Rose for Homer? The
Limitations of a
Reader-Response Approach to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”
One of the numerous, under appreciated advantages of being a teaching assistant or lecturer is the opportunity to teach anthologized stories over and over again to more or less recalcitrant freshmen. Though surprises, good and bad, occur one becomes pretty adept at anticipating students’ reactions and deducing their readerly assumptions and habits. Few, for example, figure out (unless their literary roommate has told them) what the man and woman in “Hills Like White Elephants” are debating–though, when told, they find it very ironic that “Jig,” the woman, consumes so much alcohol despite her apparent concern for her child. Most first-time readers of “Araby” recognize that the tale concerns juvenile infatuation, yet few appreciate, on their own, how the boy’s feelings are colored and conditioned by his religious environment. And many of these same students conclude, strangely, that Homer Barron, Emily Grierson’s suitor in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” is gay. Homer Barron, a bluff man with a “big voice” who “cuss[es] the niggers” and despoils Southern womanhood, gay? What in the world–or in the text–could prompt such an anomalous reading, and does this reveal more about the story or our students?
Perhaps the most intriguing, if unanswerable question raised by the story is, what happened between Emily and Homer? Were they lovers? Did they agree, as we are led to suppose, to marry? If so, did Homer get cold feet, or did Emily simply take preemptive measures against that eventuality? Yet another question, or mystery, is why did Homer Barron, a rowdy extrovert, take up with the spinsterly Emily Grierson in the first place?
These are all legitimate, even inevitable questions, but, as most teachers of the story no doubt point out, Faulkner’s choice of narrator precludes our ever providing unequivocal answers. The first-person narrator, who represents and reports the consensus view of the townspeople, assumes that Emily is what she appears to be: a fusty, antiquated Southern Belle. As the ghastly conclusion of the story makes clear, however, our narrator and the townspeople he represents had only and always seen Emily from the outside–as the fact that they penetrate the inside of her house only after her death emphasizes. There are depths to Emily Grierson that the superficial gaze of the narrator could not reach. Thus, as our brighter students might reasonably argue, if Emily Grierson so adamantly defies appearances, and convention, why not Homer Barron, her immortally beloved? Thematically, would it not be fitting if Homer, too, were not what he pretends or is supposed to be?
These same students might be heartened to learn that an obstinate allegiance to their own particular reading of the text, any text, is validated by the most voguish literary theory. According to the new paradigm that obtains in the classroom–at least among the avant-garde teachers should no longer assume the role of hierophant, the initiated priest practiced in the freemasonry of literary hermeneutics, while students, benighted acolytes, gape and scribble down our oracular pronouncements. Instead, say Deconstructionists, Reader-Response theorists, and Subjectivist critics such as Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser, and Norman Holland, respectively, the classroom should resemble a democracy, a place where competing interpretations vie on a level playing field for favor, a veritable maelstrom of first-amendment praxis. As Fish proclaims in his famous essay “Is There A Text In This Class?”, “there are no determinate meanings and [. . .] the stability of the text is an illusion” (631). If this is the case, then meaning is not something one discovers or extracts but, rather, something one confers or creates. This model supplants the old aristocratic ideal, where a powerful, privileged reader–the teacher–dispenses authorized readings, ex cathedra, to mute vassals.
When these students are asked why they believe or suspect that Homer is gay, they invariably cite the following line: “Homer himself had remarked–he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Club–that he was not a marrying man” (126) For the sake of argument, and out of deference to the conclusion of many of our students, if not to the current trends in literary theory, let us suppose that Homer Barron is, or might be, homosexual–that he really likes men. How would this presumption affect, in some ways govern, our reading of the story? What sort of theoretical rubric must we adopt if we’re to maintain this idea with any credibility?
To begin with, our hypothesis would lead us to pose a new set of intriguing, if unanswerable questions. Foremost among these–why would Homer take up with Emily if he were not interested in her romantically? Did Emily provide a convenient cover for his unspeakable predilections, or was she a confidante, a fellow “queer” to whom Homer was drawn instinctively? Does Emily kill Homer because she discovers the truth and feels betrayed, or to save her friend from a “barren” life marred by episodes of degenerate abandon? Is she, in other words, like the old women in Arsenic and Old Lace, kindly poisoning hopelessly lonely men to put them out of their misery?
