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Module 1: Poems from World Literature

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The Changing Times

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Hello and welcome to today’s session where we continue to discuss the short story by William Faulkner A Rose for Emily. As we had started looking at in the previous session this is a story in which William Faulkner has exemplified the life of this woman, Emily in the context of the American South. We also briefly recall that Faulkner has usually been trying to portray the life of the American South and the context of this short story is also in the aftermath of the civil war, after the abolishment of slavery, a period during which economic and social reconstruction is happening in America. (Refer Slide Time: 00:55) We were also trying to take a closer look at the short story towards the end of the second section, we realized that Emily according to the narrator is beginning to show certain signs of very peculiar behaviour rather abnormal kind of behaviour when she holds on to her father’s dead body and refuses to admit that he is dead and she had to be forced and coerced into giving up the dead body after three days. So this also gives us a sense that Emily is a character who is forever in denial, her idea of history, her idea of society, her value system, her idea of her own life it is frozen in time. She is completely oblivious to the changes which happen in terms of seasons, in terms of generations, in terms of the changing order of systems, in terms of these societal norms or the governmental norms; she is completely oblivious to those things. We find that getting displayed in minor as well as major ways in this short story. There are five sections altogether in this story and many critics have pointed out that this also is a perfectly written story in that sense, there is a kind of a formative perfection which has been attributed to this story and the way it has been divided into five neat sections and there is a sense of chronology which is distributed across this narration, several critics and readers tried to give a sense of at least a tentative sense of the dates and the to reveal the exact nature of the chronology which this story projects, except for one date that the story mentions which is 1894. (Refer Slide Time: 02:51) This appears in the first section of the story when we are being made privy to this information that it was 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. So except for this date, we only have certain other kinds of indicators of time. (Refer Slide Time: 03:20) For instance, they say section 3, the third section of this story begins by saying: “She was sick for a long time. When we saw her again her hair was cut shot making her look like a girl with a vague resemblance to those angels and coloured church windows, sort of tragic and serene.” There are different indicators of time that we get, there are different descriptions of Emily given at various points of time which also will give us the understanding that Emily is also ageing and that Emily is changing in different ways physically but what comes across as interesting through these changes which are manifested physically is that, she continues to remain perhaps pretty much the same mentally. We do not find her attitudes changing at least that is a notion that we get when we are introduced to the story through this narrator, we do not get any sense of Emily responding or reacting to the changes, she remains quite constant almost throughout holding on to the things that are dear to her and in a state of denial, in a state which forces her to remain frozen in time, refusing to accept the new changes, the new order which is coming into being at the governmental level, at the societal level and also in the many ways that she sees locally around her. (Refer Slide Time: 04:46) In the third section, we were also introduced to this at the other important character Homer Barron. This is how the story introduces her: “A foreman named Homer Barron, a Yankee, a big dark ready man with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face, the little boys would follow in groups to hear him cuss the riggers and the riggers singing in time to rise and fall of picks. Pretty soon he knew everybody in town. Whenever you heard a lot of laughing anywhere about the squire, Homer Barron would be in the centre of the group. Presently we began to see him and Miss Emily on Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched team of bays from the livery stable.” So Homer Barron becomes important for this narration, because of his association with Emily, he is a Northerner, a Yankee and he is entirely different from the conservative South, he comes across as someone who represents whatever Emily is not, he is presented as a very lively character very much liked by everyone in the locality and his presence is visible and audible unlike that of Emily’s. And we find that Emily and Homer Barron are together for some time and the town begins to gossip about how typical South, a white woman like Emily will fit in with this alliance with a Northerner like Homer Barron. (Refer Slide Time: 06:25) When we are presented with Homer Barron, the typical expectation is that a love story will follow but unlike our expectations challenging the readers’ expectations Faulkner takes us on a different ride altogether. Homer Barron is a Northerner and he is also we come to know as a story