The Changing Verbal Portraits of Emily in A Rose for Emily
"A Rose for Emily," by Faulkner, provides not only innumerable details but also a complex structure. Long after the reader has learned to identify and discuss the function of significant detail, they often continue to struggle with the influence of structure on a story. The imagery of changing portraits in "A Rose for Emily" allows the reader to explore both to find meaning. In addition to the literal portrait of Emily's father, Faulkner creates numerous figurative portraits of Emily herself by framing her in doorways or windows. The chronological organization of Emily's portraits visually imprints the changes occurring throughout her life. Like an impressionist painting that changes as the viewer moves to different positions, however, the structural organization provides clues to the "whole picture" or to the motivations behind her transformations.
Chronologically, the "back-flung" front door creates the first tableau of a youthful Miss Emily, assiduously guarded by her father. Miss Emily, a "slender figure in white,"1 typifies the vulnerable virgin, hovering in the background, subordinate and passive. The father, "a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip" (CS 123), is a menacing dark image assuming the dominant front position. His turned back suggests a disregard for her emotional welfare as he wards off potential danger--or violation of her maidenhead--with his horsewhip. The back-flung door invites suitors in, but only those who meet Grierson standards. Unfortunately, those standards are unattainable--"The Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were" (CS 123)--and Miss Emily remains a spinster at age thirty.
The result of Mr. Grierson's intimidation takes visual form after his death as Emily parallels angels framed in church windows: "When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows--sort of tragic and serene" (CS 124). The images in this passage reveal a woman stripped of her sexuality. In this portrait, Emily assumes the semblance of a girl instead of a sexually mature woman of thirty. Her cut hair is especially important. Since ancient times, a woman's hair has symbolized her sexuality. Emily's hair, along with her sexuality, has been cut short through her father's pride. The cut hair also introduces religious imagery, for an initiate into a nunnery shears her hair as a symbol of her chastity. In addition, the adjectives "tragic and serene" envisage a Madonna, a holy virgin, as an addendum to the primary image of angels who, although often depicted as women, are asexual.
After she kills Homer Barron, the picture of Emily framed by the upstairs window becomes an inversion of her youthful portrait: "a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her" (CS 123)....