William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” provides clues that the reader can choose to acknowledge or ignore, but nowhere in the story does Faulkner clearly explain why Emily Grierson murdered Homer Barron. Faulkner has discussed the story, and did reveal that it was about how inhumanity toward people can lead to murder. This suggests that the inhumanity that Emily suffered, both at the hands of her father and at those of society, which is rarely kind to women that never marry, may have led to psychological scars that eventually prompted her to murder Homer. Faulkner’s insight into the story is a generalized one, that does not explicitly provide a motive for the murder, only a sense of the pain that might have affected Emily profoundly enough to make her agreeable to the idea of murder. This paper will explore the reasons and motives that led Emily to murder Homer, illustrating the factors that played a part in her actions.
One of the most compelling reasons that Emily murdered Homer is that she was from a time when men took care of women. This “care” included control, and sometimes even dictatorship, as in the case of her father, who sent all of Emily’s suitors packing. Women were taught to be dependent upon men, and Emily was dependent upon her father, but dependence breeds hostility because it becomes a type of bondage. Her father was particularly controlling, and none of his control belied any cognizance of Emily’s needs or what might make her happy. Thus, Emily was in a Catch-22 situation where she needed man but could not have them. Even the man she dated when she lived on her own left her. By murdering Homer, she turned the tables on that particular form of bondage and found a way to “keep” a man. Homer stayed with her—albeit dead; until she died.
Another reason for the murder is that Emily was insane. When her father died, she refused to admit that he was dead for several days. Upon Homer’s death, she kept his body in the bed with his clothes nearby just as he had taken them off and probably slept next to him every night until her death. Menakhem Perry (64) states, “…here is, primarily, a woman who committed a pathological murder…perhaps even…necrophilia.” He also points out that Emily refused to recognize the death of Colonel Sartoris, contending that Emily’s “contact with reality [was] deficient” and that for her, “the borderline between reality and fantasy [was] blurred” (Perry 64). It is even possible that Emily was not consciously aware that Homer was dead, as she may have continued to see him as living; this could explain why she slept with him every night even though the flesh has long been gone from his bones, and he could not have looked like a living man.
Another explanation for the murder is revenge, either against her father or against Homer. Out of the two men in her life, Emily’s father was the one that mistreated her the most. She felt that she needed her father, though, so she could not murder him. Murdering Homer was a way of stopping Homer from becoming to her what her father was and of taking revenge indirectly on her father. On the other hand, it is clear that Homer would have left her had he not been murdered, so Emily may have murdered him in anger that he too was deserting her.
Robert Crosman (208) points out that Emily is actually in control in the story. When she goes to the pharmacist to get the arsenic, for example, the druggist tries to find out what she wants it for, but she does not answer yet, he gives it to her anyway (Crosman 208). Likewise, when the aldermen write and call to collect her taxes, she refuses to acknowledge that she owes them and at the end they are never paid. From this perspective, Emily’s reason for killing Homer might have been merely to control a situation that had he lived would have been under his control.
Helen Nebeker (8) compares Emily to the “indomitable but dying Old South in all its decadence, pride, [and] refusal to admit the changing order.” She symbolizes the South’s ability to stand firm while the winds of change circulate all around her, and although she evokes pity, she remains standing in triumph until the very end, when her own death hands a victory to the New South waiting in the wings (Nebeker 9). Nebeker (11) states that “Emily’s South, though dead and buried and forgiven, has left its horror imprinted forever on the structure and in the persons of the present.” As a symbol of the Old South, Emily’s murder of Homer represents the South’s resistance to change, even though that resistance means clinging to something that is already old, dead, and stinking. From this perspective, Emily’s motivation for murdering Homer is to keep the status quo alive.
Cleanth Brooks (13) argues that “there is an element of the heroic” about Emily’s murder of Homer, as well, even though the crime is also “monstrous.” Brooks notes that Emily never “strive[s] to keep up with the Joneses” but remains the one that everyone else keeps up with (Brooks 13). Certainly, as she maintains control, it is also clear that Emily does not grovel to anyone. She does what she pleases and refuses to do what she does not want to do, in a splendid reversal of the bondage she grew up in under her father.
Finally, Emily believes that love can and will end if not frozen in time by death, a gruesome but understandable idea considering that she had never yet experienced a love that did not end. However, a love that is frozen in death is not the love that most women want; they want companionship, tenderness, and a listening ear—not the mere presence of a body that can afford none of these things.
Why precisely did Emily kill Homer? Faulkner leaves it to the reader to decide, but elements of all of these reasons and motivations would likely have played a part in her actions had Emily been a real woman instead of a character. Real people are complex, and there is often not a sole clear-cut reason for their actions but rather a dynamic push and pull among many reasons that causes each of them to have an influence on the final decision. In the last analysis, whatever reasons Emily had for killing Homer, no one can argue that she did it quite deliberately and with planning, so she made a choice that could never be reversed and then lived with that choice for the rest of her life.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: First Encounters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985. Web. 20 Feb, 2010
Crosman, Robert. “How Readers Make Meaning.” College Literature, 9.3, The Newest Criticisms (Fall 1982), 207-215. JSTOR. Web. 26 Feb, 2010
Nebeker, Helen. “Emily’s Rose of Love: Thematic Implications of Point of View in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, 24.1, (Mar 1970), 3-13. JSTOR. Web. 26 Feb, 2010.
Perry, Menakhem. “Literary Dynamics: How the Order of a Text Creates its Meanings [With an Analysis of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”]. Poetics Today, 1.1/2, Special Issue: Literature, Interpretation, Communication, (Autumn 1979), 35-361. JSTOR. Web. 1 Mar, 2010