Racism is a theme in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This Old South macabre short story involves characters, such as Tobe and the construction workers, who represent racially discriminated people. Faulkner wrote “A Rose for Emily” with consideration for the social context of the time. This racism theme influences interpretations of the short story. Even though Emily is the main character, characters like Tobe are also significant. These supporting characters represent social issues and concerns that make “A Rose for Emily” a round and realistic piece of literature. Through the theme of racism or racial discrimination, Faulkner aligns the story with the social conditions during his time and even to this day. The story encourages readers to consider the factor of racism in understanding Emily’s condition as well as the social environment of the town of Jefferson. The racism theme helps make “A Rose for Emily” a multifaceted reading.
There are several notable themes that frame the characters and plot of “A Rose for Emily.” For example, the theme of death and decay, and the theme of sex discrimination are in the short story. Also, the gossip theme and the theme of freedom and free will add meaning to this literary piece. These themes help relate Faulkner’s work to those of other authors. For instance, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” also involves the theme of freedom and free will and the theme of sex discrimination. In relation, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” expresses the theme of death and decay.
Labels and Racial Discrimination (Quote #1)
Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” shows the theme of racism in terms of how the town’s former mayor, Colonel Sartoris, viewed African American women. The following quote illustrates his racially discriminatory view:
- “Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor — he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron — remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity.” (Faulkner)
Quote #1 illustrates the theme of racism in “A Rose for Emily” through the character of Colonel Sartoris, who looked down on African American women. The quote shows the theme in terms of how aprons are used to label these women. In this text excerpt, Faulkner contrasts black women’s situation with the situation of Emily, a white woman. For example, the former mayor exempted Emily from taxation. In contrast, the quote shows that he ordered black women to wear aprons. These aprons are socially stigmatizing labels. This situation highlights the importance of the theme of racism in shaping the social roles and privileges of various characters. Based on these quotes, “A Rose for Emily” thematically considers race as a factor in discriminatory labeling.
Racism and Employment in “A Rose for Emily” (Quotes #2 and #3)
The racism theme is linked to employment, as illustrated in the kinds of work that African Americans have in “A Rose for Emily.” Faulkner shows black people’s menial jobs in the following quotes:
- “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.”
- “Daily, monthly, yearly we watched the Negro grow grayer and more stooped, going in and out with the market basket.”
In Quote #2, the theme of racism is expressed in “A Rose for Emily” through African American construction workers and their relationship with other characters and their work environment. For example, the quote mentions these workers together with mules and machinery. The workers are racially discriminated as seemingly equal to mules and machinery. They are viewed as construction tools, instead of as people like Emily. In addition, the quote emphasizes the theme by contrasting African American workers with Homer Barron, who is properly labeled as a foreman. Also, Tobe’s character embodies the racism theme in “A Rose for Emily.” In this racism theme context, Quote #3 describes Tobe’s limitation to work as a manservant for Emily.
Racism and Lifelong Service (Quote #4)
Racism is a theme connected to lifelong service in “A Rose for Emily.” This thematic depiction alludes to the lifelong service of slaves. In the following quote, Faulkner describes how Tobe’s service to Emily ends only with her death:
- “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 relation to Quote #3, Faulkner characterizes Tobe’s service as lifelong in Quote #4. For example, Quote #4 shows that Tobe stopped his service and disappears from the Grierson house only after letting the visitors in for Emily’s funeral. His role as a manservant associates the racism theme with lifelong service in “A Rose for Emily.” In post-slavery contexts, this thematic perspective shows that racism restricts the lives of racially discriminated people. In addition, Quote #4 is an example of the lowly roles given to African Americans. Tobe’s insignificance allowed him to disappear without much attention from the people, who focused on Emily and the Grierson house. In these quotes, “A Rose for Emily” suggests that the theme of racism exhibits characteristics similar to slavery.
Explanation & Importance of the Racism Theme in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”
The theme of racism in “A Rose for Emily” manifests through social labels, employment, and lifelong servitude akin to slavery. Racial discrimination stigmatically labels African Americans in a derogative way. Also, the cited quotes illustrate the limited and lowly employment available to the African American characters. Faulkner’s short story presents the racism theme to imply slavery-like conditions, such as in the case of Emily’s employment of Tobe.
The racism theme is important because it sets and characterizes the relative roles of the characters in “A Rose for Emily.” For example, the theme differentiates Emily from Tobe. Similarly, this theme clarifies the difference between Homer Barron and the black construction workers, as illustrated in the quotations. In this regard, William Faulkner’s story reveals the influence of racial discrimination in personal development and community development. The theme of racism encourages the reader to analyze “A Rose for Emily” in terms of how the plot could be different in the absence of racial discrimination.
Works Cited and References
- Fang, Jie. “Working through Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily – On Character and Character Portrayal.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies 1 (2011): 105-107.
- Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” 1930. University of Virginia.
- Gwin, Minrose C. “Feminism and Faulkner: Second Thoughts or, What’s a radical feminist doing with a canonical male text anyway?” The Faulkner Journal 4.1 (1988): 55.
- Palmer, Louis. “Bourgeois Blues: Class, Whiteness, and Southern Gothic in Early Faulkner and Caldwell.” The Faulkner Journal 22.1/2 (2006): 120.
- Stafford, T. J. “Tobe’s Significance in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Modern Fiction Studies 14.4 (1968): 451-453.
- Stone, Edward. “Usher, Poquelin, and Miss Emily: The Progress of Southern Gothic.” The Georgia Review 14.4 (1960): 433-443.
- Wallace, James M. “Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.” The Explicator 50.2 (1992): 105-107.