Today we begin reading William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.” I introduce it as part of modernist literature, but in the Gothic genre. In this video, I discuss what I expect today.
I tell students that we are working with another modernist short story today. I add that this story will not feel like the two we read by Ernest Hemmingway because this story has Gothic elements. Specifically, this story is part of the Southern Gothic literature genre. The vast majority of my students do not know what that means so I explain a few points. This explanation from Sparknotes is very useful. It is clear and comprehensive enough for a quick introduction:
Southern Gothic is a literary tradition that came into its own in the early twentieth century. It is rooted in the Gothic style, which had been popular in European literature for many centuries. Gothic writers concocted wild, frightening scenarios in which mysterious secrets, supernatural occurrences, and characters’ extreme duress conspired to create a breathless reading experience. Gothic style focused on the morbid and grotesque, and the genre often featured certain set pieces and characters: drafty castles laced with cobwebs, secret passages, and frightened, wide-eyed heroines whose innocence does not go untouched. Although they borrow the essential ingredients of the Gothic, writers of Southern Gothic fiction were not interested in integrating elements of the sensational solely for the sake of creating suspense or titillation. Writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Erskine Caldwell, and Carson McCullers were drawn to the elements of Gothicism for what they revealed about human psychology and the dark, underlying motives that were pushed to the fringes of society.
Southern Gothic writers were interested in exploring the extreme, antisocial behaviors that were often a reaction against a confining code of social conduct. Southern Gothic often hinged on the belief that daily life and the refined surface of the social order were fragile and illusory, disguising disturbing realities or twisted psyches. Faulkner, with his dense and multilayered prose, traditionally stands outside this group of practitioners. However, “A Rose for Emily” reveals the influence that Southern Gothic had on his writing: this particular story has a moody and forbidding atmosphere; a crumbling old mansion; and decay, putrefaction, and grotesquerie. Faulkner’s work uses the sensational elements to highlight an individual’s struggle against an oppressive society that is undergoing rapid change. Another aspect of the Southern Gothic style is appropriation and transformation. Faulkner has appropriated the image of the damsel in distress and transformed it into Emily, a psychologically damaged spinster. Her mental instability and necrophilia have made her an emblematic Southern Gothic heroine.
I now distribute this copy of “A Rose For Emily.” I ask students to just jump into the story by reading the first section and using a highlighter to mark details that are important in understanding this story as well as make comments and ask questions on the margin. Annotating the text in this way can help them understand this complex story. I let students work on their own. They will be given the opportunity to ask questions about what they just read so I let them tackle the reading on their own first. This is a good example of what I hoped to see marked in their copy of this story.
I then give students the opportunity to ask questions. This is for the purpose of helping them clarify anything they found confusing. It also helps me figure out what they need support with. They ask very few questions so I end up asking a lot of questions. This is because they are not “hooked” yet. The many questions I ask are to make sure they understand what is going on in the story. These are some of the questions I ask:
What do we know about our main character?
What exactly was the problem with her taxes?
What do we know about the town where she lives?
These questions are meant to help students make sense of what we are supposed to understand at the end of this section, which is that Miss Emily is a recluse, that the older generation in the town released her of the responsibility to pay taxes because they saw her as her duty, that the new generation has a problem with this and want to make her pay, that she used to be wealthy but no longer is, that she appears to be unaware of what is going on outside her home and the changing society.
I also ask students if they know anyone in their neighborhood who is a recluse. A couple of students know of one and share what they know of this person. This is meant to help students understand the way Miss Emily’s society thinks of her.
I ask students to move on to section II and do the same they did to the first section: highlight significant details and make comments and ask questions on the margin. In this section, the story begins to get more strange and creepy. We learn about the smell that came out of Miss Emily’s house. We also learn that Miss Emily refused to give up her dad’s body when he died. I expect students to begin to be more curious and “into” the story.
Like we did with the first section, I invite students to ask questions and make comments about section II. Like I suspected, students are more curious about this story. They want to know more about the smell and express bewilderment over the fact that Miss Emily wanted to hold on to her father’s dead body. Students are now “hooked” and I am confident that they will read the rest of the story tomorrow with more interest.