Whose Life is it Anyway?
by
Brenda Sanders

Are human beings responsible for the well being of others that they come into contact with? William Faulkner’s story "A Rose for Emily" considers the significance that human interaction has or does not have on people’s lives. Faulkner creatively uses a shocking ending to cause readers to reevaluate their own interactions with others in their lives. Throughout the story, Faulkner uses characters that may relate to the readers more than they want to admit. Homer Barron, the construction worker from the North, and the residents of Jefferson are used to expose the opportunities, although different, they are afforded to affect the life of Emily Grierson, who is the town’s recluse. Faulkner offers Homer and the townspeople opportunities to affect Emily’s life, and the story tells how these humans react to Emily and her situation. Ultimately, Homer and the townspeople choose not to intervene, and thus the devastation of Emily’s life is inevitable.

First, before human interaction can occur, an emotional response has to be provoked. Faulkner uses human curiosity to provide the opportunities that Homer and the residents of Jefferson will have to affect Emily’s life. At one time, all people would have wanted to be included in the same social class to which Emily and her father belonged. Just as in Faulkner’s own life, the Civil War changed life in the South forever. Emily is now a misplaced icon as industry has taken over her street, and the once-beautiful house is decaying and oddly out of place among the garages and the machines. Faulkner refers to Emily’s house as "an eyesore among eyesores." Like her house, Emily has fallen out of grace, and the townspeople see her as an oddity, a queer human being, one to be marveled at from a distance. This avoidance is one reaction that humans usually have toward people with whom they are uncomfortable. They are interested but fearful to get involved in someone’s life that is troubled or different than theirs. The townspeople’s curiosity is shown through their inquiries about the smell at Emily’s house, the watching of the comings and goings of Tobe, who is Emily’s Negro servant, and their observing the buggy rides that Emily is having with Homer. Despite the curiosity of the residents, not one of them reaches out a compassionate hand to Emily. While the townspeople choose to stay on the outer circle of human contact, Homer, on the other hand, pursues his curiosity and engages in a personal friendship with Emily. Faulkner tells the reader how Homer takes Emily for buggy rides and, according to the townspeople, has been seen going into Emily’s house. Homer has really stirred up the gossips of the town as they discuss whether or not it is proper for Emily to so closely relate to a Northerner, who is considered below her social class. While Homer develops a relationship with Emily, he does not realize what emotional state Emily is in and does not offer the help this poor distraught lady so desperately needs. Homer, knowingly or not, misses an opportunity to change Emily’s life forever. Faulkner may be suggesting that just being involved in someone’s life casually falls short of how human beings should be involved in others’ lives.

The second part of human nature that Faulkner explores is the issue of conformity. The townspeople want Emily to conform to their standards of living. All the residents except for Emily are paying their taxes yearly. Emily refuses to succumb to their pressure because of a so-called arrangement made between Colonel Sartoris, who was the mayor at that time, and Emily which exempts her from ever paying taxes. In reality, the arrangement was really to save face or Emily’s reputation because she has become poor. Faulkner is ever so cautious even in the words he uses to reflect this arrangement of a bygone era: "Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it." However, the town council of Jefferson’s next generation, not having the same standards of protecting others’ pride or reputation, demands that Emily pay just as all the rest of them. The pressure to conform can be intense, and one who chooses to go against the majority is usually treated unkindly. Several times Faulkner shares how the residents apply pressure on Emily to conform. For instance, Faulkner notes that the townspeople sent "the Baptist minister–Miss Emily’s people were Episcopal–to call upon her," and they also send threatening letters demanding she pay her taxes. Emily manages to apply some pressure of her own on Homer. Although Faulkner makes sure the reader knows that Homer is "not the marrying type" and that he favors young men, Emily attempts to pressure Homer into a deeper commitment to their relationship than he really desires. When Homer decides to break off the relationship, Emily applies the ultimate power to keep him; she kills him and places his body in the bed upstairs. Just like the missed opportunities to affect Emily’s life through the curiosity Homer and the townspeople have for her, the pressure to conform to their so-call societal norms is adding another link in the chain of Emily’s isolation. Could Faulkner be inquiring if humans have the right to force their values and standards upon everyone?

Finally, the most important issue of "A Rose for Emily" is how important the human touch is to the entire human race. It is not psychological abandonment that Emily cannot deal with but the loss of the human touch that drives her to what is such a shocking means of acquiring that necessary touch. Why else would Faulkner use such a bizarre way for Emily to gain what should be freely given among humans? Emily chooses to have contact with a dead body than not to survive without any human touch at all. How truly desperate she must have been for this to be the only solution to what every human needs and deserves, someone to love and someone to love her back. This tragic ending could have been prevented if just one person, any one person, had taken a real interest in Emily and offered her the love and friendship she so desperately wanted and needed. It is unfortunate that in death Emily receives the attention of people that she never received in life. As the narrator of the story tells the reader, "our whole town went to her funeral"; however, no one is willing to sacrifice some time and understanding while she is alive. This small sacrifice of time and understanding could have changed Emily’s life for the better.

So, do humans have a responsibility to help others that they may come in contact with along their life’s journey? Faulkner challenges readers to examine their own motives, and he encourages readers to overcome their fear to interact with others. Faulkner wants the reader to realize just how important it is for humans to give and to receive that physical touch from each other. Life can become so tragic without that contact. Faulkner so vividly and shockingly exposes this tragic situation in the conclusion of the story. After the townspeople discover Homer’s body in the bed, they notice "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." So desperate for human contact, Emily has been sleeping next to a dead man’s body. No one in the whole town had the slightest human insight to see this lady’s predicament of needing human contact. Faulkner could be drawing attention to the proximity of a desperate person in the reader’s life and could be questioning whether or not the reader will react once he acknowledges the need. The world needs more human interactions that overcome fear, hatred, and death. If curiosity evokes action and if this action produces guidance, not necessarily conformity, then human beings truly can have a significant effect on others’ lives.

"Whose Life is it Anyway?" is an essay written by Brenda Sanders in Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class in spring 2001. Sanders is a sophomore majoring in Social Work.