progresses he is a homosexual perhaps he is interested more in men and that also makes him an unsuitable husband for Emily. The story does not say that in too many ways, it is something that we infer in the process of the readings and the introduction of Homer Barron and the presentation of the relation between Emily and Homer it can be seen as a reaction against the previous age’s sentimentality. The way Faulkner presents this story it is very evident that he does not want to present a typical North-South love story, he does not want to follow with the typical tradition where the South woman falls in love with the North man and then they come together amicably resolving all the differences between them. here it is a very stark reaction, it is a counter-response against the prevalent sentimentality and the prevalent expectations. (Refer Slide Time: 07:43) As this town is excited about this new relation, they begin to gossip about it between Emily and Homer. they also realize that it is not perhaps leading towards marriage, we do find a series of things happening in between we find Homer going away, we find Emily’s relatives coming to stay with her and there are all kinds of speculations that the town indulges in and the town is always following and paying attention to what Emily is doing and this is the point of view through which Emily is presented to us. We find the entire town almost talking Emily, paying attention to what she does and stalking almost every move of hers, it is in that sense that the town begins to talk about why Emily wants to buy rat poison, let me take you back to the beginning of the story where we understand that the narrator is an unreliable narrator who also uses the pronoun we. It is a collective opinion of the town that this narrator is trying to express, so we get to know that the entire town is interested in gossiping about whatever Emily is doing and here when we are introduced to this episode to this segment where she goes to buy rat poison, she buys arsenic. (Refer Slide Time: 09:11) And the pharmacist, the druggist is also equally apprehensive about selling it to her nevertheless because of the prestige and the privilege that she enjoys in the South she manages to get it without even really convincing the druggist and people begin to assume in the food section that she is about to commit suicide, so that’s the extent to which they talk about Emily or they think it is ok to make judgments or to make any kind of prophetic comments about Emily’s life and the decisions that she would be taking. It is also a typical southern trait where the conservative attitude also leads them to believe that they do have the legitimate permission to talk about women especially single women in a way which is not really becoming. (Refer Slide Time: 10:02) And in Section four, we are also given a few more details about the various phases that Emily goes through it tells us about the last time when the town, so Homer Barron and for almost six months how Emily did not appear on the streets and the next time when the town saw Emily she had grown fat and many details like that and we are also given another concrete detail in section four just like the year 1894 in the first section. After the day of her death at 74, we get to know that she was 74 when she died at the time of this narration. Right after Emily Griersons is death, we know that we are being introduced to the to a story which spans over seven decades, a little more than seven decades. (Refer Slide Time: 10:53) In the fourth section after giving us a few more details about the frequent appearances that Emily made during this period of time, we are led to an abrupt end. The last segment in section four: “She died in one of the downstairs rooms in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her grey head propped on a pillow yellow and mouldy with age and lack of sunlight.” This description also tells us about the decay and the ageing that both Emily and the house had undergone and by extension, it also refers to that tradition that Emily and her house represented how they had become very old, how they had become out-dated and how they had become yellow and mouldy with age and lack of sunlight. (Refer Slide Time: 11:56) Before going to the final segment of this story it will be useful to briefly talk about the importance of the exact chronology in this story. As pointed out many researchers and critics they have tried to recreate the chronology trying to find out when exactly what happened like most other works of Faulkner’s, here also has ft us a lot of clues, for the readers to recreate the chronology to fit the puzzle and there are also a few things that he would deliberately leave as a gap. John L Skinner in one of his essays on A Rose for Emily he points out “The exact chronology is actually of little interest or relevance and may indeed be irrecoverable. Any small discrepancies in the text are quite compatible with the character of the narrator.” Despite this, we also make a brief attempt to recreate the chronology. (Refer Slide Time: 12:50) These are tentative dates there could be a difference of two to three years and this is a recreation based on the single date that we get at the outset of the story 1894, the year when the mayor decides to exempt the Grierson from the taxes. So roughly it can be considered that miss Emily Grierson was born in 1861 the range could be up to 1864, It is safe to assume that she was born somewhere between 1861 and 1864 and by 1893 and in this way we continue to create, it is when Emily’s father dies and it is in 94 that Emily meets Homer Barron. It is notable here to mention that Emily meeting Homer Barron after the death of her father is very important because when her father was still alive he had not approved of several suitors who would not fit in with the family tradition or the aristocratic setting. In 1895 that is when Homer is last seen entering Miss Emily’s house and around this time Emily is also over 13. 