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New Criticism for "A Rose for Emily"

Updated on January 1, 2018
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

“The man himself lay in the bed…what was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay” (Faulkner). The body from years gone by is met with shock and unease with the town people’s of a new era. William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” can be seen using the New Critical approach as a story of an older and outdated generation struggling to find its home in the modern era.

The New Critical Approach

The New Critical approach to studying literature does not look at external influences on a piece of literature. It looks at just the piece. It “focuses on the text as a discrete object” and looks for features within the story such as “image…symbol…tension…and irony” (Guerin et al. 121). The text itself is the legend to the literature map. There is no need to look beyond the words that reveal the multi-layers of the story. Just by the way the author has arranged the words can give insight. The phrases he uses helps to clear the muddy waters. In fact, as the reader allows the “words, phrases, metaphors, images, and symbols” to do the job they were intended to do, the piece of literature “will display its own internal logic” (Guerin et al. 75). The reader just needs to be aware of the form of the literary piece and be willing to pick up on what the piece has to say.

The Past - The Present

In looking at “A Rose for Emily”, one does not need to concern themselves with Faulkner’s past or the time in which he wrote it. In the New Critical approach, that means nothing as it should come out in the text if it is important and plays a part of holding the fibers of the story together. Everything one needs to truly see the heart of this short story of Faulkner’s is found in his words describing Emily’s life and death. Various themes can arise including one major one: the past versus the present.

The Days of Old and the Modern Times

From the beginning of the short story, there is a comparison drawn between the days of old and that of the more modern times of when the story is set. There is tension “between two generations” (Fu Jen University). Emily was called a “fallen monument” and her house as “stubborn and coquettish decay” while comparing it to the modern “gasoline pumps” next to the house (Faulkner). From there Faulkner describes how she was a town fixture that the newer generation had inherited. The town saw her as a “tradition, a duty, and a care” (Faulkner). She was a figure of an era long gone by. They viewed her as a “defunct institution”, someone who served a purpose at one time but had outlived her usefulness aside from gossip and speculation (Heller). She, along with her house, refuses to move forward and remained frozen in the past. It becomes a tug of war between the generations.

Stuck in the Past

As the tensions escalate between the town and Emily’s way of life, the differences between her and the town become more apparent. Images of death and the past appear in the same scenes with Emily and her life. Even her correspondence is reminiscent of the distant past when the town received a reply from her on “paper of archaic shape, in thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink” (Faulkner).

Her home is kept in the shadows of a time that is more. Visitors do not see bright rooms and hallways. Instead they only see shadows and seeing how the house “smelled of dust and disuse”(Faulkner). The furniture was old and beat up and showed no use. Her entire being was encased in a time that no one in the town could connect to.

A Door Closed

After a span of time withdrawing into her home, Emily reaches out to the town and attempts to connect to the ones who were coming up in the ranks by offering classes on how to paint china in her home. When the “newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town”, Emily lost her students who were no longer interested in what she had to offer (Faulkner). This led her to close her door on the world that she could not find a home in and was not accepted as she was.

With the final attempt to be a part of a world that rejected her, she refused to even do the simple things that the new world required of her including putting postal numbers on her house. She closed up parts of the house and presented the town of picture of stubbornness and a reminder of a time long ago that they could not relate to.

Death Ushers In

It is only upon her death that Emily fades into the past where she belonged. She is buried among those that were part of history. It is also upon her death that the town discovers how far in the past she had buried herself. The body of her lover who had been assumed to have deserted her was found in the upper floors that had been enclosed as in a tomb. She essentially enclosed herself into a tomb along with the lover she poisoned.

Emily refuses to let go of the past where was happiest and more comfortable. She kept the house as it had been for decades. She refused to let her lover leave her and kept him through death in a tomb she created just for him and her. She rejected the world even though she reached out a few times and felt the pain of rejection. She was a relic of the past who formed the past in the present to find some peace in her soul. The tomb becomes her own as she takes her place beside the body of Homer. The past cannot be severed.

Just by reading the story and letting the words take the reader the tomb of Emily’s life, the New Critical approach does not need excessive research. It allows the words to expose the depths of the story instead of the reader having to put in extra energy. The work is done by Fualkner’s pen as Emily’s life is woven to reveal the darkness of her past.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily”. Web. Accessed 9 January 2012.

Fu Jen University. “New Criticism”. Web. Accessed 20 January 2012.

Guerin, Wilfred L., et. al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New York: Oxford, 2011. Print.

Heller, Terry. “The Telltale Hair: A Critical Study of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily””. Web. Accessed 22 January 2012.


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