Emily Grierson, the main character of William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, can be characterized from several standpoints. First of all, she appears to be a tragic figure that, however, does not make any complaints about her life. The point is that everything we know about Emily we learn from the townsfolk – Emily’s image is presented through the perception of the townspeople who also do not know Emily well. That is why this woman is “impervious” – nobody can understand her or penetrate into her soul. She is a typical example of a social outcast – she does not go out, isolates in her old house, murders her lover, and dies alone.
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As any outcast’s fate, Emily’s fate is tragic. She is the only daughter of her despotic father who did not care about her happiness at all. Strikingly enough, the story does not provide any information about her mother; most likely, the narrator does not mention Emily’s mother on purpose: in such a way, Emily’s dependence on her father is emphasized. Really, he was a cruel and tyrannical man: having isolated her from the outside world and the rest of the society, he went even too far, making sure that she won’t marry or have any lovers. At the age of thirty, Emily is still not married; thus, woman’s happiness escapes her.
The father’s influence turns out to be so strong that Emily decides to pursue her own desires for intimacy and love only after her father’s death but fails since her lifestyle – loveless, lonely, and miserable – has already been established by the father. She is weak and unable (but not unwilling) to rebel against his will; nonetheless, she firmly refuses to pay the taxes’ debt. One may think that Emily is a passive object of the events (as it stands in the text, “Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care”), but such a judgment is not fair. She is a victim of a conventional society, which broke the woman down, making her isolate in her inner world.
Miss Emily should not be considered a passive person for one more reason: she kills her lover Homer. Arsenic, a poison for rats, perfectly fits her intentions. In the story, there are no obvious reasons for which she could have done that, but, presumably, such a deed could be viewed as a sweet revenge upon men in general. On the one hand, Homer, as a man, may embody Emily’s tyrannous father, so that killing Barron, she might have avenged her ruined life. On the other hand, with her murder, Emily might have killed all her strivings for true love, warmth, and understanding.
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What makes Emily’s fate more tragic is her artistic nature. Actually, it is hard to say whether she is a true artist only because she teaches china-painting, but we may suppose that she has some imagination and talent. It should be born in mind that her art, at first, helped her to connect with the outer world so that she did not feel very lonely. However, the “newer generation” makes even this loose connection disappear, and once more Emily is exposed to solitude. Then, she might have been painting to comfort her soul. From this standpoint, Emily’s tragic fate does not seem unique: many artists are doomed to loneliness, obscurity, and death in solitude.
The story has many examples proving that Emily is lonely and isolated. At the very beginning, we understand that there exists an enormous gap between her and the townsfolk: […] “the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant – a combined gardener and cook – had seen in at least ten years” (Faulkner, 1930). Next, it stands in the text that the two main factors have caused Emily’s solitude – her father’s death and a breakup with her sweetheart: “After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all” (Faulkner, 1930). This excerpt from the story highlights two sides of the issue: first, Emily’s father kept her away from men, and later Homer Barron cut the poor woman off from the society. Furthermore, Miss Emily intentionally refuses to have a mailbox attached to her door as she does not want to have anything common with the world that destroys her: “When the town got free postal delivery, Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it. She would not listen to them” (Faulkner, 1930).
The theme of compassion in the story is rather obscure. The narrator rather parodies the townsfolk’s artificial compassion than praises it. “At last they could pity Miss Emily. Being left alone, and a pauper, she had become humanized” (Faulkner, 1930). These lines definitely do not witness that townspeople really felt sorry for Miss Emily’s fate. She was just an object of common mockery, disgust, and spite. The illusive compassion of the former lines is completely ruined by the following ones: “So the next day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would be the best thing” (Faulkner, 1930). It seems that the town expects Emily’s death and gloats over her misfortunes.
Rejection of society and death in solitude awaits another main character, too. The protagonist of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, as well as Faulkner’s Emily, refuses to meet societal expectations and decides to permanently stop cooperation with other people. Bartleby’s story is tragic as well. He is a mysterious young man, who is supposed to help a lawyer to copy laws. At first, he manages with his work pretty well, but further on, asked to do something, he keeps answering: “I would prefer not to” (Melville, 1853). His protest against any activity reaches the highest point when he refuses to work as a scrivener and claims that he would simply stay in the office and do nothing.
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Bartleby’s stubbornness is unclear and seems to border on insanity. Asked to leave the office, where he does not want to work, the copyist firmly refuses and makes police arrest him. Furthermore, in prison he revolts again (probably, against himself) and prefers not to eat. Starvation is his final aim, and Bartleby achieves it. Nobody mourns him as he is a completely anti-social human being, and his death proves nothing to the society. Then, the question arises: why should the copyist prefer lonely death to cooperation with colleagues and compromise with society?
On the one hand, his refusal to work as a scrivener can stand for his protest against mechanical work, which turns a human into a machine. On the second hand, he refuses doing anything – and, in this case, we should speak of complete apathy that should emanate from somewhere. The Lawyer and Bartleby’s fellows believe that he is crazy. They have all grounds for this belief as Bartleby’s appearance (apart from his strange actions and words) proves that he has some disorders: he is described as “pallid,” “forlorn,” and “cadaverous.” Such a description already contains the signs of scrivener’s decease.
Only at the end of the story, does Melville help us to understand the possible reason for Bartleby’s insanity. It turns out that the man worked in the Dead Letter Office, where he burnt the letters sent to people who either vanished or died. The Lawyer wonders if those “dead letters” that “speed to death” could have influenced Bartleby:
Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitting to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? […] Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity! (Melville, 1853)
It is very likely that “dead letters” could have caused Bartleby’s insanity. He was in the vicious circle of death and might have understood that earlier or later people lose each other, and addressees will never get their letters. The work in the Dead Letter Office might have proved to the scrivener that life is vain and that it is useless to do anything since, one day, everything and everyone will turn into dust. This conviction is the most obvious source where Bartleby’s deep apathy, hopelessness, and insanity could emanate from.
No matter how physically weak the copyist may be, his mental strength is praiseworthy: permanent passive resistance that he shows to everything requires immense effort. This fact is quite paradoxical as it demonstrates that human willpower is both unbreakable (in a spiritual sense) and destructive (for our body). Moreover, in case with Bartleby, human willpower triumphs over carnal needs as he sacrifices his life for his principles. Bartleby’s principle is to prove that he does not need community, and he proves it but gets nothing from it. Perhaps, he proves that for himself, but society does not care about him and his deeds. Here lies the scrivener’s tragedy: he dies in vain, for a mere senseless principle.
All things considered, it can be reasonably argued that both Emily and Bartleby are social outcasts who prefer solitude and death to existence in a conventional cruel society. Nonetheless, Faulkner and Melville clearly state that a human is a social being and cannot exist without core human values, such as love, faith, and hope.