Emily and Noriko: Two Cases of Representation of Historical Change*


Akitoshi Nagahata



The historical orientation in Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" has been a matter of dispute. Some argue that this text provides a symbolic encounter between the South and the North after the Civil War. Others think that the symbolic drama in the text refers to the Old and the modern South (ex., Johnson). There are still others who consider the symbolic encounter in the text does not specifically refer to the history of the South but to a universal human condition (ex., West, Jr.; Brooks). Faulkner himself made a remark to the effect that delivering a message by making Homer represent the North and Emily the South was not his "purpose" in writing this story (Gwynn and Blotner 47-48; 58-59). Indeed, it is not easy to determine what kind of historical reference is made by the encounter of Emily and Homer in this text. And yet we cannot deny this text has a dimension of historical commentary of some kind. The difficulty in specifying this historical meaning arises from the complexity of the symbolical and allegorical meanings conveyed by the characters and the actions in the text. In the following, I will attempt to analyze this complexity by paying attention to Emily's failed marriage and the change it causes to the family structure in the story. In a literary text, as in other media of artistic expression, marriage has often served as a narrative device for conveying allegorical meanings, as shown in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Balzac's La Vieille Fille1 or Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, to name just a few. Composing a narrative of conjugation involves joining at least two parties with family backgrounds that are socially, racially, or ideologically different from each other. It also involves a historical transition from one generation to another. The marriage theme is thus a subtle and useful narrative device with which to present the author's view on society, race or ideology, and on historical change. Emily's relation with Homer Barron can be seen in the light of this allegorical marriage and I aim to show this by juxtaposing it with another text, composed in a different genre and in a different culture, that makes a similar use of this marriage theme.


We must pay attention to the opening paragraphs of the story to see the historical meanings with which the central actions of this story are to be charged. Here the historical connotations are provided through symbolic references given to Emily, who is called "a fallen monument" (119), a phrase suggesting that Emily was a substitute for some lost presence. The identity of this presence is not clarified but suggested through associations provided in the subsequent description. That her house, built in the style of the 1870s, is set on what was once "our most select street" (119) is one, and that her last name, Grierson, is one of the "august names" of this select street (119) is another. These references suggest that the lost presence for which Emily is a monument is related to the prosperity and austerity of the southern upper-class society, whose solid existence was still felt in the 1870s but declined, in correspondence with the generation change, and was finally obliterated by the encroachment of modernization and industrialization symbolized by the emergence of "garages and cotton gins" (119). The association of the "august names"--now no more than mere names since their referents are already gone--with "the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson" (119) serve to add a decisively historical tone to that which Emily symbolizes. The select people in a Southern city, whose last monument Emily has been considered, is now linked to the soldiers who fought in the Civil War, and the symbolical references of Emily are accordingly extended from the upper-class to the anonymous and from Southern to Northern soldiers.

The historical implication of Emily as a figure is further extended when she is said to be "a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town" (119) because of the tax remittance promised to her by Colonel Sartoris. The mention immediately after of Colonel Sartoris' edict that no black woman should appear on the streets "without an apron" (120) links Emily's privilege with a conservative and racist view on the social structure, a view that acknowledges no room for change in the racist social hierarchy. Later in the story, this reference to Colonel Sartoris' treatment of black people is conjoined with the reference to the attitude of the women in the town toward Emily's black servant, Tobe. Their assumption that only white women can "keep a kitchen properly" (122) is another example of prejudice regarding race and gender, as well as of the closure of the mind to the possibility of social change reminiscent of that of Colonel Sartoris.

Since Emily has been charged with the historical meanings mentioned above, the central actions of this story--Emily's infatuation with Homer Barron, who came from the North, her eventual murder of this apparently unfaithful lover and her subsequent act of necrophilia--inevitably carry those historical meanings too. The idea that the set of these events enacts a symbolic match of the North and the South, that the match between the representative of the North and that of the South re-enacts the history of the South after the Civil War--after the demise of the Good Old South (symbolized by the father's death in the text) came the carpetbaggers (Homer Barron and his men) and took it over (Barron's infatuation with Emily)--is grounded on the accumulation of these historical references made earlier in the story. This encounter, for instance, has been foreshadowed by the reference to the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in the first paragraph of the story. Just as soldiers from the North and the South are both lying dead in the graves, so in the re-enactment drama the representatives of both sides end up lying dead side by side. This link between Emily's failed love and the Civil War is emphasized again near the end of the story when the narrator reports that some of the old people at Emily's funeral were "in their brushed Confederate uniforms" (129).

