The Coveted Monument

by Hans van Stralen

June 8, 2013


Since 1930, the year in which William Faulkner published A Rose for Emily, numerous critics have interpreted this intriguing story. Initially the focus was on the big question whether Emily went to bed with her dead lover Homer Barron. However, since the sixties a new approach to Faulkner’s story appears and so-called resistant reading is perceptible in a more pointed way in interpretations. In this connection I would like to refer to the fascinating study by Judith Fetterley, who asserts that Emily takes revenge on a society which forces her to behave like a ‘lady’. In my essay I would like to make a connection with this reading strategy from a psycho-analytical perspective. The central theme I want to focus on is the attitude of the male villagers towards Emily, in which the implicit desire to achieve sexual contact with this ‘lady’ becomes manifest.


The Coveted Monument,

A Psychoanalytical Interpretation of Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily


Since 1930, the year in which William Faulkner (1897-1962) published A Rose for Emily, numerous critics have interpreted this intriguing story.[1] Initially the focus was on the big question whether Emily Grierson went to bed with her dead lover Homer Barron. However, since the sixties a new approach to Faulkner’s story has emerged and interpretations have centered more on so-called resistant reading. I would like to refer here to the fascinating study by Judith Fetterley, who asserts that Emily takes revenge on a society, which forces her to behave like a ‘lady’ (Fetterley 1978:35). In my essay I would like to elaborate on this reading strategy from a psychoanalytical perspective. In the traditional essays on A Rose for Emily, the narratological and psychological accent turns to Emily’s relationship with Homer, and to the dark motives for the murder. My approach, however, will concentrate on a remarkably underexposed theme, which I will distill from the narrative structures of Faulkner's story, viz. the attitude of the male villagers towards Emily, in which the implicit desire to have sexual relations with this 'lady' becomes manifest.

A Rose for Emily is the written account of an anonymous villager from the South of the United States on the vicissitudes of a certain Mrs. Grierson. This Emily lives rather isolated in the village of Jefferson and has hardly any regular contact with others except for her black servant Tobe. She refuses to pay taxes and attracts gossip due to the fact that her house exudes a terrible stench, the cause of which cannot be found. At the end of the story, however, it turns out that she has poisoned her lover Homer Barron, who had moved in with her temporarily. The village was under the impression that this contractor had disappeared, but after Emily’s death Barron’s dead body was discovered in a locked-up room in her house.

Thus the story presents itself as an inclusion, for at the beginning and at the end the – chronological – story line is framed by Emily’s funeral. Furthermore we may draw the narratological conclusion that there is a great discrepancy between the narrated time and the narrative time in A Rose for Emily. Emily, who is 74 years old when she dies in 1924, is described from her life as a young woman after her father’s death. The focus of the narrator, who emphasizes his role as a group witness – time and again he speaks not of ‘I’, but of ‘we’ – reinforces the impression that he wants to provide a sort of chronicle. The text strongly suggests that we are dealing with a male narrator (cf. also Andringa and Davis 1994:250).

The psychoanalytical approach to literary texts, which I have referred to earlier, has its limits of course: after all, Freud consequently saw the literary text as though it were a dream. This focus does not justice to the given that the text, in contrast to the orally formulated dream, has detached itself from the ‘sender’, i.e. the author, and that the latter can, in the course of time, no longer comment on his product. Furthermore, there is the evident reproach to Freud of reduction: A Rose for Emily is not exclusively a story hidden in erotic symbols. Nevertheless a Freudian interpretation can show up an extra dimension in Faulkner’s dark but also intriguing story.

In my opinion, Mary Ann Tolbert, in her analysis of the parable of the prodigal son, has made an important contribution to the Freudian model. She managed to expand the motives, strictly reduced to sexuality, of his doctrine. In Luke 15:11-32, in which, as is well-known, a son claims the inheritance of his father, departs and returns after some time completely impoverished, this theologian poses a narratological analogon on the basis of Freud’s tripartition between the Es, Ich and Überich.[2] There the son is said to stand for the subconscious drive and the elder son for the interiorized social morals.[3] The father, finally, is said by Tolbert to stand for the ‘Ich’, which, just as in Freud’s doctrine, manages only with the greatest effort to balance the forces of the Id and the Superego (Tolbert 1970:102-107). Most interesting in Tolbert’s approach is that the parable reflects the human psyche, in other words on a narrative, i.e. on an actantial level.

From Tolbert’s analysis, we can ascertain that the village/the we-narrator in A Rose for Emily, stands for morals and that the taciturn manservant, a combined gardener and cook, as I indicated above, can be identified with the Id. The black male servant symbolizes the unconscious, as he appears to ‘know’ everything, but does not speak out and quietly departs at the end of Faulkner’s story. Preluding my specific interpretation of A Rose for Emily, we may say that in Jefferson, there are people who talk and people who keep silent, more precisely: by means of the we-narrator, the white majority represents the black minority. The black actors in the text have no say and are brought to life only in the narrator’s rendition. Between these two atmospheres Emily’s ego is practically literally trapped and caged in her house.

