkner uses many references to describe the old house that is built in the style of the seventies, big, squarish that had once been white, set on what had once been our most select street, an eyesore among eyesores. The house is full of old cracked furniture, full of dust, the blinds are shot. It is full of shadows, smelled of dust and disuse, before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait of Miss. Emily's father. The house illustrates a gothic setting. The description of the house and its surroundings represent the rotten past and the rotten present. Miss. Emily is a victim of both generations. The decayed past is represented by an aristocratic father who wanted a housekeeper. He refused all the young men who proposed to marry her. Also, the decayed present is represented by the lover, Homer Barron, whom she discovered to be not a marrying man. She decided to poison him and keep his corpse in one of the upstairs rooms for the rest of her life.

3.4 The 'We' Narrator

The whole story is told by a first-person plural narrator: the town's people. For example: our whole town went to her funeral, we all said, she will kill herself, we had said she will marry him, we did not say she was crazy then, we remembered all the young men her father had driven away, when we saw her again, her hair was cut short it would be the best thing. Faulkner uses this style effectively to suggest that Miss. Emily's story is familiar to everybody in town. The town's people care to know every detail about her life. Curiosity is a social custom/behavior which is customary at that time while it is completely denounced in modern societies.

3.5 Plot Structure and Time

The table below shows the order in which the narrator recounts major events in the story:


Order of Events

Time: Miss Emily's Age

Key Events/Comments


The funeral

74 yrs.

Death of Miss. Emily


The house (very old)

64 yrs.

no one had seen in at least ten years


Colonel Sartories (mayor)

34 yrs.

Remitted her taxes, fathered the edict no negro woman should appear on the street without an apron


A deputation of the New generation

64 yrs.

city council demanded taxes


China-painting lessons

40 yrs.

Not seen before for seven years


Colonel Sartories death

54 yrs.

Old generation, remitted her taxes


The smell

34 yrs.

Neighbors complain to Judge Stevens


Homer Barron

33 yrs.

Lover, later deserted her and she poisoned him, disappeared for forty yrs.


Father's death

32 yrs.

Kept his body inside the house for three days


Emily is still single

31 yrs.

Father alive, none of the young men is good enough for Miss. Emily


Death of Miss Emily

74 yrs.

The funeral, forcing the upstairs room open and mysteries revealed.

Moreover, time references which are employed in the text put more difficulty on the side of the reader to understand the time order of events in the story: no one…had seen in the last ten years, on the first of the year, February came, since she ceased giving china-painting lessons, eight or ten years earlier, Colonel Sartories had been dead almost ten years, she vanquished them…as she had vanquished their father's thirty years before about the smell, that was two years after her father's death, and a short time after her sweetheart…deserted her, after her sweetheart went away, after a week or two the smell went away, that was after the smell, day after father's death, she was sick for a long time, when they saw her again, in the summer after her father's death, she was over thirty….

The table and time references above show that the author/narrator does not utilize a chronological order of events as they actually happened in Miss. Emily's life. The narrator refers backward and forward to different episodes in the protagonist's life. In addition, the time expressions and words are ambiguous and difficult to comprehend. This needs more effort on the side of the reader to achieve cohesion in the text and adds to the mystery of the story.

It seems Faulkner deliberately makes use of a complex time in A Rose for Emily. The effectiveness of this style is producing the odd structure of the story which reflects the complexities of Miss. Emily's world. The character's life/circumstances are as complex, confused, ambiguous and mysterious as the time management in the text which consequently reflects the complexities of modern times and how they negatively affect the individual/Miss. Emily.

3.6 Schema-oriented Language

Schemas are organized representations of background knowledge which readers bring along to texts, Short (1996: 231). Also, Landry (2002) summarizes some views on schemata:

A strong view of schemata sees them as something influencing the reader's opinion even before a text is read. Schemata are higher-level complex knowledge structures (van Dijk, 1981, p. 141) that function as "ideational scaffolding" (Anderson, 1977)…. [It] would be one of organized knowledge on a topic leading to predictions of discourse. Messages are seen in a certain way determined by a person's personal history, interest, gender, excreta (Andreson et al., 1977). As far as 1932, Barlett saw memory as constructive and mental representation was built from current discourse and background knowledge….Schemata whether fixed or flexible, are a way to account for interpretation and production of discourse (Brown and Yule, 1983, p. 250)
In A rose for Emily, the author/narrator utilizes schemata that help the reader interpret/understand the text. The varying attitudes a reader offers towards the topics encountered in the text require cultural, historical and social insight to determine the narrator/author's intentions/meaning.

In an interview, William Faulkner has stated, "…it had been argued that "A Rose for Emily" is a criticism of the North, and others have argued saying that it is a criticism of the South. Now, could this story, shall we say, be more properly classified as a criticism of the times?"

The table below lists schemas in the text and shows how they help the reader infer information which is not stated in the text:


Schema-oriented Language

Analytical Remarks



Social norms (women's curiosity). Their interest to know every detail about Emily's life.


An eyesore among eyesores

Reference to Emily's old house and surrounding signs of modern life: corruption of past and present.


Colonel Sartoris remitted her taxes. He fathered the edict no negro women should appear on the street without an apron

Colonel Sartoris is a symbol of corruption in traditional aristocracy. Slavery, Racism, and class system in the American South


Union and confederate soldiers

American Civil war between north and south


The next/rising generation

The difference between the old generation and the new generation. Change in the American society and its negative effect on Miss Emily. She is a victim of both generations.


The negro

A symbol of slavery


We remembered all the young men her father had driven away.

Father's role in Miss. Emily's tragedy. A symbol of selfish fathers who wants stay as a housekeeper in the house. Corrupt past traditions.


