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William Faulkner's short stories were told by an omniscient narrator who probably represented the author, and in plot, characters and symbolism have often been classified of Southern Gothic horror. Certainly his characters were horrors, and often satirical, humorous and bizarre caricatures of the different social classes on the South from the time of slavery to the New (Capitalist) South of the 20th Century. They are often violent, deranged, frustrated, and also physically and psychologically isolated. In "A Rose for Emily," the reader knows very little about the thoughts or inner emotional state of Miss Emily, only that she was a recluse her whole life and completely isolated from human contact. Her father was a stern patriarch who controlled her life completely and probably continues to do so even after his death, which opens the story to all many possible feminist readings. She is a prisoner in everything but name, either by her own choice or because society has ostracized her. In any case, her only companion was the mummified body of her lover Homer Barron, although Faulkner only reveals the truly Gothic nature of this horror at the very end of the story. In "Barn Burning," Faulkner turns his gaze on the Snopes family, who are itinerant tenant farmers in Mississippi led by the cruel and violent racist Abner -- a man who hates the planter class that controls his life as well as the blacks, women and children lower down on the social scale. He can get even with the elite only though acts of petty deceit, violence and vandalism since he is politically and economically powerless, but at the same time he can always vent his rage and frustration of those even lower down on the social scale than he is.
Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning" is a grim tale whose plot centers on the Snopes family, a group of poor white tenant farmers in Mississippi during the 1890s. As the story unfolds, the stark reality of the poverty and brutality that Sarty has to endure becomes painfully clear. In truth, he is so accustomed to extreme poverty, deprivation and violence that he literally cannot imagine any other condition in life. He is "small for his age, small and wiry like his father, in patched and faded jeans even too small for him" (Faulkner page number). He cannot read and write at all, but he smells the food in the general store and knows he is very hungry. The few possessions they have such as the "battered stove, the broken beds and chairs, the clock inlaid with mother-of-pearl which would not run," also reveal their extreme poverty (Faulkner page number). Miss Emily Grierson represents the opposite end of the white social spectrum from the Snopes family, both she is also a Southern Gothic horror and caricature. Her lifespan is roughly from the 1860s to the 1930s, all spent in Faulkner's imaginary Yohanpatawpha Country and its capital of Jefferson, representing an agrarian America whose time is passing. She lives isolated from the world in an old, decaying Gothic mansion, which in many ways is like a prison that also reflects her psychological isolation. As the narrator put it "and so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering Negro to wait on her" (Faulkner page number).
In "Barn Burning," the narrator relates the tale in the third person and has at least limited omniscience, especially about Abner and Sarty. He knows about Sarty's fear, anxiety and even hunger, and has some information about his future, and also knows details about Abner that Sarty never will know. When Abner limps out of the court/general store, for example, the anonymous narrator reveals that Abner was short in the heel during the Civil War while stealing a horse, but Sarty does not know this. As Abner beats Sarty because he thought "you were fixing to tell them. You would have told him," the narrator revels that Sarty would have, thinking that the Justice of the Peace really was interested in "truth" and "justice" (Faulkner page number). In fact, though, Abner knows better, although he has no power at all to change the system, but only to annoy it at the margins. Although Sarty was named after Abner's cavalry commander during the Civil War (Colonel Sartoris), and imagines that his father was a great hero, the narrator knows that Abner only joined the army so he could loot and plunder from both sides.
In "A Rose for Emily," the narrator uses the third personal plural rather than "I" and perhaps represents the town of Jefferson, or at least its collective memory. Miss Emily's inner thoughts and motivations are unknown beyond what the narrator reveals, because no one really knows her and "no one save an old manservant…had seen her in at least ten years" (Faulkner page number). The narrator does not mention what happened to her mother, while he describes her father as a cold, authoritarian figure who controlled her completely and chased all her young suitors away with a horsewhip. Evidently he had believed that "none of the young men were good enough for Miss Emily and such" (Faulkner page number). Even after he died, she refused to give up his body for three days, and Faulkner strongly implies that their relationship may well have been incestuous -- it certainly seems that way. Since Miss Emily and the town have ostracized each other and no one has even seen her for ten years before her death, the only details known about her come from the narrator.
Miss Emily's old, Gothic house, built in the 1870s, symbolizes both her social class and her own financial and psychological decay. This house survives into the modern world, "lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps" (Faulkner page number). Homer Barron, a disreputable construction foreman from the North, seduced Miss Emily when she was in her 30s and she made sure that he never had the chance to leave her. Symbolically, he represents the modern world intruding on the small, backwater town of Jefferson, a president closely associated with the agrarian, slaveholding society of the pre-Civil War era. She is as decrepit as the old house, and "looked bloated, like a bod long submerged in motionless water, and that of pallid hue" (Faulkner page number). In the end, though, he ends up being 'seduced' and literally poisoned and mummified by the Southern lady.
Miss Emily symbolizes the Southern gentry that fell on hard times after the Civil War, although ironically she has the same last name as a famous Union cavalry officer who led very destructive raids there during the war. She has little money, but retains her intense aristocratic pride and arrogance that most of the townspeople do not like. Evidently she holds them in contempt as well, and refuses to even pay her property taxes, claiming that she had been exempted from them years before. This house smells of death and decay, which is why the town had lime spread around it, as if it were a corpse in a graveyard. Perhaps the people of the town have suspected all along that she murdered Homer, having bought some arsenic "for rats" -- and in this case Homer became a dead rat (Faulkner page number). He may have promised to marry her and then left, but Miss Emily made certain that the old, rotting house became his tomb. In every way that matters, of course, the house was also her tomb, as her existence there was only a kind of living death.
Sarty is very impressed with the de Spain mansion, which again symbolizes the wealth and power of the planter class. Abner's hatred for the elite is symbolized by his tracking mud and manure on their rugs and is openly contemptuous of the de Spain's and their black servants. Major de Spain then has the rug brought to the Snopes for cleaning, claiming it was worth $100 "but you never had a hundred dollars. You never will" (Faulkner page number). Abner has Mrs. Snopes deliberately boil the rug in lye soap so it will be ruined, and in reality, fire is the most important symbol in the story. Fire and burning represent Abner's violent and savage character, but at the same time is the only weapon he has that gives him a sense of power and control over his rulers. Major de Spain takes him to court for destroying the rug, demanding a fine of twenty bushels of corn, of which the judge awards ten. Sarty could become the same way as his father, and at times fire seems to have the same symbolic meaning and power for him. He is enraged by the fine and says that they should get even with the Major by burning his barn. Abner is very pleased that his son is turning out just like him, and responds with "cold eyes, the…[continue]
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