The Mississippi Quarterly



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Miss Emily After Dark

Author(s):Thomas Robert Argiro

Source:The Mississippi Quarterly. 64.3-4 (Summer-Fall 2011): p445. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type:Critical essay

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Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2011 Mississippi State University

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WE ENTER INTO WILLIAM FAULKNER'S "A ROSE FOR EMILY" VIA THE indeterminacy surrounding a persistent rumor. Agitated about a possible scandal, the suspicious Jefferson townsfolk fixate on Emily's romance with Homer Barron: "'Do you suppose it's really so?' they said to one another" (125). Their compulsive, perhaps prurient interest ironically reflects both presumption and doubt: "Of course it is. What else could ..." (125). What else could indeed; an untold surplus of "what else" saturates this sordid tale. The town's uncertain "whispering" (125) may be read as a multivalent signal toward the story's manifold unresolved issues, including its overall rhetorical import. Indeterminacy operates throughout by way of a metanarrative that foregrounds this complication. My reading seeks to show in part why Faulkner trades in undecidability, dubious meaning and failed closures.

Faulkner plays with the incalculable and the unimaginable as a rhetorical challenge to readers in this work and others. His odd characters confirm a "human condition in which the uncanny other, as a densely signifying representational figure, always bears the signatures of the narrative's affective ambivalence and epistemological uncertainty" (Zeitlin 624). Emily may be Faulkner's most uncanny and enigmatic figure, her mystery magnified by the story's lack of details about her private world. We trace her struggles with personal grief, a restricted social life, socio-economic decline, and romantic misfortune, a long history of trauma and repression. Faulkner selectively conceals and reveals Emilywith narrative mystifications that range from presumption to denial, thereby deconstructing received modes of interpretation through the sheer effect of negative capability. The tale's impenetrable plot, unique figurations and double-voiced metanarrative "we" (122) subvert any definitive closure on Emily's improbable life.

Emily's eccentric behavior is one of Faulkner's gestures toward the unfathomable. Her intransigence runs from chasing off city officials--"I have no taxes in Jefferson" (121)--to refusing "to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it" (128). The "we" that ironically purports to "know" her only succeeds in making her more remote. She appears visible enough to the townspeople bent on scrutinizing her every move, yet she remains well beyond their comprehension.

This irony is made more evident by Emily's ill-fated dalliance with Homer Barron, harbinger of the tale's deepest conundrum. Homer sweeps into town on a public works project, charming people with his outgoing personality. He hangs out with the locals and romances lonely Emily"on Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy" (124). Their dates cause gossip to erupt everywhere: "At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest" (124). Conversely, the indignant community is scandalized that she would ever "think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer" (124). Here "we" both illustrates and sends up the town's mystified hyper-vigilance, class consciousness, and nosiness. Yet Homer's role in Emily's life warrants questions about who and what he really is and whether his intentions are genuine, since by his own admission, "he was not a marrying man" (126). Hal Blythe advances that Homer may be a homosexual, and has drawn critical rebuttals for his theory. (1) His view fuels further queries about what this untypical love affair may actually involve.

These unresolved matters all turn on Homer's problematical death. If he was murdered, the motive remains and may forever remain unknown. We know very little about Homer beyond some basic physical description and that he is "a foreman" and "a Yankee" (124). The narrator also tells us that he "liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks' Club" (126). Blythe takes this testament as evidence of Homer's homosexuality (49). Homer's sexual preference is not proven, but his stated attitude toward marriage and his courting of Emily appear contradictory. There is an equal chance that Homer is straight and that he and Emily carried on a conventional love affair. The nature of their relationship is further complicated by a Baptist minister sent to interrogate Emily about her relationship with Homer: "He would never divulge what happened during that interview, but he refused to go back again" (126). This is another mystery; the minister may have viewed her as irredeemable, or at least highly disagreeable. We may assume that either he was not well received, or else discovered something very distasteful.

We really don't know much about Emily beyond the narrator's self-assured labels: "dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse" (128). These are superficial impressions drawn from a distance and are not necessarily resonant of Emily's inner life or her real emotional qualities. We must then, like the curious townsfolk, assess her actions and misadventures from an incomplete perspective. No one knows the intimacies of Emily and Homer with any certainty, but select details may expose various reasons for Homer's corpse's winding up on gruesome display in Emily's upstairs bedroom.

The received explanation for this mess is that Emily buys arsenic and poisons Homer on his return, just after the visit from her Alabama cousins. Nothing confirms this, however, since only circumstantial evidence exists: her purchase, Homer's disappearance, and later the macabre discovery of his decayed body in Emily's boudoir. Taken together, these facts may become slippery, perhaps causing readers to draw hasty and unsupported conclusions. There is no real proof that Emily murders Homer, and he could have died of natural causes, perhaps while having sex with her. Even if Homer dies a natural sudden death, Emily keeps the body for whatever twisted reasons; she thus becomes an uncanny felon. Her morbid behavior suggests a profound pathology that naturally raises serious doubts about her sanity; derangement implies another realm of indeterminacy, since mentally ill people are radically unpredictable and are often capable of anything.