While the encounter of Emily and Barron can be read as a re-enactment of the history of the South after the Civil War, we should notice that the failure of their relationship that follows their encounter is extremely ambiguous as a component of this re-enactment allegory. We might take it as a symbolical commentary on the inability of harmonious co-habitation of the North and the South in the late nineteenth century, but this episode seems to be more complex than that. To understand this complexity better, we might pay attention to a paradoxical situation, or contradiction, which engenders some mixed feelings toward the past history retraced in the symbolic drama. This contradiction becomes evident when one examines the story's family structure. "A Rose for Emily" is not only "a story of horror" (Brooks and Warren 350) but also a story about the family. It is a story in which one family representing the South goes through a renewal or fails in that renewal. Clearly at the center of this drama of renewal is Emily's marriage, for, with her marriage, her family can renew itself. It is also a drama of succession, for an old family moves along to a new one, when a younger man replaces an old man to become a new patriarch. As a story about the family, "A Rose for Emily" seems to be filled with examples of the failure of renewal and of succession. Her father's rejection of Emily's suitors, for example, is a symbolic act of rejecting renewal and succession. By interfering with and virtually thwarting her marriage, he refuses to give up the position of patriarch and hence to allow the renewal of this representative family of the South. The father symbolically opposes change in general and by extension in the status quo of the South. And in this respect he is in the same line with Colonel Sartoris and the women of the town, the bearers of the closed mind. In the same way, Emily's infatuation with Barron ending with her killing him appears to be another sign for the failure of the renewal of the representative family of the South, for the relation between Emily and Homer Barron does not develop into a formal marriage to complete the renewal and succession, and, besides, the one who is supposed to fill the absence of the patriarch in the family of the South is killed by the lady of the house.

However, these actions taken by Emily are ambivalent; for, while she ends up killing Barron and thus looks to have failed in the renewal of the family, by this very murder she has committed she has actually succeeded in supplementing the patriarch in the representative family of the South, however ghostly this new patriarch seems to be. The first representative family of the south in the story, which consists of the patriarch, the lady of the house, and the black servant, restores by that murder the same structure it has lost with the father's death.

Emily's necrophilia--a subject for psychological interpretation and a comparison with the Gothic romance tradition2--is important in this connection, for it is an act that carries out the renewal and succession ritually. Along with her fixation on the body of her dead father, this macabre act of Emily's is not only a manifestation of her general aversion to change (she cannot stand parting from someone who is dear to her),3 but also a narrative device that consummates the renewal of the representative family of the South. The renewal is thus uncanny, for it is failed and consummate at the same time. What then does this ambivalence signify? How can it be interpreted in relation to the perception of the past history of the South? To consider these questions, I would like to compare the symbolic drama of marriage in this short story with that in a text in a different genre, namely, Yasujiro Ozu's 1948 film, Banshun (The Late Spring).4


The Late Spring is different from Faulkner's text in many aspects other than its genre. While "A Rose for Emily" is "a story of horror," The Late Spring is free of the element of horror. It is devoid of the "grotesqueness" that Faulkner's short story has.5 While Faulkner's story presents a tragic love affair, Ozu's text ends with a marriage. (A scandalous event like a murder never occurs in The Late Spring. There is no sign of premarital love affair in the film, either.) While the father in the short story is a dominant patriarch, the counterpart in the film lacks such domineering presence.

The story of The Late Spring looks quite different from that of "A Rose for Emily" too.6 Noriko, 28 year-old daughter of a professor of economics, lives with him in the suburb of Tokyo. Her elder brother has been missing in action since the Pacific War. Noriko, who has recovered from the ill-health she suffered during the war, is still going to a hospital in Tokyo for examinations. Her father and her aunt, concerned about Noriko's marriage, think of a match with the father's assistant, Hattori, who, it is discovered soon, however, is already engaged to somebody else. The aunt then sets up for Noriko a miai date (an arranged meeting with a view to marriage) with another man. Although Noriko likes the man, she hesitates to marry him because she thinks that she cannot leave her father behind alone. Thus the father and the aunt fake a marriage between him and a widow she knows in order to make Noriko decide to marry. Not knowing it is a fake, she is angered by the announcement of her father's marrying the widow and accepts her own marriage with the man she met in the miai date, as if in retaliation to her father's unfaithfulness to her. When the father and the daughter go to Kyoto for their last family trip, however, Noriko still tells him that she wants to live with him alone. The father then admonishes her, saying that she must give up the life with him and start a new family. Noriko finally gets married. On the way back from her wedding, the father confesses to his daughter's friend that the talk of his own marriage has been a fake.