Resistant reading attempts to map the grand narrative – in the meaning given to it by Lyotard – and to show up its fragility by revealing how much the text attempts to protect, in a rhetorical way, usually by posing dubitable oppositions and partial representations, this narrative, mostly in vain. It may be asserted that in this strategy, the text is as it were pitted against itself. For this reason I am not trying to answer the repeatedly posed question about Emily’s relationship to (the deceased) Barron, but to follow the attitude of the village, as shown especially in the chronicle of the we-narrator. Finally, I would like to suggest, from a Freudian perspective, a desire which the text exudes in spite of itself, namely the intriguing role played by the villagers vis-a-vis Emily’s house.

Following Fetterley, we may describe the grand narrative, which is supported in A Rose for Emily as follows: ‘the (white) woman/Emily must behave like a lady’.[4] I already mentioned that the anonymous narrator, in his rendition, does everything possible to protect this view: Emily as unconventional woman, but also the black servant who is supposed to know lady Grierson well due to his direct relationship with her, count as outsiders in his ideology and are literally given no voice. They appear in word and gesture practically exclusively within the narrator’s biased exposé, i.c. as deviant fellow-villagers. Emily cannot or will not comply with the role enforced upon her: people may approach her as a ‘lady’, but when, in rare moment, she talks in direct speech, a rather snappish and distrustful woman emerges.[5] By this means the narrator suggests that women who do not wish to behave like a lady are unsympathetic. Furthermore, in a rhetorical manner he continually poses the villagers/we/morals in opposition to Emily’s liberal behavior, the younger generation in opposition to that of the old lady Grierson and the handsome and well-off people as opposed to the elderly, ugly and tubby Emily. Already at the beginning of Faulkner’s story the women are juxtaposed with the men when the narrator states that they attended the funeral out of curiosity and deference respectively. Also in the contrast between curiosity and respect, the women are positioned on the negative pole of this opposition. Due to the oppositional representations mentioned above, the reader tends to develop understanding for Emily’s singular behavior – she is rhetorically sidelined time and again – and in that sense Faulkner expressed, by means of the distorted focalizations of the narrator, indirect criticism of the grand narrative of this village ideology.

Not only with regard to women but also regarding outsiders and blacks, the narrator poses oppositions, through which he more or less betrays himself and under the surface of chronicle a different ‘text’ appears.[6] Then we may think of the opposition North-South, or in the words of the narrator: the villagers and the ‘Yankees’. His focalization becomes most manifest in the scene in which Homer Barron arrives in the village: “The construction company came with niggers and mules and machinery” (Faulkner 1954:493). In this quote, blacks are put on a par with mules and machinery and in fact he continually expresses himself in this type of not really value-free designations. By the way, Judge Stevens, too, uses the term ‘nigger’ to indicate Emily’s servant (Faulkner 1954:491).

Now I would like to work out the problem of the ambiguous role, which Emily as a ‘lady’ within the morals of the village, should play by means of Freudian ideas. Thereby we must consider that we have to do with an independent text, which generates more than just erotic symbols. In my opinion we should focus on the disproportionate interest of her fellow-villagers in the house of Mrs. Grierson. Considering that, with the psychoanalytical approach to artworks, the house counts as a symbol for the body, we find here a primary handhold for further interpretation. In his Vorlesungen Freud writes: ”Die einzig typische, d.h. regelmäßige Darstellung der menschlichen Person als Ganzes ist die als Haus […]“ (Freud 1980:123). And: ”Der menschliche Leib […] findet nach Scherner im Traum häufig eine Darstellung durch das Symbol des Hauses“ (Freud 1980:128). In his Traumdeutung the Viennese psychiatrist speaks even more explicitly about the symbol of the room, which was supposed to stand for the vagina and about the important aspect whether this space is closed or not (Freud 1984:293-294).

After her father’s death, Emily lives alone and is ‘protected’ only by the black manservant. Thereby the narrator states explicitly that “the house was all that was left to her” (Faulkner 1954:492). Already at the beginning of A Rose for Emily this house is extensively described:


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. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps – an eyesore among eyesores (Faulkner 1954:489).