Positing that Homer Barron is gay not only raises a new set of questions but transforms “A Rose for Emily,” or at least our perspective of it, in important ways. Most importantly, perhaps, it requires that we devote more attention to Homer–if only to account for his enigmatic, transgressive presence–and relatively less to Emily. A homosexual “day laborer” in the turn-of-the-century South is almost as remarkable and confounding as a hincty, love-starved necrophiliac. That they should form an attachment (the nature of which, under this scenario, also calls for greater scrutiny) would lead us to suppose that the story really concerns both of them as a pair, alter egos of a sort, rather than Emily in isolation, as the title would indicate.
Given the narrative framework of the story, we can only imagine–we are not privy to–the loneliness and longing that Emily must have felt to have killed a man and slept beside his decaying corpse; yet we must undertake perhaps an equivalent imaginative flight to comprehend the confusion and frustration endured by Homer Barron, a gay man in an age when homosexuality was virtually tantamount to necrophilia. Given the unrelieved constraints of his predicament, accentuated by the small-town Southern setting, Homer understandably might have sought out a confessor, a sympathetic ear to whom he could divulge his guilty secret. That such a boisterous, outgoing man–we are told, for example, that “pretty soon he knew everybody in town” (124)–should want to spend solitary time with Jefferson’s most isolated and secretive citizen should alert our suspicions, but for reasons different than those inferred by the townspeople. In fact, by the time Homer Barron arrives to oversee construction of the sidewalks, Emily is already 30 to 34 years old, well past her prime–as least as it was calculated in those days. And Homer himself is described as a dashing, flamboyant figure--“With his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove” (126)–more of a Colonel Sutpen or Dalton Ames than a Gail Hightower. If he were simply interested in a temporary dalliance, the cavalier Homer could have done better than the grim, aging Emily Grierson. Given their distinct, apparently incompatible personalities, as well as the other impediments–social, cultural and practical–keeping them apart, it seems reasonable to suppose that their relationship may be founded upon an attraction or commonality not readily discernible.
Although the narrator supposes a sexual liaison between Homer and Emily–“‘What else could [. . .]’” (125)–his judgment, and those of the townspeople whose gossip he merely reports, has already proven to be unreliable; the revelation at the conclusion of the story, perhaps more surprising to the narrator than to meticulous readers, challenges us to reevaluate and question everything the narrator has told us to that point. Furthermore, the presumptive language of the narrator (e.g., “what else could”) underscores his own unquestioning inferences, while at the same time teasing skeptical readers to consider, indeed, what else could have been going on. We need to be more inquisitive, more penetrating, than our workaday narrator.
Our students all point out, when asked to account for their suspicions, that Homer is said to “like men” and has himself remarked that he is not “a marrying man,” but does any other corroborating evidence exist, evidence which even our brightest students are apt to miss? It does seem incongruous, for example, that Homer Barron, a mere “day laborer,” is outfitted so resplendently on his Sunday afternoon drives with Miss Emily. He is described, again, as wearing his “hat cocked,” having “a cigar in his teeth,” and holding “reins and whip in a yellow glove.” Given our ad hoc hypothesis, the cigar in Homer’s teeth suggests possibilities that speak for themselves–then again, as Freud himself remarked, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
But what are we to make of Homer’s yellow gloves? Perhaps this simply typifies a classic bounder, a man dressed, ironically, to kill, with Emily Grierson as his prey. However, it could also be the description of a man with a flair for fashion, for sartorial displays of repressed potentialities: a weekend bon vivant. As Faulkner no doubt knew, yellow was associated in the 1890s–approximately the period in which the supposed courtship takes place–with the Yellow Book, aestheticism, and, indirectly, homosexuality. So while this one detail proves little by itself, it does suggest a dimension to Homer Barron–an unexplored alterity, in the parlance of contemporary criticism–unexamined by the complacent narrator. At the very least, Homer’s yellow gloves signal or intimate that what the entire story discloses about Emily Grierson–namely, that she was far more complex and “perverse,” as the narrator puts it (128), than a casual observer could have fathomed–applies as well to her deathless betrothed.