In spite of the difference in genre and story line, The Late Spring is similar to "A Rose for Emily" in more than a few respects. For example, in both stories, there is an only daughter who lives with her father (the mother is absent) and who has either lost or is about to lose eligibility. The daughter's marriage is placed in the center of both texts. The daughters in these stories have a strong attachment to the father to the extent of either unnaturalness or abnormality. And in both texts, the marriage or the failure of marriage is charged with historical meanings.

Above all, both the short story and the film deal with the theme of family renewal and present a story of succession. Just as the Griersons in Faulkner's story are a representative family of the South, Noriko's family (the Somiyas) is a representative family of Japan. With Ozu's idiosyncratic "pillow shots," which briefly show an old tree on the slope of a mountain or the roof of a Buddhist temple, the patriarch of this representative household is associated with the concept of oldness in general as well as traditional Japan. The movie is filled with images of traditional Japan, such as a scene of tea ceremony that Noriko and her aunt attend at the beginning of the film (the widow is the teacher of the ceremony), a Noh play (Kakitsubata) which the father and the daughter go to see, and the scenery of Kyoto (Kiyomizu Temple, Ryoanji Temple, etc.). These signs of Old Japan are juxtaposed, so to speak, with those signifying postwar or "New" Japan, such as modern buildings under construction, references to mahjong, which was popular after the war, a train car with a white line on the side--a reminder that it is "exclusively for the Occupational Army"--signs written in English, and a reference to a young bride who eats sashimi at the wedding banquet.

Noriko's marriage, which makes her leave her father and start a new family, thus corresponds to the historical transition from prewar to postwar Japan. Just as Emily's aborted marriage problematically presents the drama of renewing the representative house of the South, Noriko's marriage symbolically enacts a drama of renewing the representative family of Japan. Unlike Emily, who seemingly fails to renew that representative family by letting the Yankee Barron occupy the position of her dead father, it appears that Noriko does renew her representative family by finding a young husband who replaces her father. However, Noriko's marriage does not go smoothly either, for, though she marries at the end of the story, she continues to refuse marriage until she is made to believe that her father will remarry. Noriko's marriage, after all, is a result of overcoming the contrary desire to avoid marriage, that is to say, the desire to remain in the old representative house of Japan.

Noriko's unusually strong attachment to her father, or her "father complex," then, like Emily's necrophilia, should be seen as a narrative device with which to express an unstated comment on the renewal of the representative family. Her angered look after she has learned about her father's plan of remarriage, her confession to him in Kyoto that she does not think there will be a better fortune for her even if she gets married, and her dangerously affectionate look and voice when she addresses her father lying on a futon just beside hers can all be objects for psychological analysis. And yet, they are at the same time symbolic acts which strongly suggest Noriko's aversion to change and to the renewal of the representative family of Japan.

