William Faulkner: “A Rose for Emily” (1930) Okay, Faulkner, you got me. There I was, reading your short story, thinking that we had a nice, southern, lightly Gothic character study on our hands. Then, on the last page, you pulled a fast one and not only surprised me with your ending, but thoroughly creeped me out. In a good way. In fact, the last image in this story is the creepiest I’ve read over the course of this project—and this is not a horror story!
Faulkner is a master of haunting, slightly surreal, loaded images. Of his work I’ve only read As I Lay Dying, and I loved it. The images in that novel (the old woman hearing her own coffin being made by her son beneath her window, then the family carrying the coffin on a shaky carriage across a river) haunt better than any ghost, so I was hoping for more of the same. Faulkner is often called a “Southern Gothic” writer, which implies not only a setting in the Deep South, but also an element of darkness, perhaps even of the grotesque. On my playlist, Southern writers, like Faulkner and Eudora Welty (both from Mississippi) and Flannery O’Connor (from Georgia), are well-represented and have major reputations as short fiction authors. So, obviously, the southern setting of “A Rose for Emily” did not surprise me, nor did the first 90 percent of the story.
It begins with the story of a wealthy single woman, Emily, who is an odd recluse, much-discussed but little-seen, living alone in a grand home, never socializing. Her only companion is an old black servant. Emily refuses to be given a street address when post is first introduced to the town, and refuses to pay taxes; a previous mayor officially relieved her of her tax obligations, but newer administrations wish to enforce them. Those who pass her house glimpse her occasionally on the ground floor, and she seems to have boarded up the top floor, but little else can be said for certain.
The narrator is a member of the administration of the town, one of many curious who come snooping when Emily finally passes away. The old black servant, now very old, silently lets in the funeral-goers and then disappears. The narrator and other administrators explore the stuffy, moldy, grand old house and find a single upstairs room locked. Forcing the door, they find inside a bedroom that looks as though inhabited by a gentleman, with discarded clothing, a hairbrush, cufflinks laid out to be put on, but all corroded by time and covered in a film of dust. And, on the bed, there is something sinister, beautiful, moving, and haunting . . .
I’ve noticed, over the course of this project of mine, that the majority of the stories I’ve included feature a) creeping dread, b) eerie atmosphere (which often accompanies creeping dread, but not always), and c) a “flip,” “kicker,” or “twist” in the last line that turns the story you’ve just read on its head. Now, I know that I tend to prefer that kind of story, as, like a lot of people, I enjoy the fascination of scary fiction. But I also know that the stories I’ve chosen were culled from a variety of lists, syllabi, recommendations of fellow writers, and anthologies of the greatest works of short fiction ever written. I had only read about a third of the selected stories prior to this project, and I read no summaries of the stories before adding them to the list. While this is hardly a scientific study, there seems to me to be a very large percentage of stories with those three aforementioned components—all of which I tend to associate with “thrillers,” and not with literary works in general. It surprises me that these features should appear so often in landmark short fiction. Or is that why these stories make the lists in the first place?
Though I chose Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” as a “classic” and because I loved As I Lay Dying and wanted to try out his short fiction, I knew nothing about the story and, to be honest, I was less than enthused by the title. That probably sounds silly, but one can be put off by a title just as easily as urged forward. I expected a character study about some kind of genteel Southern belle with a touch of the gossipy aspects of Southern Gothic, and dressed up in Faulkner’s fancy writing. That’s just what it seemed I got, until I reached the last page and, bam, I got the chills. Hats off to Faulkner for surprising me like that, and injecting me with a syringeful of the creeps: in short, doing everything I love a story to do, but which I was not expecting from this particular story.