We may state that here is talk of “scrolled balconies”, in Freud’s doctrine the symbol for female breasts. Besides, the designation “stubborn” is of course striking: evidently Emily’s ‘body’ is experienced as resistant and we read an opposition between the decay of her house and “our most select street”. Remarkably often the outside world tries to penetrate the house/body of Emily. About this, Watkins remarks justifiably: “The contrast between Emily and the townspeople and between her home and its surroundings is carried out by the invasions of her home by the adherents of the new order in the town” (Watkins in Inge 1970:46). Firstly there is an unwelcome visit for Emily of a deputation, which reminds her of tax obligations. Her isolation becomes apparent from the fact that her house has not been entered since the cessation of her painting classes for students eight or ten years ago (Faulkner 1954:490). After that, four villagers enter Emily’s house at night in secret to dispel the evil stench (of the deceased Homer Barron) there. It is remarkable that this foursome is described as “burglars”, who break into the cellar of Emily’s house to sprinkle lime there, an obvious symbol for an ejaculation (Faulkner 1954:492). Next, two nieces of Mrs. Grierson’s are written to, who should convince Emily that living together with a man counts as dishonorable in the village conventions. They stay in Emily’s house for a week, but they probably managed to change few of her views. When a new generation comes into being in Jefferson, Emily closes her front door for good and refuses to have a mailbox put up. From Freud’s view, it is naturally easy to pose a relationship with the vagina, which closes itself to penetration. Shortly thereafter she closes the entire top floor of her house. At the end the villagers enter Mrs. Grierson’s house after her death and break open the secret room – in Freud’s view: the vagina. Within the psychoanalytical approach it is difficult to interpret this action as different from a kind of satisfaction of necrophile feelings on the part of the villagers, a posthumous rape. In that sense the disclosure at the end of A Rose for Emily – perhaps Emily slept next to Homer’s corpse right up to her own death – is an analogon of the suppressed urge which the masculine outside world fostered with regard to its eccentric fellow-villager: using force on her and sleeping with her. It is remarkable that people knew that this space had been closed off for forty years (Faulkner 1954:498).

Thus, in A Rose for Emily, the elevated view that the village fosters with regard to white women is undermined by urges, which are opposed to this and which lie buried under the surface of the village representation. Magalamer and Volpe write justifiably: […] “Emily Grierson’s necrophilia, suggests the necrophilia of an entire society that lived with a dead but unburied past” (Magalamer and Volpe in Inge 1970:63).[7] The fact that Emily has not actually been sexually approached, very probably has to do with the status, which her father had in the village. In this light it becomes clear why Emily counted as a “fallen monument” from the past in Jefferson (Faulkner 1954:489).


Hans van Stralen


Translated from the Dutch by A.M. Iken



Andringa, Els and Davis, Sara                                  ‘Narrative Structure and Mental Representation or How to Deal with A Rose for Emily ?’ In: Naturalistic Text Comprehension. Eds. H. Oostendorp and R. Zwaan. Norwood, New York. Ablex. 1994:247-268.

Faulkner, William                                                       A Rose for Emily. In: The Faulkner Reader. Random House. New York. 1954.

Fetterley, Judith                                                           The Resistant Reader. Indiana University Press. Bloomington. 1978.

Freud, Sigmund                                                           Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse. Frankfurt am Main. Fischer Verlag. 1980.

Freud, Sigmund                                                           Die Traumdeutung. Frankfurt am Main. Fischer Verlag. 1984.

Inge, M. Thomas [ed.]                                                William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily. Ohio. Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company. 1970.

Tolbert, Mary Ann                                                      Perspectives on the Parables: an Approach to Multiple Interpretations. Philadelphia. Fortress Press. 1979.


[1] According to Inge this text is Faulkner’s most frequently read story (Inge in Inge 1970:1).

[2] Nowhere in the Gospel according to St. Luke is there any talk of regret on the part of the prodigal son, or rather: the son claims that he will say that he is sorry, in all probability to make his return acceptable to those who remained behind.

[3] It is typical that the eldest son who, by the way, is depicted as a negative moralist in practically all literary handling of St. Luke’s parable, emphasizes that his brother was said to have led a riotous life, which is nowhere to be found in Luke 15:11-32. Very probably he poses an idea that he himself (has) consistently suppressed.

[4] When the villagers presuppose pangs of love in Emily as a result of the alleged departure of her lover Barron, we read the following: “But there were still others, older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige – without calling it noblesse oblige” (Faulkner 1954:493). When Emily’s house exudes a disagreeable smell, which in hindsight turns out to be caused by the corpse of the murdered Homer Barron, the village is at a complete loss because people feel that you cannot say such a thing to a lady (Faulkner 1954:491).

[5] In my view, however, not only Emily but also the housekeepers are victims of this patriarchal village coercion: after all, they are not allowed to leave the house without wearing an apron. Indeed: not even men escape the standards prevailing in the village when it is presumed that they cannot keep a house clean (Faulkner 1954:489, 491).

[6] Correctly, Andringa and Davis assert that this narrator does not comment, but from his manner of reporting a certain view is definitely put forward (Andringa and Davis 1994:250-251).

[7] However, Howell’s essay demonstrated that question marks may be put in a somewhat too fixed assumption of the behavior described in Emily. In the first place it turns out that the door needs to be opened by force, in the second place there is a layer of dust in this room and thirdly the narrator speaks of a long grey hair of Emily’s which is lying on her bed, while she wore her hair cut short after the death of her father (Howell in Inge 1970:59).


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Hans van Stralen "The Coveted Monument". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available June 8, 2013 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: February 20, 2013, Published: June 8, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Hans van Stralen