The Late Spring, like "A Rose For Emily," is thus a text with a conflict. While it depicts the transition from the old to the new, from prewar Japan to postwar Japan, it also shows a resistance to this very transition. This conflict, or contradiction, is most clearly reflected in Noriko's evasion of marriage and her "father complex," and it is resolved by her acceptance of this transition after her father's exhortation. It should be noted, however, that this thematic conflict and its resolution in The Late Spring are highly historical, for the conflict reflects a drastic change that occurred after the Pacific War as well as the ambivalence among the people toward this drastic change. Indeed, the years in which this film seems to be set were the years of ambivalence, when rays of hope were glimpsed in the darkness of the misery of the defeat and the occupation. While the aftereffects of the war--the scarcity of job openings, the continuation of food rationing, the paucity of housing, the black market, the repatriation--still lingered, the signs of renovation and of new life were seen, for example, in the abrogation of the prewar civil law (1947), the resumption of the high school baseball tournament (1947), the vogue of long skirts, the re-opening of beer halls in Tokyo, and the performance of the swimming great, Hironoshin Furuhashi (1948). No doubt, the comfort brought by the war's end was accepted by many with welcome, but there was also a strong sentiment against the new age, as can be seen in the series of strikes that occurred in 1949, for instance. Moreover, as shown by the pictures of the enthusiastic waving of hinomaru (rising-sun flags) welcoming the visit of the Showa Emperor, who declared himself to be a human rather than a god and began a nationwide tour in 1946, there was still a strong feeling of respect for this god who became human. The ambivalence that emerges in the treatment of Noriko's marriage in The Late Spring, which is highlighted in her strong attachment to her father, thus reflects the difficulty of Japan's restart after the misery of the defeat and the apres-guerre chaos; and Noriko's overcoming her father-complex, along with the father's admonition to her to start a new family, conveys a message that induces giving up of nostalgia for the prewar Japan, at the center of which was a dominant father figure, the Emperor.


A comparison of Faulkner's short story and Ozu's film shows their similarity to each other in their paradoxical treatment of marriage and family renewal. In both texts, there is a conflict between the change from old to new and the resistance to this change. The difference between the two texts is that while in Ozu's film the conflict between change and resistance to it is resolved by the acceptance of change, in Faulkner's short story the resolution of the contradiction of change and resistance to it remains ambivalent. In the former text the daughter's marriage, which enables her to renew the representative family of Japan, is consummated, whereas in the latter the renewal is carried out in an impossible manner.

If the resistance to change in both Faulkner's short story and the film by Ozu signifies nostalgia for the history gone by, or aversion to a new age, the ambivalent resolution to the contradiction in Faulkner's short story should mean the still unresolved mixture of acceptance of and revulsion to the new age. In Faulkner's short story, however, the drama of renewing the representative family of the South involves two more factors, namely, the opposition between the South and the North and between the aristocratic and the common. While in The Late Spring the husband Noriko eventually marries seems to have no significance except that he is of the younger generation, it is important in "A Rose for Emily" that the man Emily loves is from the North and a rough type. In the Faulkner text, the conflict is not merely between the old and the new, but also between the North and the South and between the aristocratic and the plebeian. The ambivalent resolution of contradiction in this story, then, manifests the ambivalence toward the new age which has compelled the co-habitation of the North and the South and of the aristocratic and the common. The irresolution is a tacit commentary on the difficulty, if not impossibility, of this co-habitation. If the relationship between Emily and Barron developed into a formal marriage, the story would suggest a reconciliation of the conflict between the North and the South and between the aristocratic and the plebeian, in addition to the renewal of the representative house of the South by way of supplementing it by the representative of the North and the plebeian. The story that was selected by Faulkner, with Emily's murder of Barron and her necrophilia, avoids this ideal solution of the conflict.

We must not hasten, however, to identify this ambivalent commentary on the past in this story with Faulkner's own. It would certainly require more extensive study to determine what kinds of sentiments Faulkner had about the history of the South in general7 and how those sentiments are reflected in the composition of this short story. There is a danger that its irresolution in respect to the renewal of the representative family of the South might be regarded simply as a regressive and escapist yearning for the past. The irresolution in the treatment of the renewal theme indeed appears to be conducive to an opinion that this short story, lacking the kind of acceptance of the present observed in Ozu's The Late Spring, is a representative case of the denial of the present. However, we must acknowledge that irresolution is not a downright denial either. The sentiment of nostalgia displayed by the old men at Emily's funeral, who, wearing old Confederate uniforms, erroneously talk about her as if they had danced with her and courted her, is a subtle commentary on the text's irresolution itself.