Ultimately, however, those who insist upon maintaining that Homer Barron is gay must hang virtually their entire case upon the narrator’s claim that Homer “likes men” and that he is not “a marrying man.” But is this enough? Upon reflection it becomes evident that our narrator could not possibly mean what so many of our students assume he intends. If our convention-bound narrator suspected that Homer were gay, he would certainly have had more to say about the matter–his attention would have shifted from Emily to Homer. Also, the evidence makes clear that the narrator, along with everybody else, supposes both that Emily and Homer might marry and that their relationship is already sexual. What the narrator must mean, then, when he says that Homer likes men is that he enjoys the camaraderie of their company. Thus, we cannot count on this narrator, given his assumptions and his point of view, to provide, deliberately, evidence that contradicts or challenges the bourgeois consensus about Homer’s identity and intentions. One of the points of the story, in fact, is that the narrator sees more than he comprehends.
As I’ve conceded, those who prefer a “perverse,” or idiosyncratic, reading of the story have the weight of much contemporary literary theory behind them. As Terry Eagleton writes, in his chapter on “Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, [and] Reception Theory,” “The reader makes implicit connections, fills in gaps, draws inferences and tests out hunches; and to do this means drawing on a tacit knowledge of the world in general and of literary conventions in particular. The text itself is really no more than a series of ‘cues’ to the reader, invitations to construct a piece of language into meaning” (76). In her introduction to The Reader in the Text, Susan R. Suleiman observes that “Modern hermeneutics–or what Paul Ricoeur and others have called ‘negative’ hermeneutics–starts . . . from the assumption that the very notion of a universally valid interpretation is untenable” (17). In On Deconstruction, Jonathan Culler writes, “When discussing many modernist works, one can stress the activity of the reader while treating it as the accomplishment of a determinate task: the reader must ‘work out for himself’ the relation between two images, must complete analogies that ‘cry out to be completed, or must piece together from disparate clues what must ‘really’ have happened, bringing to the surface a pattern or design that the work conceals” (36-7). “A Rose for Emily” exemplifies the disjunctive, “aporetical” style characteristic of Modernist fiction. Numerous critics have pointed out the story’s difficulties–many of which result from the distorted chronology–and its technical virtuosity. Irving Howe, for example (hardly a newfangled critic), admits that “A Rose for Emily” is a tour de force, but contends that it is “too cunningly a tour de force” (265). The story, much more than most stories, requires us, as Eagleton puts it, to “fill in gaps” and “test out hunches.” Testing out a hunch is exactly what I’m doing by taking seriously the possibility, posited or assumed by countless students, that Homer Barron is gay. As it turns out, in this case, the hunch proves to be a dead end: a terminus rather than a point of origination.
If the classroom resembles a democracy, at least when it comes to exegetical matters, then the other side–those who do not accept as plausible the proposition that Homer Barron is gay–deserves equal time. Since I belong in this camp, as do, I presume, most teachers, I will speak from the point of view of a teacher; and since my assumption is that most of my current readers share my view of Homer Barron’s sexuality–I believe he is robustly heterosexual–my remarks will focus upon why and the extent to which this one interpretive matter contributes to a proper understanding and appreciation of Faulkner’s story. Lastly, I will attempt to deduce what our students’ readiness to assume that Homer is gay can tell us about their acculturation and their habits as readers, matters difficult to separate.
One of the points often emphasized by Deconstructionists, as well as Structuralists, is that words, like language generally, tend to evolve and shift in meaning depending upon variables such as context, culture, and speaker. Just as an Uncertainty Principle governs, or describes, the behavior of sub-atomic particles, so, too, does an analogous rule characterize how words function–as the Oxford English Dictionary so richly testifies. If we wish to recover what Faulkner meant when he wrote that Homer Barron likes men–an impossibility say some critics, an irrelevancy say others–we must place the statement, as best we can, in its original context.
To those teachers who are not sure if this matters or can even be done, I would like to pose a question: what would you say to a student who objected to, or simply wondered at, Faulkner’s use of the word “nigger”? “The little boys,” writes the narrator, “would follow in groups to hear [Homer] cuss the niggers, and the niggers singing in time to the rise and fall of picks” (124). Not only is Homer Barron portrayed as a kind of ante-bellum overseer (though, like Simon Legree, a Northerner), but the narrator uses an offensive epithet–a word so taboo that it is often elidingly referred to, in polite company, as the “n-word”–without a tinge of embarrassment or self-consciousness. Either the narrator must be an atavistic racist or he must have come from a culture very different from our own--possibilities that, admittedly, are not mutually exclusive. I would bet that while most teachers would in no way excuse the narrator’s use of the word, they would make some attempt to contextualize it, to help students to appreciate that the use of the word by a white man in such a time and place was, alas, perfectly acceptable. This difference, we might even pedagogically exhort, can provide a means of gauging the nature of and extent to which American society has changed in certain respects from Faulkner’s time to our own.
