Mental Illness in a Rose for Emily
Why would anyone want to sleep with a dead person? Author William Faulkner, explores themes of mental illness and gender roles in his gothic short story “A Rose for Emily.” The character Emily is the major protagonist in which the story evolves. The story, written with no definitive narrator, was published in 1930. The plot chronicles the life of Miss Emily Gierson in the invented town of Jefferson, Mississippi. This dark period piece illustrates the physical and psychological consequences of the forced submission of Emily.
Emily is an emotionally static person throughout the tale. She is an only child being raised by a sole parent, her domineering father. Emily was raised on an affluent estate “It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street.” (Faulkner 461) Know as “the high and mighty Griersons” (Faulkner 463) Emily’s life of privilege caused isolation both physically and emotionally. The town “believed that the Griersons held themselves a little to high for what they really were.” (Faulkner 464) Following her father’s death the ladies of the town prepared to pay their respects. Upon arrival at the home “Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead.” (Faulkner 464) Emily’s denial of her father’s passing was a result of trauma. In the Psychology Today article Escape from an Emotionally and Verbally Abusive Father “During a traumatic event, the nervous system goes into survival mode and sometimes gets stuck in this function. If the nervous system stays in survival mode, stress hormones, such as cortisol, are constantly released, causing an increase in blood pressure and blood sugar, which can in turn reduce immune system and healing functions and also make it difficult to handle any other stressful situation. As a result, when the body is in constant distress, physical and psychological symptoms start to manifest. (Babbel)
Because of her submissive upbringing change was difficult for Emily. She had been conditioned to follow the sexist societal norms set by her father. A single woman, at first because of her father’s selfishness for a housekeeper and then by choice, she remained single until her death. Mayor Sartoris excluded Emily from paying taxes following the death of her father. Ten years following the Mayor’s death she refused to pay taxes stating “I have no taxes in Jefferson.” (Faulkner 462) even though the current members of the Board of Aldermen argued there was no written record of that agreement. Emily’s appearance dramatically changed throughout the years in correlation with her metal stability. As a young woman protected by her father she was described as a “…slender figure in white…” (Faulkner 464) and when she was accosted by the Board of Aldermen she was described as being “…a small, fat woman in black…” (Faulkner 462) and prior to her death at seventy-four “…she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning.” (Faulkner 467)
Emily’s insulated upbringing compounded by the traumas of her father’s death and the confrontation with the male governmental leaders lead her to remain even more dogmatic. Mental illness can be heredity. Emily’s great aunt Wyatt “had gone completely crazy.” (Faulkner 463) Town gossip eventually linked Emily with Homer Barron, a northern Yankee. Because of the psychological alliances with her overbearing father and the societal norms for southern women and the physical constraints of remaining in the family homestead Emily was bound by perceived loyalty. And her relationship with Homer could only serve one purpose; to benefit Emily, a manipulative murderer suffering from a mental illness brought on possibly by heredity and fueled by a cycle of abuse by her father and complacency by the town’s people. Emily was not permitted to be sexually attracted to Homer. He was beneath her stature. She needed a male replacement to care for and for perceived protection. Because Homer was not her equal it was permissible for Emily to kill him to assure that he would never leave. Her complacency, both physical and emotional, permitted the victim to become the predator.