The Theme of Freedom & Free Will in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (Quotes & Thematic Analysis)

William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily, freedom and free will theme, text quotes, (thematic) literary analysis
William Faulkner, while a cadet in Toronto, Canada in 1918. A thematic analysis of Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” shows the theme of freedom and free will that describes the lives of Emily and other characters. (Image: Public Domain)

William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” includes the theme of freedom and free will. Emily and Tobe are the main characters that depict this theme. However, Emily’s character is the primary embodiment of this thematic perspective regarding freedom and free will. Faulkner presents “A Rose for Emily” in a way that centers on Emily and her unusual situation in the town of Jefferson. She is a town tradition and has limited freedom and free will in this Old South social context. The theme complements the other themes in this Southern Gothic short story. For example, the limitation on Emily’s freedom and free will directly relates with the story’s theme of sex discrimination against women. Under Mr. Grierson’s parenting and control, she experienced discrimination in her younger years. In this way, “A Rose for Emily” illustrates how sex discrimination imposes limits on women’s exercise of freedom and free will.

The theme of freedom and free will relates Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” to other literary works with the same or similar themes. For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” contains the theme of sex discrimination that relates to Madeline’s freedom. Similarly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman provides a thematic depiction of freedom and free will in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Together with these short stories, “A Rose for Emily” explains the undesirable effects of limiting freedom and free will.

Freedom and Free Will in Emily’s Family (Quotes #1 and #2)

Freedom and free will are a theme expressed through Emily’s experiences under the control of Mr. Grierson. Faulkner emphasizes the significance of the family in personal development. In the following quotes, the theme within the familial relations context is depicted in “A Rose for Emily”:

  1. “We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip . . . .” (Faulkner)
  2. “Then we knew that this was to be expected too; as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman’s life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die.”

Quote #1 presents the town’s perspective about Emily’s life. The quote implies that Mr. Grierson controlled the affairs of his household, including those of Emily. This condition supports the theme of freedom and free will by contrasting Mr. Grierson and Emily: He had the freedom and free will to impose his decisions on Emily, while she remained passive under her father’s influence. Faulkner extends this fatherly control throughout the plot of “A Rose for Emily.” For example, Quote #2 shows that it appears that Mr. Grierson’s restrictive influence on Emily remained even after his death. This quotation reminds the reader that the theme of freedom and free will in “A Rose for Emily” is partly a result of Mr. Grierson’s influence on Emily.

Socially Limited Freedom and Free Will in “A Rose for Emily” (Quote #3)

The town of Jefferson is a social context that frames the theme of freedom and free will in “A Rose for Emily.” In this context, Faulkner restricts Emily’s exercise of freedom and free will. The following quote represents the theme with consideration for social influence:

  1. “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.”

The limits on freedom and free will are expressed in the social fabric of the setting of “A Rose for Emily.” Faulkner sets this short story in the Old South. The social context involves a sense of noblesse oblige, which is a norm that obligates privileged people to be generous toward the less privileged. In Quote #3, the theme of freedom and free will is depicted in terms of the townspeople’s perception that Emily has the social obligation to see Homer Barron. However, the quoted text implies that this social influence on freedom is waning along with the older people. The thematic view is that such socially limited exercise of freedom and free will is declining. Nonetheless, the quote illustrates that “A Rose for Emily” involves this theme despite social changes.

Freedom, Free Will, and Racism (Quotes #4 and #5)

Faulkner links racism to the theme of freedom and free will. Racism is itself a theme in “A Rose for Emily,” but also supports the issue of limited freedom and free will in the short story. In the following quotes, the author connects the freedom and free will theme to racism in “A Rose for Emily”:

  1. “The construction company came with niggers and mules and machinery, and a foreman named Homer Barron, a Yankee — a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face.”
  2. “The Negro met the first of the ladies at the front door and let them in, with their hushed, sibilant voices and their quick, curious glances, and then he disappeared. He walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again.”

In Quote #4, “A Rose for Emily” presents a thematic view of how the economy facilitates limits on freedom and free will. For example, the quote uses the derogatory term, “nigger,” to refer to workers whose freedom and free will are limited by Homer Barron’s demands on their work. Faulkner also includes the theme through Tobe’s character, as shown in Quote #5. With his limited work as a manservant, Tobe is a representation of racist limits on work opportunities. His condition is similar to the construction workers who are limited to menial work under Homer’s direction. These quotes indicate that “A Rose for Emily” links racism to the theme of freedom and free will.

Explanation & Importance of the Theme of Freedom and Free Will in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

The theme of freedom and free will is expressed in “A Rose for Emily” in terms of familial influences, social influences, and racial discrimination. The thematic representations in the cited quotations provide a multifaceted perspective. Faulkner shows to the reader that there are various factors connected to the theme. The quotes also add meaning to freedom and free will in terms of societal development, considering parenting approaches, social norms, and racial discrimination.

The importance of freedom and free will as a theme in “A Rose for Emily” is based on the theme’s role in understanding Emily’s situation. Based on the text excerpts, the theme suggests an explanation for why Emily murdered Homer Barron in this macabre story. For example, it is possible that she killed him because of her desperation amid her limited freedom and exercise of free will. The quotes illustrate that freedom and free will are significant factors in people’s lives, such as Emily’s reclusive life and the black characters’ racially discriminated lives. The theme gives a richer interpretation of “A Rose for Emily.”

Works Cited and References

  • Allen, Dennis W. “Horror and Perverse Delight: Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Modern Fiction Studies 30.4 (1984): 685-696.
  • Binder, Aubrey. “Uncovering the Past: The Role of Dust Imagery in A Rose For Emily.” The Explicator 70.1 (2012): 5-7.
  • Dilworth, Thomas. “A romance to kill for: Homicidal complicity in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Studies in Short Fiction 36.3 (1999): 251.
  • Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” 1930. University of Virginia.
  • Garrison, Joseph M. “‘Bought Flowers’ in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Studies in Short Fiction 16.4 (1979): 341.
  • Hays, Peter L. “Who is Faulkner’s Emily?” Studies in American Fiction 16.1 (1988): 105-110.
  • Rodman, Isaac. “Irony and Isolation: Narrative Distance in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The Faulkner Journal 8.2 (1993): 3-12.
  • Stafford, T. J. “Tobe’s Significance in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Modern Fiction Studies 14.4 (1968): 451-453.