1895 is when the incident related to this smell occurs. (Refer Slide Time: 14:02) And in 1895 you also know that Miss Emily stays in for six months between 95 and 98, Emily emerges she is more visible to the town and people notice that her hair begins to gradually turn grey by 1909 again she does not leave the house for about five years by 1904 she is again visible for about seven years giving china-painting lessons by 1911 she stops giving these lessons and then again she spends almost a decade almost 10 years without maintaining any contact with the town, please bear in mind that these are not exact dates, these are mostly tentative, it can be a couple of years more or less. By 1925 this is when the newer generation begins to enquire about the Griersons, they begin to talk about the taxes, they are more aware of the changing economic order they also want to incorporate the Griersons, Emily’s family into the taxpaying category and this happens almost thirty years after the smell and the smell the incident of the episode of the smell where people complain even to the judge about the smell which is coming out from her backyard that had a happened shortly after her father’s death and this incident which happens in 1925 where the newer generation go to ask her about the taxes, that is perhaps the last contact that she has with the town and of course we also know that she is oblivious to the changing times and the changing rules and she refuses to accept this request or even interact politely with them. By 1935 at the age of 74, we find that Emily Grierson dies, Tobey her manservant the Negro, that is how he is described he leaves the house and Tobey is also one interesting character, he does not maintain any contact with the town either, he can be seen as an extension of Emily. We do not get to know anything about Tobey except for the fact that he goes out once in a while to the market and people find it extremely difficult to extract any secret or any information from him, he remains as this trusted black servant in the Grierson’s house until the moment Miss Emily dies and this is one concrete way in which we find the story and Emily’s house preserving the Southern tradition preserving the hierarchy of grace, a hierarchy of class till the moment of Emily’s death. And towards the end, we also realized that the funeral is about to happen two days later and then the climax happens when the narrator takes us to that room upstairs which no one has seen in the last 40 years and what happens in that room and the sight that they see and the resulting interpretation that is a resolution of the story and that one incident gives a lot of meaning to this entire series of episodes that we have been introduced to. (Refer Slide Time: 17:20) In the final section this is the passage which talks about that room. “Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in 40 years and which would have to be forced. They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it” and even at the time of her death, we realized that the town does not continue their interest in her, they had always been gossiping about her and even at the time of her death their interest is in unearthing more secrets about Miss Emily. This also perfectly justifies the use of the title A Rose for Emily. This is going to be that moment the climax is going to be that moment when the confidentiality, the secrecy with which Emily led her life it is going to be torn apart the veil is going to be removed and it also tells us about this our continuing invasion in the conservative South into private affairs even after the order had changed, there are multiple ways in which we find change occurring in this short story in the form of the new generation asking for taxes in the form of people seeing the decay and the ageing of a tradition of this aristocratic household but what remains pretty much unchanged, is the town’s attitude towards this woman who was at one point privileged and who also was under the eye of their surveillance, mostly on account of her single status. So what the town people see when they open this door that may give the story away, we will not be going to that section. So that final segment brings in a certain kind of closure but at the same time it does not really resolve anything and that is the point I think Faulkner also wanted to leave behind. This story is not about finding a solution, it is not about resolving any kind of conflict, it is not about a coming together of different segments of people and it is certainly not about erasing the differences, what the climax does to this story is only to add more flavour to Emily is character. It only helps us to tie certain loose ends and to see how and why the smell had come in the first place and why this room was not being made open for the others and why occasionally perhaps Emily refused to come out of the house or entertain guests or interact with others there is a tying up of loose ends that happen other than that the intention is not to provide any kind of