Part of the reason for the widespread popularity of this story is that its gothic elements make it horrifying enough to be appealing to the popular imagination. Part of the reason for its widespread appearance in short-story anthologies is that it seems so representative of typical Faulkner themes and techniques, especially his theme of the decay of the South, and his experimentation with point of view and narrative time.
A great deal of criticism has been written about the story, dealing with a variety of thematic issues and technical approaches. The most common critical concern is the relationship between the theme of Emily's denial of time and Faulkner's technique of breaking up the linearity of time in the telling of the story. Because the story is not told in a linear fashion, readers sometimes get confused about the proper order of events; thus determining the sequence of the story has occupied a number of critics. Most agree that the basic arrangement is: Emily's father dies; Homer arrives that summer; Homer deserts Emily; Emily buys the poison; the smell must be dealt with; twenty years later, Emily gives China lessons; ten years after that the property tax issue comes up; ten more years after that, Emily dies at age 74.
To determine the question of when Emily lay down with the corpse, the only clue is the strand of iron-gray hair. Although we have no way of knowing if she lay with the decaying corpse before her hair turned gray, we do know that her hair started turning gray six months after the smell developed and that in the next few years it turned the iron-gray that it remained until her death.
The story is about the denial of time as a linear series of events, both in the action of Emily's trying to deny death and in Faulkner's refusal to lay out the story in a linear fashion. The central passage occurs near the end when the narrator describes the old men who come to the funeral who confuse "time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but instead a huge meadow. . . ."
This spatialization of time is central to the story, for Emily is not so much a real person as she is an icon, symbolic of an abstraction, a sign frozen in time and space. The clue to her iconic status is that she looks bloated like a body long submerged in motionless water or else frozen into an idol in the window, a sort of "hereditary obligation upon the town. . . . Dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse." The use of the plural narrator, a kind of choral voice of the town, supplements this notion of time as spatial and Emily as icon, for we do not get the sense of one voice recounting an event laid out neatly in linear time.
Emily's iconic status is what makes the film version of this story strange and problematical. The thirty-minute film, which stars Angelica Huston as Emily, makes Emily real and particular rather than symbolic and general as she is in the written story. However, perhaps because the director could not ignore the absurdity of the events if portrayed as if they involve real people, presents the action in a grotesquely comic way. And indeed, when we think about it, this tone seems appropriate. Although some critics describe Emily as a tragic figure, the situation is absurdly comic at the same time.
In the film, for example, when Emily's father dies of a stroke while eating, he falls down with his face in his food; when they finally break in and carry him away against Emily's wishes, he is stiff in his chair and the flies buzz about him. Later, in a scene when we see Emily and Homer about to make love, the camera cuts to a jack-o-lantern, whose comic/horrific face stars back at us. In the final shot of the film, Homer's mummified corpse seems also to stare back with the same grotesque grin.
There is indeed something absurdly comic about Emily's story rather than darkly tragic, just as there may be something comic about the South's efforts to hang on to things that are long dead. Southern American gothic fiction from Edgar Allan Poe to Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams, has always had an element of black comedy.
Tomorrow:Carson McCullers, "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud"