Before the American Civil War (known as the “antebellum South”), the South’s economy relied on the agricultural output of plantations, large farms owned by wealthy Southern whites who exploited black slave labor to keep operating costs as low as possible. By its very nature, plantation life gave rise to a rigid social hierarchy—one in which wealthy white farmers were treated like aristocrats, middle-class and poor whites like commoners, and blacks like property. Along with this social hierarchy, plantation life also gave rise an aristocratic culture that valued very highly chivalric ideals (those associated with the institution of medieval knighthood) like courage, honor, courtesy, social propriety, female virginity, and a readiness to help the weak. “A Rose for Emily” is set in the South after the Civil War (the “postbellum” South), after slavery had been abolished and plantation life had collapsed. With their society in economic ruins, however, Southerners did not give up on their aristocratic culture but rather clung to it nostalgically, and yearned to return to a past more glorious in memory than it ever was in reality.
This historical situation underlies Faulkner’s depiction of the Southern (and fictional) town of Jefferson, Mississippi in “A Rose for Emily.” The very epitome of the Old South in the short story is Colonel Sartoris, who as mayor passed a racist law forcing black women to wear their aprons in public—an insidious reminder of the old social hierarchy of the South—and who in 1894 excuses Miss Emily from paying taxes to Jefferson on a chivalric impulse. In addition, Miss Emily Grierson’s family is presented as having been once wealthy and still highly respected in their Southern community; they quite likely belonged to the aristocratic class of slaveholders before the Civil War, though their fortune in the postbellum world has since dwindled. Nonetheless, the family is as proud of its aristocratic heritage as Sartoris is, so much so that Emily’s father refuses to let his daughter become romantically involved with anyone of a lower social class. The townspeople of Jefferson not only approve of but seem to protect and uphold such rigid adherence to their old traditions. Even after Miss Emily’s father dies and Miss Emily comes to think of herself as being socially better than her poverty would justify, the townspeople nonetheless tolerate her haughtiness because she is a living monument to their glorified past, just as significant to them in this respect as the Grierson family house itself, or the cemetery where Civil War soldiers are buried.
The Post Civil-War South ThemeTracker
The Post Civil-War South 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…
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.