a resolution at the end. (Refer Slide Time: 20:27) Coming back to again look at some of the important themes in this story, it is about isolation. We find Emily being isolated and she is presented in a counter way vis-a-vis the town, we find the entire community gossiping and almost conspiring against this woman Emily. So the kind of isolation that she feels can be looked at from different angles, it is gender-specific, it is class-specific and it was also about the kind of individual that Emily is. There are certain things about Emily which completely cannot be understood within the framework of gender and within the framework of class alone, there is also certain another kind of her personality which is perhaps a continuation of the dominating nature of her father or perhaps the inability in her to find suitable friends, the only kind of relationship that she sustains throughout is this master-servant relation that she has with the negro Tobey. So other than that we find her completely isolated and what isolation does to this woman is being explored very effectively in the course of the story and even while Emily remains isolated the collectiveness with which the town pursues her in a way that they almost stalk her without her knowing about it that also comes across as an interesting thing. The story also effectively uses the element of memory, the story is in the form of a kind of a recollection we have a narrator who is not reliable, an unreliable narrator but the way Faulkner makes use of this narrator he is cleverly manipulating this narrator to remember things in a particular order so that the narration will have a certain element of suspense. It will also have a racy effect to it and it also ensures it never loses the attention of the readers and even when the story begins after having read through the entire story we understand that the narrator already knows certain details, he already knows the secret, he already knows what the Rose is but he chooses to reveal that only towards the end of the story and when we look at this from point of view of the author, Faulkner we know that the story is written long after Emily is dead. So this is a recreation of not just Emily’s past but it is also a recreation of the past of America’s South, it is a recreation of how things were before a few decades during the time of reconstruction when the society was undergoing a lot of change after the civil war. So memory plays a significant role here, so several critics have looked at this story from the aspects of gender from the aspects of the race but what becomes interesting is that the racist tone which this story at times conveys, the male gaze which becomes evident in this story, they all become quite normalized when it is looked through the lens of memory. So it is impossible to a pronounce a value judgment over either the narrator or the character of Emily as pointed out earlier there is a sympathetic tone which is built into this story even when it is presented in a detached way, even when it is presented in a matter of fact historical sense. We also get the sense of the past of various characters, if you look at this storey it is not just about the past of Emily it is also about the past and the present that the community collectively is inhabiting and if we can take the narrator as the spoon of this community of this town, we know that the narrator is in a certain way reliving his own past thinking about how they used to look at the Griersons then maybe 40, 50 years back and how they look at the Griersons today and how that day when the funeral is held, it is a resolution for these that the town people as well for the narrator as well because they all had been waiting to know what was there in that room which was not for about four decades. They all had been waiting to get some kind of admission into the Griersons’ house because they could only see Emily from a distance, they could only see this house from a distance, they were never made privy to the private affairs of neither Emily nor this household. So this journey through the past becomes a historical journey and a personal journey at almost the same time and finally, we are also given different versions of reality, the reality with which the narrator encounters, the reality from the community’s point of view and the reality which Emily is constantly is in denial of and these various versions sit together quite comfortably in this narration and that is perhaps the master craftsmanship that Faulkner also displays. (Refer Slide Time: 26:27) As we wrap up this lecture, I leave you with this observation by Lionel Trilling. “A Rose for Emily the story of a woman who has killed her lover and has lain for years beside his decaying corpse is essentially trivial in it is horror because it has no implications because it is a pure event without implication.” This is an observation which has been oft-quoted whenever A Rose for Emily is discussed. This is a story which is described as a pure event because there is no implication this storey has love, there is murder, there is history, there is even necrophilia as we come to the end of the story but what makes the story beautiful is this aspect of the pure event which has no implication and to be able to narrate a story which does not imply to be able to put in succession a series of events without any implication that perhaps is the power and craft of a storyteller like Faulkner. I thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you in the next session.