The same applies to the narrator’s apparently innocent remark that Homer Barron “likes men.” Just as our students know that the use of the word “nigger” is not only infra dig but actionable–and even in those rare instances where society permits its use, it must be set off with quotation marks–so they also know, whether they like it or not, that institutions of power, especially the media and academe, are now doing everything in their power to de-stigmatize and normalize homosexuality. In this era of “coming out” and “gay pride,” it is no wonder that our students, particularly given their literalist approach to reading literature, conclude on very scanty evidence that a secondary character in a story by Faulkner is or might be homosexual. In the popular culture consumed by our students–in movies, television shows, and best-selling novels–homosexuality is portrayed as prevalent and random; one of the lessons, in addition to the truth that gays are as fully human as anybody else, seems to be that all kinds of people whom you would least suspect, because they defy simplistic stereotypes, are in fact homosexuals. Here is yet another case where the age-old signifiers–the “markers” thought to identify homosexuality–are shown to be unreliable and arbitrary. Thus, students have little trouble accepting that a rough-and-tumble day laborer might be gay. What too few of our students appreciate, however, is that making sense of a story written some seventy years ago by a Southerner according exclusively to contemporary ideological and sociological constructs can lead one astray. Often our students seem as frozen in present-day times and values as Emily Grierson is in those of the past.
To conclude that Homer Barron is gay, or even to trouble ourselves with his sexuality, amounts to reconstituting “A Rose for Emily” according to late-twentieth century ideology, a process which may in some measure be unavoidable. And to the extent that Homer represents Northern industrial capitalism while Emily embodies genteel Southern aristocracy–a standard reading--Homer looks ahead to the twentieth century and the forces of “progress” whereas Emily reverts to the decadent values of the past. Given this fairly explicit dichotomy, we should not be surprised that students are so willing to invest Homer with yet another quality associated with modern times: difference or queerness. While the old-fashioned Emily dreams of marriage–“Miss Emily had been to the jeweler’s and ordered a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H.B. on each piece” (127)–Homer rejects the entire institution of marriage, yet another relic of the olden days, and cultivates the society of the “younger men in the Elks’ Club.” Whatever Homer’s sexual preference, he does evince the sexual permissiveness and aversion to monogamy characteristic of modern mores; Emily–despite her apparent lapse, her “fallen[ness],” as the narrator quaintly puts it–believes in, clings to, the kind of romantic, chivalric love that outlasts death. The story dramatizes so many separate antinomies that the irreconcilable differences between Emily’s and Homer’s attitudes towards sexual, romantic relationships are easy to overlook, yet this may be the one difference that seals Homer’s fate. Emily had been willing to forgive, or bear, his commonness and his geographical origins, but she cannot abide his unwillingness to commit, for whatever reason, to an eternal union with her.
Already, with all this speculation about Homer Barron and his predilections, Emily herself has quietly faded into the background, has again become a “tableau,” “a slender figure in white in the background” (123), rather than the three-dimensional woman that Faulkner took such pains to limn. Artistically, Faulkner was attempting to create not a tableau, but a tableau vivant, a full-bodied portrait of a woman the townspeople had always seen sketchily, a silhouette in a window, “her upright torso motionless as that of an idol” (123). One of Faulkner’s purposes in writing “A Rose for Emily,” then, was to tell Emily’s story, if only obliquely, to salvage her from the curiosity shop to which the townspeople had consigned her. To them, she had always been “a tradition, a duty, and a care” (119)–something less than a flesh-and-blood human being. But, as the ending of the story makes dramatically clear, to underestimate or discount Emily Grierson is to be not only imperceptive, but unwise.
Yet how teachers and their students choose to approach a particular story, what they find most remarkable and remunerative, lies outside the purview of my control–as it should. What any given class might want or need to ask about a work sort of, as experienced teachers know, depends. However, given our hypertrophied alertness to irony, we should at least be alive to the rich irony of a reading or discussion of “A Rose for Emily” that stints the eponymous protagonist. As Faulkner fully and the narrator dimly recognize, Emily has throughout her life been deprived of the empathy and love required for psychic health and happiness.
