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Isolated to Insane: Themes From "A Rose for Emily"

Misty103 is a pen name for a psychology graduate who enjoys writing about and sharing psychology knowledge.


The Story: "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner

Isolation can drive a sane person insane, and while insane, lead them to commit acts that a sane person would consider morally wrong. In the short story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner, the main character, Miss Emily Grierson, experiences the consequences of isolation. Miss Grierson’s isolation and eventual insanity is depicted through her father, her lack of hygiene, and her sweetheart’s rejection of her; these events caused her to lose her sanity and commit murder.

Miss Emily, as the townspeople call her, was first isolated by her father. Her father isolated her out of love. He felt that “None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily” (Faulkner 790). Miss Emily’s father prevented her from interacting with any suitors because he felt that none of them were worthy of a Grierson. Mr. Grierson may have isolated Miss Emily out of love, but in doing so he also made her dependent on himself for any type of social interaction.

Miss Emily became so dependent on her father that when he died she convinced herself that he “was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body” (791). Miss Emily did not wish to believe her father was dead, so she refused to allow anyone to remove her father’s body. Miss Emily attempted to cleave to her father by denying his death; she had to “cling to that which had robbed her” (791). Upon Mr. Grierson’s death Miss Emily began a downward spiral into insanity.

Miss Emily’s forced isolation may have ended with her father, however, afterwards she became isolated because of her family name and lack of hygiene in her house. Miss Emily’s servant, Tobe, remained Emily’s only source of social interaction on a day to day basis. The townspeople did not want to interact with a woman who could not keep her house clean. Due to the fact that Miss Emily’s house was not normally clean the people of Jefferson “were not surprised when the smell developed. It was another link between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty Griersons” (789). The townspeople found themselves not wanting to intermingle with a woman who allowed such a smell to infect her house. Miss Emily found herself segregated from Jefferson based on the smell and her lofty attitude.

Miss Emily’s isolation leads to her diminishing sanity and a lack of mental awareness. When Jefferson officials went to Miss Emily’s house to sort out the issue of her not paying taxes, Miss Emily told them “‘See Colonel Sartoris.’ (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.)”(789). William Faulkner informs us that, Colonel Sartoris had years previously told Miss Emily that her father had loaned money to Jefferson and the town would reimburse her by remitting her taxes. Miss Emily’s isolation has affected her so much that she believed Colonel Sartoris alive.

Miss Emily’s sanity continued to deteriorate to the state that after she purchased arsenic poison from the druggist, the townspeople “all said, ‘she will kill herself’… and it would be the best thing” (793). Miss Emily had become so disconnected from reality that the town fully agreed that her killing herself would be a mercy killing. Miss Emily’s state of isolation made it so that no one in the town knew her well enough to even consider talking her out of suicide.

Miss Emily’s seclusion and declining sanity cannot be fully blamed on her father or the townspeople. She contributed to her continued isolation, “After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all” (789). Miss Emily made the conscious decision to hardly ever go out after her father’s death and she herself caused her sweetheart, Homer Barron, to disappear.

Miss Emily’s delicate mental state deteriorates into full blown insanity when her sweetheart, Homer Barron, did not return her feelings. Miss Emily fell in love with Homer and she saw him as a chance to escape her isolation and interact with people again. The townspeople “learned that Miss Emily had been to the jeweler’s and has ordered a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H.B. on each piece”(793). A reader could draw the conclusion that Miss Emily hoped to marry Homer Barron.

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Miss Emily’s hope for a life outside of her isolation collapsed when Homer Barron “himself had remarked – he liked men” (793) to Jefferson. Miss Emily’s sanity could not survive this final blow. Miss Emily used the arsenic that she purchased from the druggist to kill Homer Barron. Emily had lost her sanity and had committed an act of murder. With Homer’s death Miss Emily lost all hope of living any type of non-sequestered life.

I can, to a certain degree, understand how Miss Emily felt. I missed my sophomore year of high school due to back surgery. Without school I found myself isolated from a social life and from my friends. After my recovery I found it difficult to go back to school; everything felt awkward and part of me wanted to just go back to online school. I can partially relate to how Emily felt with having minimal social interaction. The difference is that I chose to go back to interacting with people after my surgery whereas Miss Emily did not interact with people after her father died.

William Faulkner shows us how easily complete isolation can lead one down the path of insanity in his short story “A Rose for Emily”. This story can teach readers that any type of isolation, either forced or voluntary, can be harmful. Miss Emily experienced this lesson first hand. Miss Emily’s isolation destroyed her sanity and causes her to murder her sweetheart.



Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on June 15, 2014:

It's been at least a half century since I first read Faulkner's story, A ROSE FOR MISS EMILY, and even then, I recognized from his numerous instances of foreshadowing what to expect when the locked room door was broken down. It was still creepy, though.

It seemed to me then, as well as now, that Faulkner's intent was to show more than one type of isolation. The first was caused by the snobbishness of her father, who drove away any young man interested in her as 'not good enough.' Her father's attitude also drove a wedge between his daughter and other people in the town, deemed (by him) 'not good enough' to associate with his family.

In another era, she would have likely stood up to him or run away from home, but that was a different time...especially for women.

So the isolation that overtook her after his death was an extension of the first and led to her psychosis. Imagine spending so many years--decades--inside a crumbling old house and rarely ever seeing a human other than a servant (who, because of his color and her upbringing, she would never allow to be her friend or confidant). Who, under the conditions of near solitary confinement, would not suffer a psychic break?

Voted Up and Interesting


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