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A Rose for Emily: The Social Construction of Psychosis

“A Rose for Emily” is a short story written by William Faulkner, an American novelist and poet from the state of Mississippi (lauded as the inventor of the so-called “stream of consciousness technique in fiction – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949). This is a recount of the story of an eccentric, Emily Grierson. According to some people in the town, Emily was controlled and manipulated by her father. She considered his father a special person as noted in her father’s funeral, where for three days, she had been telling the townspeople that her father was alive.

Her lover, Homer Barron (a Northerner) threatened to leave her for another man (a case of homosexuality). After the incident, the townspeople believed that the Yankee road worker returned to the north. During the incident, Emily Grierson was seen buying arsenic from a local drugstore; hence the townspeople assumed that she will commit suicide. Thus, the townspeople continued to gossip about the Emily’s family history of mental illness. From that time, she was rarely seen by the townspeople. She seldom left her home. The townspeople also noted the significant changes both in the body and character of Emily.

He became fat and somewhat older (hair turning gray). During her “seclusion” from her society, she began giving lessons in china-painting. She also designed a studio where the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris (whom she greatly admired) went with regularly. After 40 years, she died. An old Negro forced to open the door of a room (where no one was able to see for many decades) in Emily’s house. To the surprise of everyone, Homer’s corpse was lying on the bed embraced in a curl of love (a long strand of Emily’s hair was found in the second pillow of the bed).

The psychosis of Emily Grierson generally was strengthened by the social conditions directed to her (by the townspeople). The first “social condition” that led her to become a psychotic was the sheriff’s tax notification. The former mayor, Colonel Sartoris assured her that, in return for the money loaned by his father to the town, she would be exempted from paying taxes. This arrangement was changed by the new authorities of the town. In one scene, Emily said, “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to me.

Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and testify yourselves” (Faulkner I). Without due consideration to the arrangement made by the former mayor (who was dead already) and Emily, the authorities were determined to implement the tax notice given to her. This instance was proved when one of the authorities said, “But we have. We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn’t you get a notice from the sheriff, signed by him? ” (Faulkner I). This infuriated Emily. She argued that although she received the tax notice, it could not be considered a valid one.

At this point, Emily somehow lost her psychological stability. She said, “See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson” (Faulkner I). Note here that Colonel Sartoris died almost ten years ago. The next “social condition” that strengthened her state of psychosis was the general reaction of the townspeople towards Emily during her father’s funeral. The pity shown by the people forced her to become strong (in the face of a general calamity); even if the townspeople viewed this as a sign of mental breakdown. To prove this point, let us analyze the events in the funeral of Emily’s father.

In the first part of the scene, the townspeople showed pity for Emily because the death of her father would palatably result in the transfer of properties to Emily. Her inheritance would serve as a means of livelihood during her lifetime. This quote serves the point: “At last they could pity Miss Emily. Being left alone, and a pauper, she had become humanized. Now she too would know the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more or less” (Faulkner II) She knew the reactions of the people towards her father’s death, so she pretended (it may be actual based on the mental history of her family) to be strong.

This can be proven by this quote: “The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid … Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days … (italics mine)” (Faulkner II). When the authorities were about to use force, she broke down. This breaking down can be interpreted as a sign of mental breakdown. The grief she accumulated in herself was released when the authorities were about to dispose the body of his father.

The townspeople did not realize the value Emily attached to her father. In fact, the townspeople loathed the behavior Emily showed during her father’s funeral. At last, Emily found a lover, Homer Barron (a Yankee road worker – a Northerner). When Homer Barron threatened to leave her, Emily “carried her head high enough – even we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity … as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness (italics mine” (Faulkner III).

Thus, she bought of some rat poison (arsenic) which many people interpreted as an impulse to commit suicide. This third condition is the greatest contributor in strengthening Emily’s “silent psychosis” (covert/uninitiated sickness). The townspeople thought that Emily returned to her normal life, although this time, it was filled with grief. She had grown fat and her hair turned into gray, indicators that she was living in a world of grief (she refused to accommodate her kinsmen from Alabama). When she died, the townspeople offered flowers and a crayon face of Emily’s father in her funeral.

The next day, they found the corpse of Homer Barron in one of the secluded rooms of Emily’s house lying on a bed. It was noted that a strand of gray hair was beside the corpse; an indication that for forty-years Emily slept with the corpse, treating it as her personal love (a love undeterred even by death). This was implied in a quote: “the body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him” (Faulkner IV). Alas, the corpse proved that Emily’s mental condition worsened.

Only after 40 years, the townspeople found out that Emily pretended to be strong. They were not able to realize that their actions contributed to the worsening of Emily’s mental condition (traceable in her family history). The shallow understanding of the townspeople to Emily’s personal feelings and their grim show of pity contributed to this worsening. The roses offered during her funeral personalizes their skin-deep understanding of her conditions; the touch.

Work Cited

Faulkner, William. (1930). A Rose for Emily. 22 October 2007 from http:// http://www. ariyam. com/docs/lit/wf_rose. html.

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