Visual and Tactile Aspects of Decay in William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily

On the surface, William Faulkner's short story, A Rose for Emily, is about the life, gradual aging, financial decline, and death of Emily Grierson, a reclusive spinster who locks herself up in her house and avoids most human contact after losing the two men who figured most prominently in her life: a father who died of natural causes and Homer Barron, a lover that perished at her hand. However, a deeper reading of the story also takes place on its surface in a very literal sense. Faulkner conceives of the progression of Emily's life as a story of decay that is reflected on various physical surfaces, be they faces, body parts, or furniture and clothes. Although he works in the medium of writing, Faulkner approaches storytelling from the perspective of a painter and/or sculptor. He constantly surveys the textures of people and things and takes stock of color patterns and even olfactory sensations. This essay endeavors to examine how Faulkner uses visual and tactile imagery to chart three interrelated aspects of Emily Grierson's decay: personal, practical, and romantic. In the personal aspect, Emily's face and body symbolize her increasing lifelessness and loss of vitality. In the practical aspect, her poorly kept home represents her poverty and disengagement from practical affairs. Finally, in the romantic aspect, the squalid atmosphere of the room housing the body of her dead lover reflects her disillusionment in romance.

One of the striking features of the text is its close description of the way the protagonist's body expresses her old age and reduced vitality. In fact, the way the story conveys Emily's reduced vigor is by portraying her as metaphorically dead even while she is physically alive. In her old age, the narrator describes her body as a conglomeration of flesh that barely moves but rather passively floats. He writes that "she looked bloated like a body submerged in motionless water." Flesh that doesn't move but is carried by water may call to mind images of a corpse at sea. The narrator metaphorically moves Emily from life to death by showing that, even at the rather young age of thirty, the flesh on her face was losing its expressive quality and becoming rigid and motionless just like her flesh in general. Instead of possessing the elasticity to take on different expressions, the skin of her face had become tight and "strained across the temples and about the eye sockets." At one point, to emphasize the lifelessness and the lack of expressiveness on her face, the narrator describes it as a "strained flag." Comparing a face to stretched-out fabric deprives it of human properties. It becomes mere material that does not express human emotions. Her general demeanor is equally characterized by a lack of emotion and warm human engagement. As she is confronted with suspicion in her attempt to purchase poison, Emily meets the druggist's defiant questions with "cold, haughty eyes," and an "erect posture." Thus, the metaphorical lifelessness of her flesh and face is mirrored by equally lifeless cold eyes and a stiffness of erect posture fit for a corpse. In another instance, the narrator emphasizes Emily's deathlike state by conceiving of her face and eyes as inanimate objects -- "two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough." We, the readers, cannot see a soul by looking into pieces of coal, and we can't recognize a woman's countenance in a lump of dough.

Whereas the imagery associated with Emily's body served to illustrate the decay of her vitality, descriptions of a poorly kept home testify to the protagonist's financial decline and indifference to the practical affairs of life. Her possessions, originally luxurious, lose their luster and begin to look squalid and shabby.(Note: although Emily Grierson comes from a rich and distinguished family, her financial resources dwindle after the death of her father.) Her ebony cane with a gold head is a fancy item; but the gold on that head is tarnished and doesn't look quite that beautiful anymore. The same can be said about the gilt easel standing before the fireplace; it too has become tarnished. During a visit to insist that she pay taxes, government officials notice that a stairway in her house doesn't seem to have been dusted off often enough—it "smelled of dust." The seating furniture seems to have suffered exactly the same fate; "a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs" when the officials sat down on it. Neither has Emily invested funds in reupholstering or replacing this worn-out furniture whose "leather was cracked."

But the corroding and decrepit items in this house also tell the story of Emily's decaying romance—a passionate love that has turned into disenchantment and death. A room where Emily once slept with her lover charts the transformation of a once sensual atmosphere reflecting the blissful anticipation of a wedding to a gravelike environment of heartbreak. Her lover, Homer Barron, might have once been preparing to deck himself out in a fancy suit for their marriage ceremony. The rose-shaded lights in the room may have once symbolized the couple's tender love. However, upon the discovery of the room in the wake of Emily's death, various items buried under a layer of dust come to represent a lost chance at love, a potential romance wasted. Homer's clothes as well as the dressing-table and rose-shaded lights are all covered with a "thin acrid pall as of the tomb." The pall mentioned above refers to a gloomy thin cover of dust that envelops all objects and imbues them with the atmosphere of death. The room was full of this "pervasive dust" that was "dry and acrid in nostrils." That "even coating of the patent and biding dust" even covers Homer's dead body and the pillow lying beside it. This is all in stark contrast to the joyful atmosphere of the horse-carriage rides at the beginning of their courtship evoked by the lush and sumptuous textures of "craned silk and satin behind jalousies closed upon the sun of Sunday afternoon." Nothing better emphasizes the fading glow of the once-budding love as the lost luster of the once-glittering silver on the monograms inscribed on Homer's wedding attire. All that is left of the "man's toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each piece" that Emily once ordered in the expectation of an upcoming wedding is "tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured." Even the letters of the lover's name have practically vanished, perhaps much like his memory and the promise of a blessed union have faded from Emily's mind with the passage of time. The beautiful clothes, the monograms, and the romantic lights have all lost their glow. All of these once-beautiful objects were ruined by dust and gloom just like the love story itself was infused with a bitter taste and a dark fate when Emily murdered Homer.

With the fine, short strokes of his masterly pen, Faulkner manages to sketch the portrait of a woman whose life has stopped in its tracks. Emily's lethargic and motionless body and her expressionless face imbue her with a corpselike demeanor; we, as readers, search in vain for a robust spirit that animates this sluggish flesh. Inside the house, all is tarnished, dusty, and worn-out. This only seems to confirm Emily's weariness, reminding us of her indifference to everyday affairs and her resignation to a life in poverty. And what is left of the only romance she has ever had? Nothing but dust. And yet, paradoxically enough, as we encounter the room housing her dead lover and his attire, we are brought back in time to Emily's younger days and the ardor of her romance. Before the deathly dust covering Homer and his wedding wear, there was sensuous silk and satin; the tarnished silver monograms had once glittered in the giddy thrill of a wedding to come. Faulkner only manages us to give us feeble hints of Emily Grierson's vivacious, vibrant side that yearned, dreamed, and loved. And yet, we as readers, are challenged to crack her impenetrable veneer and imagine a woman with a rich mind that we can't see in her eyes and with blood running through her veins that we can't quite perceive in her bloated, motionless body.