Homer Barron, a Northerner, a day laborer, a Yankee

Homer represents the rising working class. Miss Emily accepted to marry him in spite of all the differences between them. She wanted to find love, a husband and a family.


Homer had remarked-he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the young men in the Elk's club-that he is not a marrying man

Homosexuality in the American society. When this is revealed to Miss. Emily, she seems to have lost her last chance in leading a normal life. The outcome of repression comes in a tragic form; she poisoned Homer Barron and kept his body in one of the upstairs rooms for the rest of her life.

3.7 'Social Deixis': Characters' Names and titles:

Wales (1989:112) identifies deixis as originally from Greek meaning "'pointing' or 'showing', deixis in LINGUISTICS refers generally to all those features of language which orientate or 'anchor' our utterances in the context of proximity of space…and time…relative to the speaker's viewpoint."

Stockwell (2002: 45-49) has classified deixis into five categories: perceptual, spatial, temporal, relational, textual, and compositional.

Relational deixis are expressions which encode social viewpoint and relative situations of authors, narrators, characters and readers including: modality, expressions of point of view and focalization; naming and address conventions; 'social deixis'; evaluative word-choice. (46)

Stockwell seems to agree with Short (1996: 272)by stating that, "It is possible…to view social relations as 'deictic'. We can feel 'close or 'remote' to other people in social terms. Someone to whom you refer with 'title' + last name would be remote socially, and you would normally refer to those with whom you are close by their first name…."

For the purposes of this paper social deixis has an evident role in understanding social relations in A Rose for Emily. The following table records a number of examples to explain how the author has employed names and titles of his characters to reveal social interaction:


Social Deixis: Names and titles

Stylistic effect/comments



First name in the title of the story; it shows a close relationship between the protagonist and the author; Faulkner is sympathetic with Miss Emily


Miss. Emily Grierson; Miss Emily

Complete Name and title shows a distant relationship between Miss. Emily and the narrator 'the town's people; she belongs to an aristocratic family; also it represents a distance between aristocracy and the working class.


Colonel Sartoris

Title and surname show distance between the mayor and the town's people; between aristocracy and the working class


Negro, Negro women

Identical with slavery, racism. The town's people use these nicknames to refer to slaves; distant relationship



No title, first name of the negro manservant as it is used by Miss Emily; servant-master relationship


The Sheriff

No title or name for the mayor of the city, signs of modern times which are different from the past; the working class is taking the place of aristocracy


Her father

No name for the father in the story. No specific reference, to emphasize a symbol/type of horrible fathers who repress their daughters. He is an example of other fathers of the same type.


Her sweetheart

From the town's people perspective, it refers to Homer Barron who is expected to marry Miss Emily; a close relationship.


Neggers and mules and machinery

A reference to slavery, racism, and class discrimination. Blacks are expected to do the hard work.


Homer Barron

Homer Barron belongs to the working class, a day laborer; showing a close relationship with young men



A nickname for a native or citizen of the North, an inhabitant of the Northern States as distinguished from a Southerner.

3.7 The last Paragraph

William Faulkner remarks on his style, "I'm trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive…. This I think accounts for what people call the obscurity, the involved formless 'style', endless sentences. I am trying to say it all in one sentence, between the Cap and one period, (The Faulkner-Cowley File 14). Moreover, Aiken (1973:134) has remarked on Faulkner's illumination style, "It is as if Mr. Faulkner…had decided to try to tell us everything…every last origin or source or quality or qualification, and every possible future or permutation as well, in one terrifically concentrated effort: each sentence to be, as it were, a microcosm."

Labov (1972: 354-396) proposes a linguistic model for narrative structure. He lists possible elements of narrative structure: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, resolution and coda. The coda signals that the story has ended. It provides a sense of completeness, bringing the narrator and the reader back to the point at which they entered the narrative. An excellent coda should be unexpected; therefore the reader is invited to put forward a possible interpretation.

The last paragraph (coda) in A Rose for Emily is one sentence. It draws in words the most touching, the most horrible scene in the story. A few words with big meaning where most expressions are value-laden and deictic: we, noticed, on the second pillow, the indentation of a head, lifted something, leaning forward, faint and invisible dust, dry and acrid in the nostrils; saw a long strand of iron-gray hair. Miss. Emily has been sleeping on the bed beside Homer's corpse for more than forty years. This secret is kept from the town's people since the smell. This is the first time they know that the smell was not of a rat or a snake. She poisoned Homer Barron, her lover, when he decided to desert her.

This coda conforms to Labov's model which stresses that "some codas which strike us as particularly skillful are strangely disconnected from the main narrative". The reader is invited to sympathize with Miss. Emily in addition to raising a number of questions about the different reasons that led to her tragic life. That is, how she is a victim of the father, the lover, social change, class system; how she is a victim of the rotten past and the rotten present.

4 Conclusions

The analysis of Faulkner's style in A Rose for Emily allows neater and more delicate support to the readers understanding of the story's meaning: characters, themes, structure and setting.

The different stylistic features in the text keep the reader involved in the reading process as if they were part of the story, in medias res. From the very beginning, they sympathize with Miss. Emily, then, they join the town's people in the funeral, they enter the house full of curiosity, and they follow every action/reaction of the main character. Faulkner's style increases the reader's awareness of the American culture and society: how it witnesses rapid change, and how this change negatively affects Miss. Emily, aristocracy vs. working class, old generation vs. new generation, past vs. present, south vs. north, whites vs. blacks, masters and slaves, group vs. individuality, and marriage vs. homosexuality.

It should be emphasized that the model and the analysis provide a better understanding of the different narrative features in the text. Initial impressions about the story are supported by a stylistic analysis of Faulkner's words on the page. The analysis is expected to provide an effective approach for the study of A Rose for Emily and Faulkner's style in addition to offering a model which could be beneficial for the study of other narratives.


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