William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” has always intrigued me. When completing course work for my certification in secondary education, this somewhat dark tale of a Southern belle was part of the syllabus for a course on the short story as a type of fiction. Of the thirty short stories covered in that course, “A Rose for Emily” was one of my favorites. Being a Southern belle myself, Faulkner’s description of the town, the townspeople, and the title character were all very familiar to me. The very last lines of the story paint a haunting picture: “Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.”
Given the setting of this story, this passage brought to mind the term “steel magnolia”, which entered into the vernacular with the release of Steel Magnolias, the film adaptation of Robert Harling’s critically acclaimed play of the same title written in tribute to his younger sister, a typical Southern girl with a soft and feminine exterior masking an inner character tough as steel.
The images of the “steel magnolia” are readily available in pop culture: Scarlett O’Hara, Margaret Mitchell’s one and only protagonist, standing atop the stairway of Tara, wearing a ball gown fashioned from the velvet curtains of her decaying mansion; Julia Sugarbaker of television’s Designing Women, known for righting injustices with her bombastic monologues while wearing feminine and luxurious designer clothing; and Dolly Parton, reigning queen of country music, having overcome a childhood of staggering poverty to rule over her own massive entertainment empire, resplendent in full make-up, blonde wig and four inch stilettos.
William Faulkner provides for consideration yet another example of a steel magnolia in that of Emily Grierson, while also providing a peek into the well-established patriarchal society of the time, which while suppressing its women in many ways, also bestowed upon them certain powers that even the patriarchs could not touch.
When did Emily’s power take shape and where did it come from? For this you must look to her father, who in his prime, raising his only child on his own, had vanquished all potential suitors as “none of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such”. In a 1959 interview with two University of Virginia students, Faulkner shares personal thoughts on the writing of “A Rose for Emily”. He says that Emily was “brow-beaten and kept down by her father, a selfish man who didn’t want her to leave home because he wanted a housekeeper”.
Emily, however, was too powerful to be cast in the role of “housekeeper”, she instead became the “lady of the house”; she and her father together presided over the “big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies . . . set on what had once been our most select street”. Her rise to the position of lady of the house was complete when the townspeople began to consider them “as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground . . . the two of them framed by the backflung front door”. At the death of her father, Emily inherits the estate, which is nothing but the house, and despite being “left alone, and a pauper”, she remains lady of the house, alone, with no man at her side, save the “Negro servant Tobe”. One must imagine the whispers and snide remarks of the townspeople over coffee or in the post office, the indignity of it all, a woman living alone with no man to lead and guide her.
And, so, Emily, beyond the age of respectable marriage, became “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town”. With her pride fully intact, however, Emily would not have accepted charity, and indeed turned away all those who came calling, except for the then-mayor of the town, who craftily came up with a reason to exempt the family home from taxes: Miss Emily’s father had “loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying”. Here the patriarch of the town himself, the mayor, bestows yet another level of power upon Miss Emily, power over the government itself. Faulkner elaborates on the very crux of the patriarchal society with the statement, “Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it”. When a new generation of young men comes to power, and attempts to reinstate property taxes upon Miss Emily, she continues to wield her power over them as well, by simply refusing to pay. Her power extends to even the postal authorities who wish to “fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it” for the free delivery of the mail. She alone refuses, she is above the law; she will not be forced into modernity against her will.
Time marches on. When the town finalizes contracts for paving new sidewalks, Faulkner raises the possibility of a knight in shining armor on a white horse riding into town to save Miss Emily from her status as old maid and pauper, a rescue badly needed in this patriarchal tale. The knight, Homer Barron, bears the armor of a construction crew chief, driving on Sunday afternoons with Miss Emily in her father’s buggy with a matched team of bays. The un-chaperoned courting of Miss Emily and Homer Barron leads to more gossip and scandal, as Miss Emily continues to exert her power, eschewing the relatives from Alabama who have been called by the ladies of the town to intervene. It appears Miss Emily’s power extends to God Himself, when even the Baptist minister is sent away, never divulging “what happened during that interview” but refusing to go back again.
When the courtship of Homer Barron does not evolve the way Miss Emily desires, she refuses to accept defeat, and makes the rare trip into town to personally shop, demanding poison from the druggist with her terse statement “I want arsenic”. Rising above the law once again, Emily refuses to give the reason for the purchase of the poison, and the druggist, who withers from her stare, sends the Negro delivery boy out with the package marked simply, under the skull and bones, “for rats”. One must wonder if Faulkner meant this as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor of Homer Barron, the “rat” who comes into town, has his fun at the expense of Miss Emily’s reputation, and then, when he has finished his work there, intends to return to his life (and possibly, wife?) up North.
But, no, Miss Emily’s power does not end with power over her own household or power over the male-dominated society or power over the government. No, Miss Emily’s power extends indeed over the life of another. When she cannot use her feminine wiles to marry her knight, she alone denies him departure from her life. She uses her illegally obtained arsenic to prevent Homer from “leaving” her. While she could not have him in life, she would have him in death, laid out in the bridal chamber she has created, complete with “a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H.B. on each piece”, only discovered after her own death.
Surely Miss Emily’s power cannot extend beyond the grave? Controlling her household until the very end, until after she was “decently in the ground”, the townspeople had to break down the door to the bridal chamber. Here, finally, the true power of Miss Emily Grierson was brought to light. A frail, beautiful Southern rose had controlled her own destiny, from the death of her father until her very own death forty years later. She, who had once been described as “a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows—sort of tragic and serene”, had wielded power over society, government, the church, and over the life of another. She brought death to another, something meant for only brave soldiers on the battlefields. Very much the daughter of her father, she had inherited that “quality of her father which had thwarted her woman’s life so many times which had been too virulent and too furious to die”, a steel magnolia, to the very end, leaving behind just “a long strand of iron-gray hair” as her final display of power.