Untoward Stories: A Rose For Emily / William Faulkner

Gothic.

The word conjures up images of dimly lit dungeons, pasty emaciated butlers and ramshackle mansions. My Merriam-Webster pretty much covers it: a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious or violent incidences. Okay. Like most other fiction genres, Gothic has its good stuff and its maybe not so good stuff and much in between.

For the best Gothic language setting the best Gothic mood, look no further than Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, where the beautifully crafted opening passages reflect the somber character of the tale and the dark mood that wraps the Usher family in gloom. The great success of modern Gothic, from Stephen King to the Twilight Series, attests to the wide spread popularity and flexibility of the genre. Browse any collection of enduring short stories and you’re bound to find Gothic. Poe’s mastery of the genre is reflected by the fact that his work has become an important part of our literature. Shirley Jackson’s oft-reprinted ‘The Lottery’ is carried by the macabre spirit of gothic, along with Richard Connell’s ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, John Cheever’s creepy ‘Torch Song’ and Faulkner’s classic ‘A Rose for Emily’.

William Faulkner is often identified as a Southern Writer, and rightfully so. Much of his writing, from award winning novels like ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and `As I Lay Dying’, to his complex and beautifully crafted short stories, deals with the south, but Faulkner isn’t defined by that. His writing explores a wide spectrum of universal themes and a number of distinct styles, including gothic. Faulkner understood writing conventions and traditions and wasn’t afraid to stretch them when it suited his purposes.

Exploration of his masterful short stories might well begin with ‘The Bear’, a piece whose first sections render in graphic detail a young man’s experiences on a bear hunt in the deep woods, with the chaotic barking of the hounds, the cursing of the hunters and the frenetic, gritty pace of the hunt. The last section launches a complex genealogy delving into the history of the people. One could argue that ‘The Bear’ exemplifies Faulkner’s vision, in the sense that a carefully worked out story going well beyond the normal confines of a ‘yarn about a bear hunt’ goes into an `untoward zone’ of complex historical familial connections. Not afraid to work these complicating perspectives into his tales, Faulkner can revel in a fun story as in his light-hearted last novel, ‘The Reivers’, for the sheer joy of telling it. The Reivers was made into a film starring Steve McQueen, much of it set in a brothel. `Turn About’, a wry and brilliantly executed anti-war short story, deals not with the south at all but with British Commandos and US airmen interacting during the dark days of WW II. After the war, Faulkner went to Hollywood and contributed to screenplays such as the classic Bogart film, ‘The Big Sleep’.

Faulkner’s writing has been scrutinized, idolized and sometimes misinterpreted (by his own account). One could spend a lifetime studying his work and more than a few scholars have. In a series of lectures at the University of Virginia, he revealed some interesting insights, like the fact that the title of his novel ‘Light in August’ referred to the particular quality of the light in August in Mississippi and not to various other interpretations critics and scholars had offered since its publication (including the status of a pregnancy).

The trail of foreshadowing bread crumbs that leads us to the chillingly unspeakable revelations at the end of ‘A Rose for Emily’ is made of arsenic (‘for rats’), a stench of death about the Grierson place, sprinklings of lime in the middle of the night and the sudden disappearance of the manservant, who, after Miss Emily’s death, “. . . walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again.” Faulkner found dark elements in the post Civil War southern mythos; a clinging by some to the dead ideals of the past and to the corrupt institutions that’d led to a rotting from within.

Faulkner depicts the particular psychological stresses associated with the decline of the South from its romantically glorious past. On this theme probably no other story equals the profound analytical and moving horror of `A Rose for Emily’.” (Douglas Angus / Best Short Stories of the Modern Age)

The narrative voice is an intriguing one. A citizen of Jefferson, no doubt, but with no name, no station in life except that of an astute observer and unofficial historian, the mysterious narrator is there at the end when a group of town citizens enters Miss Emily’s house and breaks open the ‘one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years.’ What they find adds the last horrifying touches to the unspeakable. No further explanations or judgments are necessary. None are given. In the parlance of contemporary wisdom, what they find there in the room simply is what it is (and says what it says), and there’s nothing left to do but shudder.