The Homer Barton affair, when measured in view of Emily's damaged psyche, calls into question how her trauma may manifest. Emily's liaison with Homer is in many respects remarkable: she makes a leap out of her seclusion and into a new intimate social reality. Readers are left to ponder how this ever came about, given their particular social and cultural differences. Homer appears an experienced man of the world, making his sudden involvement with Emily seem all the more suspicious. He should have spottedEmily as a socially naive woman, especially for her age. Yet this was perhaps a motive for the odd attraction, since she may not have inquired into his obscure background. That these two are together for "the better part of two years" (Scherting 401) raises issues about what kind of an experience this was for them as a couple. We don't know whether or not they were genuinely in love or sexually intimate because we see them only through the narrator's mostly unqualified assertions.

However, they are enough of an item to provoke the fear of scandal. Jefferson's concerned citizens enlist Emily's Alabama cousins to insure that they finish off their dubious "courtship" with a marriage. Scherting suggests that this seals the deal, and that Emilythen murders Homer because he remains uninterested in marriage and both the town and her relatives will no longer tolerate their presumed fornicating (402). Since she can't bear losing him, Emily makes him into a morbid icon of their former romance. She likewise transforms him into a model of her repressive dead father (402).

While this perspective points up the difficulty with assessing Emily's complex and extreme psychic issues, on another interpretative level it places her into the category of untypical characters subjected to "political necrophilia" (Castronovo 4). This phrase implies that an unofficial mandate in American society determines that various deviants can only enter into the "social contract" (7), i.e., be accepted or loved, by submitting to a "social death" (1). Throughout American literature "necro ideology" (12) cancels out certain figures whose cultural, racial, and sexual difference and otherness provokes ideological discomfort in the dominant culture. They must die, either literally or symbolically, so that they might be recuperated as worthy citizens, since they are perceived subversive threats to the body politic:

The laboring body, licentious body, mesmerized body, emancipated

slave body, and corpse all possess (and are possessed by) senses of

historicity that under the right conditions, can add

particularistic and hence disruptive doses of memory and difference

to both the nation-state and public sphere. (17)

All of Castronovo's examples appear in this tale: Homer is the laboring body and the corpse, Emily the licentious body, Tobe the emancipated slave. Arguably, the town is metaphorically "mesmerized" by their mere appearances. Taken together this strange group indeed troubles the "public sphere." Jefferson is able to lavish on Emily the social esteem that mimics love only after they project her licentious body "as if she were dead" (Heller 45). The Homer saga confirms this contradiction: after he supposedly jilts her, "we all said, 'She will kill herself '; and we said it would be the best thing" (126). This notion cannot imply any advantage for the designated victim, since unnatural death is never welcome. Rather, this perverse idea envisions a collective benefit for its necro-logical prescribers: Emily's anticipated suicide crystallizes their ultimate fantasy of a Southern woman who prefers death to dishonor.

The town's ability to respect her, albeit from a detached, duplicitous, and reductive smugness, depends on her conjuring for Jefferson the "conviction that death redeems a sexually dishonored woman" (Castronovo 30). This morbid, sanctimonious regard for Emily as the perfect suicide exposes the collective fear of her defiling Jefferson as a "fallen woman," wronged by a Yankee. Her discomforting presence signals that the world she represents for them is now morally compromised. She typifies Faulkner's treatment of female pariahs: "his fictional women, because they never quite fit the stereotype, interrogate, disrupt and even begin to dismantle the male revisionist myth of Southern womanhood" (Robertson 161). Emily's "myth" does not enliven Jefferson; instead, it discloses an impoverished fantasy of a lost "noblesse oblige" (124).

While Faulkner's damning of the town's hypocrisy is not in question, Emily's quirks, predicaments, and the story's utter lack of detail about Homer's death invoke detective fictions that feature maddening gaps between evidence and proof. We have a body, and a possible perpetrator, but it remains to be seen where the means, motive, and opportunity likely fall. Emily is a prime suspect, not only for murder, but possibly for necrophilia, which the story's final scene descriptively implies: the indented pillow, the body's "attitude of an embrace" and the single "strand of iron-gray hair" (130) seem to provide evidence of Emily's intimate proximity to the body.

This Southern Gothic story leads us into a disturbing and confusing realm of psychic distortion that issues a tantalizing challenge: we must accept that some secrets may never be fully disclosed. Yet "A Rosefor Emily" calls us repeatedly to its mysteries, ironically convincing us that some textual evidence may emerge that will offer a clearer perspective on these aberrant and insoluble events. One might wonder whether this lure is not the result of a well-laid rhetorical trap: we go searching for what Faulkner already shows us we will never find. Nevertheless we go, since negative capability begs for its complement: signification. Indeterminacy conjures scenario, constructed as speculative explication.



Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)

Argiro, Thomas Robert. "Miss Emily after dark." The Mississippi Quarterly 64.3-4 (2011): 445+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 Apr. 2013


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