The American Civil War: ‘A Rose for Emily’

July is an ode to sunshine in the Gothic, it is a trip down south to the sweltering southern states of America, and to the effect of geography on horror.

Under a Southern Spell, this month I am reading four short stories from the Southern Gothic canon, and invite you all to read along with me. Each Friday I will discuss the story both here and on Instagram, and announce what’s coming next. I have been sure to pick texts with free PDFs available to keep things accessible, and will share those along with the title announcement a week in advance of spoilery discussions.

First, the foundations of the Southern Gothic were laid by Edgar Allan Poe in the ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. Last week, we explored race and regionalism in Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Drenched in Light’. This week I will explore the effect of the Civil War on William Faulkner’s ‘ A Rose for Emily’.
Read: PDF

In Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, Teresa A. Goddu writes that “gothic stories are intimately connected to the culture that produces them.” She continues, “if the gothic is informed by its historical context, the horrors of history are also articulated through gothic discourse.”

To help contextualise ‘A Rose for Emily’, I will begin with a brief account of the American Civil War – of the horror of history and of the history that informs the horror of the Southern Gothic .

The Peacemakers (William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, David Dixon Porter), by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1868 | Wiki Commons

𝕿𝖍𝖊 𝕮𝖎𝖛𝖎𝖑 𝖂𝖆𝖗

In April 1861 at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the American Civil War began. Though many factors were at play, the cause can be simplified to a single, fundamental disagreement between the northern and southern states: whether slavery should be allowed or abolished. Under the newly inaugurated (in 1860) president Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865), a political divide began to form.

Reflecting the values of their readership, the southern media portrayed Lincoln and his Republican Party as revolutionary and, therefore, a threat. According to the newspapers of the time, his was “a party founded on the single sentiment […] of hatred of African slavery.” The implication here, demonstrated by an intentionally provocative choice of words – or word: ‘hatred’ – is that Lincoln’s actions are fuelled by hate.

In rebellion against Lincoln, and in defence of their rights as slave-holders (but with total disregard for these slaves’ human rights) seven southern states created a confederacy. Their number later grew to include a total of eleven states. A larger anti-slavery union formed, predominantly in the geographical north, but stretching to the west and even parts of the south as well.

Dedicated to unifying the states of America, Lincoln refused to recognise these southern states as an independent nation. The Civil War thus broke out.

A Ride for Liberty — The Fugitive Slaves, Jonathan Eastman Johnson, between 1860 and 1864 | Wiki Commons

Two years later, on New Year’s Day 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. The south had been given the opportunity to reunite. The Proclamation was punishment for their refusal to comply. It decreed that slaves held in rebelling, confederate states were to be freed.

This was the moment at which the focus of the war shifted in earnest from preservation of the Union to the emancipation of enslaved peoples. But don’t be fooled into believing that thinking was unanimously anti-racist. Many of Lincoln’s advisers did not support the Proclamation, which was at its essence strategical – freeing slaves would reduce the southern military impact as the slaves forced into the Confederate army were now African Americans, “received” into the armed service of the United States. By the war’s end in 1865, more than 200,000 African American men had served in the Union military. Ah, sweet freedom…

William H. Carney, the first black soldier to be awarded the U.S. Medal of Honour, photographed by John Ritchie, c.1864 | Wiki Commons

Though initial support was shakey, Lincoln continued to defend the Emancipation Proclamation, proudly stating: “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” The Proclamation went on to pave the way for the total abolition of slavery. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (which is the supreme law of the USA, created in 1787) was passed by Congress in 1865. It meant the nationwide abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude, with the exception being punishment for a crime (herein the rotten roots of a present political issue lie). That same year, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a southern sympathiser, during his second term in presidency. Of his Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln hoped:
“If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

𝕬 𝕽𝖔𝖘𝖊 𝖋𝖔𝖗 𝕰𝖒𝖎𝖑𝖞

Situated firmly in the Civil War’s south, the narrative events of William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ (1930) span roughly 70 years. The short story begins following the death of the titular Miss Emily Grierson who, born around the time of the Civil War, places the narrative present day around 1930.

As former mayor of the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, where the narrative is set, Colonel Sartoris is representative of former southern glory. He is the wealthy, powerful, white man; charming and problematic in equal measure. He is racist, and he looks favourably upon Miss Emily as a relic of these same elitist ideals.

Miss Emily is a remnant of the past, now dead. Upon crossing the threshold of her private gothic space, the townsfolk’s impression of Miss Emily is shattered. In its place is a haunting reality – an image that grows more horrific the longer you look…

© Generally Gothic

Horror is not confined to the final moments of this short story though. I find the gothic in Faulkner’s representations of
• The House
• The Death
• The Civil War,
but I’d love to know what you thought of ‘A Rose for Emily’! You’ll find some questions to get you thinking, below. Let’s chat in the comments here, or on Instagram.

What does Miss Emily represent?
How does Miss Emily’s house fit the gothic trope?
What is the relevance of the Civil War?
How or why does Faulkner implement the historical politics of the south to create a gothic atmosphere?
In what ways does ‘A Rose for Emily’ fit your ideas of Southern Gothic literature?
And, what do you make of that ending?!


WEEK 4: Our final Southern Spell Short Story Readalong text is The Paperhanger by William Gay.
Read it here: PDF
Delving into the morals of man, I will be reading and discussing the presence and absence of god(s) in the Southern Gothic, next Friday the 31st of July. Be sure to ‘Hex Yourself’ (or follow the blog) to be notified when the discussion post is live.

Continue reading with Between One Cap and One Period: Reading William Faulkner, Race and Regionalism: ‘Drenched in Light’, and Southern Gothic Foundations: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

If you have enjoyed this discussion, please consider leaving a rose, or a hair, on my pillow by making a small contribution. Thank you!

2 thoughts on “The American Civil War: ‘A Rose for Emily’

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