[...] and the very old men--some in their brushed Confederate uniforms--on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years. (129)

Here the old men's anachronism symbolizes nostalgia for the past. The narrator's voice sounds sympathetic with these men who have lost the sense of time. But we cannot overlook the ironic tone that reveals the consciousness of reality in this passage. It says that the old men wrongly "believed" that they were contemporary with Emily, that the past is actually "a diminishing road," or something to be forgotten, though, for the old men, it appears to be "a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches." It also says that even that "meadow" is actually "divided from them" so that what they can really see is "the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years," which, as the first paragraph of the story has shown, saw the devastation of the old South by the encroachment of modernization and industrialization. Furthermore, since the reader already knows that their past has been marked by blindness to the bias in race and gender, it is easy to point out that the "huge meadow" is a deceptive image that conceals the past reality. Thus, in spite of the sympathetic tone, the narration in this great passage on nostalgia has an ironic twist to what it explicitly says. The old men's anachronism after all is a sign of failure in accurate perception of history. The memory of bitterness, moral repulsion, and agonies, which constituted part of the lost presence symbolized by Emily, are all submerged in the sweet, but deceptive, image of the nostalgic past. These men thus repeat what Emily did. They all failed to adjust themselves to change. It is true that the narration sounds sympathetic to them, and the titleムa dedication to Emily and hence to those misfitsムevokes that sympathy. However, the text does not necessarily exhort the reader to this nostalgia. It maintains balance by providing a contrary drive against nostalgia in its objective tone. And it is this conflict between the blind nostalgic yearning for the past and the objective stance in the narration that should not be overlooked in our reading of this text and in our evaluation of Faulkner's attitude toward the past in general.

* I would like to express my gratitude to Professor M. Thomas Inge of College of Randolph and Mason and Professor Thomas Moser of Stanford University for their encouragement and generous comments on the text.


1 See Jameson's "Realism and Desire: Balzac and the Problem of the Subject" (Jameson 151-184), his reading of La Vieille Fille, for a good example of a Marxist interpretation of a marriage theme.

2 For a psychoanalytical interpretation of the story, see Holland. For a comparison of the story with the tradition of Gothic fiction, see Hagopian.

3 See Johnson and West on Emily's refusal to submit to "the inevitability of change."

4 The following interpretation of The Late Spring is a brief summary of my "Allegory of Father-Complex: Reading Ozu's The Late Spring," a more extended analysis of the film (written in Japanese).

5 Indeed, unlike its two post-war predecessors, which deal with the confusion after the war, it is noted for its "cleanliness." Seiji Mizumachi, one of the reviewers of the film, for instance, says that it is sugasugashii (refreshing) but that it is as if the movie describes "an aspect of the Japanese life in the remote past, as opposed to the glaring, restless and unidentifiable circumstances of our present life" (25; my translation).

6 For a cogent introduction of The Late Spring in English, see Richie. See Thompson and Bordwell for a semiotic analysis of this film.

7 Quentin Compson's anguished reflection on the South during a conversation with his Canadian roommate, Shreve, in Absalom, Absalom! and Ike McCaslin's bitter thoughts about the past and efforts for redemption in "The Bear" are just two hints on this issue.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. New Haven: Yale UP, 1978. Rpt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1990.

Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. 2nd Ed. New York: Apple Century Croft, 1959.

Faulkner, William. "A Rose for Emily." Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1950: 119-130.

Gwynn, Frederick L. and Joseph L. Blotner (eds.). Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the Universityof Virginia 1957-1958. Charlottesville: University of Virginia P, 1959.

Hagopian, John V. "A Rose for Emily.'" In Insight I: Analyses of American Literature. Ed. John V. Hagopian and Martin Dolch. Frankfurt am Main: Hirschgraben-Verlag, 1962. 42-50.

Holland, Norman N. "Fantasy and Defense in Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily.'" Hartford Studies in Literature 4 (1972): 1-35.

Inge, M. Thomas (ed.). William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970: 25.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Johnson, C. W. M. "Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily.'" Explicator 6 (May1949): Item 45. Rpt. in Inge. 35.

Mizumachi, Seiji. "Sugasugashii seikatsu (A Refreshing Life)." Kinema Junpo 68 (1949):

Nagahata, Akitoshi. "Chichioya-konpurekkusu no aregori: Ozu no Banshun wo yomu [Allegory of Father-Complex: Reading Ozu's The Late Spring]." Gengo-Bunka Ronshuu [Language and Culture] 14.1 (1992): 1-15.

Richie, Donald. Ozu. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974.

Thompson, Chistine and David Bordwell. Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.

West, Ray B. Jr. "Atmosphere and Theme in Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily.'" In The Writer in the Room: Selected Essays. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1968. 205-211. Rpt. in Inge. 38-42.