Even as white Southerners in the short story cling to their pre-Civil War traditions, ideals, and institutions, the world around them is quickly changing. Agriculture is being supplanted by industry, and aristocratic neighborhoods with their proud plantation-style houses like the Grierson’s are being encroached upon by less grandiose but more economically practical garages and cotton gins. Likewise, the post-Sartoris generation of authorities in Jefferson—those men who belong to the Board of Aldermen that governs the town—are increasingly moving away from their forbears’ aristocratic and chivalric ideals toward “more modern ideas” and practical, progressive governance—hence their decision to try to exact taxes from Miss Emily after all (even if unsuccessfully). While many years earlier, the gallant old Judge Stevens balks at the idea of telling a lady to her face that her property stinks, the authorities from this newer generation, we might imagine, would have fewer qualms about doing so.
The principal figure of progress in Jefferson is Homer Barron, who has not only been contracted to pave the sidewalks in town—thereby making the town more accessible to all members of society, in what is a small act of both technological progress and a small act of democratization—but who also becomes a great favorite in town despite being from the North. It seems like the North and South, torn apart during the Civil War, are becoming reconciled to one another and reintegrated once more. However, the townspeople’s conflicted attitude toward Homer—they think him a fine fellow, yet don’t think he is good enough to court Miss Emily—is indicative of their broader ambivalence about progress in Jefferson. They are perhaps prepared to industrialize and modernize their infrastructure and methods of governance, they are even prepared to socialize with Northerners, but they are not yet prepared to part with the last vestige of the Old South or its rigid social hierarchy and culture of honor and sexual propriety.
Miss Emily herself is perhaps the character in the short story most conflicted over tradition and progress, and most victimized by her society’s cultural paralysis. She retains her aristocratic manner even after sinking into poverty, she refuses eligible suitors as beneath her even as she passes from the prime of her youth, and she even bizarrely denies her father’s death, as though incapable of psychologically surviving the financial and social change his death entails for her. But, just as a future of spinsterhood seems imminent, Miss Emily almost miraculously adapts to the times by becoming romantically involved with Homer, a man not only from a lower social class than she but a Northerner to boot. Financial necessity no doubt influences her change in standard and manner, but also a genuine human need for companionship. However, the townspeople, who are charmed and friendly with Homer, nonetheless think this a step too far in the direction of progress, and are at first piteous of Miss Emily’s fall, and later scandalized by the possibility that she is having physical relations with a man not serious about marriage—progressive behavior indeed. It is her society’s inability to commit wholly to progress, to adaptation, that in part compels the already mentally unstable Miss Emily to create with poison and dusty secrecy a private world safely frozen in the past, unchanging.
Tradition vs. Progress ThemeTracker
Tradition vs. Progress Quotes in A Rose for Emily
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the woman mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.
It [the Grierson family house] was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of the neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps…
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town…
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”
She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days… We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.
At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the ladies all said, “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.” But there were still others, older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige—without calling it noblesse oblige.
She carried her head high enough—even when we believe that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness.
…and the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talk[ed] of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.