It may seem by today’s standards naive on the part of Faulkner’s original readers to assume that the relationship between Emily and Homer is exactly what it so salaciously seems to the narrator and his fellows. Since the spectacle of a single woman taking up with–or, non-euphemistically, having sex with–a single man is no longer a spectacle, is no longer in fact a cause for opprobrium or even notice in most circles, present-day readers who supply an alternative explanation for the whispering campaign of the townspeople may simply be filling the vacuum created by changing mores; one taboo, or proscription, replaces another. As Frank Kermode argues in The Genesis of Secrecy, how particular communities of readers interpret a text depends somewhat upon their place in time and their ingrained expectations: “It is . . . a paradox applying to all narrative that although its function is mnemonic it always recalls different things. The mode of recall will depend in some measure on the fashion of a period–what it seems natural or reasonable to expect a text to say” (45). To say that one man “likes men” recalls or suggests a meaning, or possibility, to readers nowadays that would have been available but not necessarily “natural or reasonable” to readers, or authors, seventy years ago.
According to the contemporary critical paradigm, one should not adjudge interpretations right or wrong–such absolutism belongs to an earlier time, not to a modern era intent upon the deconstruction of the logocentric, univocal framework. Rather, as Harold Bloom would have it, we must choose not between right and wrong readings, but between weak and strong misreadings–the latter distinguished by their tendency to produce other readings. Whether we as teachers still believe in right and wrong interpretations–and many of us still do, though some in our rank have been driven into the closet–it generally makes good heuristic sense to repress such inclinations in the classroom to allow students the opportunity to devise, and amend, their own sense of a text. By all means, let the readers respond. But allow teachers–readers who generally have more experience and greater acumen–time to suggest, to point out, and even, on occasion, to correct. If this happens, students will not leave after a fifty-minute discussion of “Hills Like White Elephants” convinced that the couple are probably arguing about whether or not to marry; and they will take away from a class devoted to “Araby” some awareness that the boy’s “confused adoration” of Mangan’s sister is steeped in “spilt religion”; lastly, they just might recognize the similarities between Emily Grierson and yet another aging, desperate Southern Belle, Blanche DuBois, both victims of time, and the times, and both women who simply wanted one last chance at love, but lost.
. See Faulkner and Southern Womanhood by Diane Roberts (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994), 159. She describes the narrator as a “choric narrator.”
. See “Of Time and Its Mathematical Progression: Problems of Chronology in Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” Gene M. Moore, Studies in Short Fiction Vol. 29 (Spring 1992). In “A Chronology for Miss Emily Grierson,” Moore gives 1856 as Miss Emily’s date of birth and 1889 as the year that she meets Homer Barron. In the story itself, the narrator reveals that Emily is already “over thirty” when she buys the arsenic with which she poisons Homer (125).
. In his Degeneration, Culture and the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), William Greenslade refers to the “coercive code” in which homosexuality was inscribed in the texts of that era: “From the nineties, homosexuality travelled through discourse in a coercive code. ‘Criminal degenerate’, which netted artists like Verlaine in the nineties, was perhaps the most perfected term of degenerationist abuse, encoding sexual perversion, promiscuity, and the ‘unspeakable’” (24).
. Irving Howe, for example, references this interpretation only to disparage it: “The effort to read the story in terms of the relations between South and North, with Miss Emily representing the decadent South and Homer Barron the rapacious North, seems to me ill-conceived in general and indefensible in particular,” 265.
In On Deconstruction, Jonathan Culler characterizes Bloom’s
views as follows: “The best a reader can achieve is a strong
misreading–a reading that will in turn produce others” (79-80).
5) In On Deconstruction, Jonathan Culler characterizes Bloom’s views as follows: “The best a reader can achieve is a strong misreading–a reading that will in turn produce others” (79-80).
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage, 1995. 119-130.
Fish, Stanley. “Is There a Text in This Class?” In Criticism: The Major Statements. 2nd ed. Ed. Charles Kaplan. New York: St. Martin’s, 1984. 623-638.
Howe, Irving. William Faulkner: A Critical Study. 3rd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.
Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979.
Suleiman, Susan R. “Introduction: Varieties of Audience-Oriented Criticism.” The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 3-45.