“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” read the last lines of “A Rose for Emily,” a short story written by the American author and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner, published in 1931. These last words put a shocking and rather disturbing end to this piece depicting the strange life of Emily Grierson and her obdurate refusal to adapt to changes in her life, living in her own non-transforming world.
Various symbols are used throughout the text, although Faulkner did not use any conscious symbolism. The validity of this claim lies in his Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, his biography and his interview on the meaning of “A Rose for Emily”. Emily Grierson is portrayed as “A fallen monument” from the beginning of the story as the narrator describes the ceremonial procedures following her death. Soon after, her home, a “house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies.” (Section I of “A Rose for Emily)
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It is adjacently undermined as “an eyesore among eyesores ” (Section I of “A Rose for Emily), invaded by the deteriorating and industrialized neighbourhood that used to be illustriously reputed in the 1970s. This is a fine example of symbolism used in the text as it gives an inkling of the stubbornness in which Emily, a southern woman, has lived her life cleaved to the past and immersed in old southern traditions. Similarly, the “Rose” in “A Rose for Emily” is a thought-provoking symbol because it is never mentioned throughout the totality of the story. The interpretations of the “Rose” are unbounded and debatable.
It can be understood as being a rose of sympathy Faulkner would like to dedicate to Emily, for she had lived an undeniably grim life of solitude and misery. However, it can equally be interpreted as a rose representing the love Emily desperately needed in her life but never truly found. A rose generally symbolizes love in most cultures. Likewise, another shock kindling and incontestably pivotal symbol in the story is confined within the last sentence, “the long strand of iron-gray hair.” These last words reveal the gruesome moral depravity in which Emily lived a great part of her life, sleeping beside the decaying corpse of Homer, the first potential true love in Emily’s life that decided to leave her soon after they started spending a lot of time together.
The strand of hair symbolizes the often heretical path which people cross in the quest for love. However, there is not a clear enough correlation between most symbols and what they symbolize for them to have been an application of conscious symbolism. Furthermore, Faulkner himself has ascertained that he doesn’t rely on consciously using symbolism to channel his philosophies as an author. Effectively, William Faulkner blatantly denies using any conscious symbolism. He explains: “I was simply trying to write about people […] it was no intention of the writer to say, Now let’s see, I’m going to write a piece in which I will use a symbolism […]” (extract from the interview “A Meaning of “A Rose for Emily”).
This quotation further validates the argument that the symbolism used by Faulkner was unintentional. Ray Bradbury, one of the most renowned American writers of the 20th century, explains his take on this topic in response to a letter from a 16-year-old student in 1963. The student wanted to know more about the use of symbolism in literary works, so Bradbury stated that “I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise, and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. […] The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.” Faulkner also describes his main interest as a writer as being about “the human heart in conflict with itself” (Nobel Prize acceptance speech).
Thus, his sole purpose as a writer goes against the act of using conscious symbolism. Accordingly, in “A Rose for Emily,” he tells the outlandish yet compelling story of Miss Emily Grierson’s internal conflict in the pursuit of happiness and love that leads her to unorthodox – even satanic – acts. Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” offers symbols with limitless interpretations and therefore proves to a considerable extent that the use of those symbols wasn’t conscious. Moreover, It would be contumelious not to agree with the author when he denies the use of conscious symbolism. Symbolism in “A Rose for Emily” is consistently present and plays a major role in the possible readers’ interpretations of the story’s message.
However, symbols in a literary work are inevitable and aren’t always a product of a conscious act. This means that the fact that there is symbolism in the text isn’t a contradiction to the author’s initial goal, which is writing a mere ghost story inspired by “a picture of a strand of hair on the pillow in the abandoned house.” (Interview on The Meaning of “A Rose for Emily”). Consequently, the unconscious symbolism within the story gives it sophistication and depth due to its readers’ interpretations, not due to the immoral act of imposing symbolism upon them. The American author Isaac Asimov encompasses the answer to the controversy of the use of symbolism in his response to the same letter from the 16-year-old student: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”
Faulkner did not use conscious symbolism in “A Rose for Emily.” However, numerous applications of symbolism are present in this short ghost story. They hold a non-negligible position in the overall meaning of the piece based on each readers’ understanding of them. Nevertheless, the literary virtuoso William Faulkner did not intentionally place these symbols as a means to convey his message in a latent manner. Instead of doing so, he straight-forwardly wrote a simple ghost story containing inevitable symbols. As a matter of fact, we may ask ourselves: to what extent is the conscious use of symbolism in literature to convey a message efficient and effective?