Fact meets Fiction

References to history of the American South in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

Seminar Paper, 2005

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction: William Faulkner, the American South, and Yoknapatawpha County

2. References to the actual history of the American South
2.1. The Civil War
2.2. The „peculiar institution“– slavery
2.2.1. Colonel Sartoris and Judge Stevens – Attitudes and laws against slaves
2.2.2. Miss Emily Gierson’s Negro servant Tobe
2.3. Southern Lifestyle and Culture
2.3.1. Conservatism and other motifs of Southern history
2.4. The Old South versus The New South

3. References to Faulkner’s family history and his imaginative world
3.1. The importance of Faulkner’s grandfather for his literary work
3.2. Yoknapatawpha – The place where fact merges with fiction

4. Faulkner – Conscious of history without being a historical writer

Works Cited:

1. Introduction: William Faulkner, the American South, and Yoknapatawpha County

William Cuthbert Faulkner is the Nobel Price for Literature honored author of American Modernism. He was born in 1897 in New Albany, and lived almost his entire life in Mississippi. Faulkner derived from an old Southern aristocratic family and grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. Almost his entire literary work is based on short stories and novels about the past and the old aristocratic South of the United States of America. The Southern States encompass an area from Louisiana to Texas in the south and from Maryland to Florida in the southeast of the USA. The South is often described as having a sense of loss and the wish to hold on old aristocratic traditions. It became an area divided from the other parts of the United States in 1803. With the Missouri Compromise, slavery was prohibited north of the latitude 36° 30’. The Southern States did not see any reason to abolish slavery, because slaves were cheap manpower for the cotton plantations and the households; in fact they were the basis of their economy. The struggle between the Northern and Southern States of the USA led to the Civil War in 1861. The Civil War ended in 1865 with defeat of the Southern States and the abolition of slavery. Not only the history of the American South, but also the history of his own family and his surrounding environment influenced Faulkner to write about imaginative Mississippi towns. He invented a whole Southern County with its complete history and stories about its inhabitants. The region in northern Mississippi is named Yoknapatawpha County and its county seat is a town called Jefferson. Yoknapatawpha is the name used by the Chickasaw Indian tribe for Faulkner’s home county Lafayette, Mississippi. Most of the characters, invented by Faulkner, frequently reappear in his literary works and in one of his most famous short stories, “A Rose for Emily”, too. It is a short story which basically belongs to the category of (Southern) Gothic, because its tone can be linked to words like doom, gloom and violence. But Faulkner intended to create more than “just” a Gothic Story. Miss Emily Gierson, the main character, and the other characters represent more than simple inhabitants of a changing Southern town. Their character traits and values stand for a whole segment of American History.

The short story “A Rose for Emily” can be described as fact meeting fiction, because William Faulkner refers to the history of the American South from actual and fictional viewpoints. He indirectly refers to actual events like the Civil War, slavery and he lets them merge with the history of his imaginative Yoknapatawpha County and combines the with his personal history, too.

2. References to the actual history of the American South

Although William Faulkner was one of the main authors of Modern Fiction, his stories contain a lot of indirect usage of actual history of the American South, too. He transferred a lot of important historical events into topics for his stories, without being a typical historical writer. His references to the history take place on an individual level. The characters in his stories and novels are strongly connected the history of the South. It is a society which is fundamentally bound to social and ethnical values of the Antebellum South, and which now has to deal with the impact of the Industrialisation. The personal connection to the history of the American South plays a key role in Faulkner’s famous short-story “A Rose for Emily.”

2.1. The Civil War

William Faulkner starts the story with the funeral of the main character, Emily Gierson. The whole town appears at her funeral, which is held in her house (the reason for that will be analysed in 2.3). Faulkner uses the funeral, her house and the male guests as an individual and indirect reference to important aspects of the Civil War (1861-65). Backgrounds for the Civil War were the political, social and economical differences between the North and the South. The North started to develop an industrial culture. The South remained “with its archaic, semi-feudal plantation system […] with slave labor as an indispensable requisite to survival.” (Horton, American Literary Thought, 148) Their whole economy was drawn to cotton and tobacco, manufactured by slave labor. The Southern States began to split from the Union in 1803. Faulkner’s home state Mississippi was one of the first that left the Union to join the Confederate States. The increasing tensions between the North and the South led to the Civil War. The South started to adapt the industrial system after the defeat in the Civil War and the abolishing of slavery. This issue of the striking contrast between industrial development and the past can be found in the description of Emily’s house. It was one of the best houses in Jefferson before the Civil War. Now, it is the only house that remains of the South before the Civil War. The world around her rotting house changed. The outer conditions of the South changed after the end of the Civil War. The Antebellum traditions were not gone at once, but its values got old and out of date. This aspect is represented in the expression “It smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell.” (Line34-35) The description of her house as “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps – an eyesore among eyesores” (Line 11) represents the difference in the Antebellum and the New South and the adaptation afterwards, too. The second aspect of an indirect reference to the Civil War can be proofed in the description of the elderly men who appear at the funeral. They come to respect a “fallen monument.” (Line 1) Emily is a “monument” of the Antebellum South with all his traditions and values, but “fallen” because she was not able to prevent the past and her own death (because she was human). On the one hand, it was hard for the South to discontinue its lifestyle, but on the other hand they had to adapt themselves to the North after the Civil War.[1] These men represent a generation of Southern people who fought for the Old South and its beliefs. This can be evidenced by the aspect that some of them are wearing their old Confederate Uniforms. She was more than an old lady for them; she “had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.” (Line 15-16) The old Southern traditions and values were not really ‘alive’ but not really ‘dead’ after the end of the Civil War. This aspect seems to be embodied in Emily and her appearance. She is described as “plump and bloated” (Line 43) or as an “upright motionless torso” (Line 90); like something between life and death. She represents the old traditions that get more and more forgotten in the changing New South. The third indirect reference to the Civil War is the place where Emily is buried. Emily was no soldier, but she is buried with the Union and Confederate soldiers on the same cemetery. The Antebellum South has died with its last active advocate. The ‘monument’ of the Old South is buried with the men who fought for or against its beliefs and values. The old system is finally gone and made its way for “the next generation, with its more modern ideas…” (Line 24) The Civil War is not the only reference to the actual history of the American South in “A Rose for Emily.” Faulkner refers to another important aspect: attitudes towards the former slaves.

2.2. The „peculiar institution“– slavery

Slavery in the American South existed since the early 17th century. Slaves were not considered as citizens in the Antebellum South, more as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised…” (1926 Slavery Conviction) The first slaves were brought from Africa to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The Northern States thought that slavery will die out with the growing industrialization in the 19th century, but it came much different than expected. The number of slaves in the South increased from half a million to four million within less than a decade. One of the reasons for this rapid increasing was the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793. The South declared slavery as a “peculiar institution” (Ranson, Introduction to American Studies, 97) in 1830 and defended its right to own slaves as cheap manpower. More and more slaves were needed to operate the machines and to plant the cotton. By 1860, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, 60% of America’s foreign earnings came from cotton export. The Negro slaves were the “indispensable base of Southern economy […] and the single most important factor in shaping the Course of Southern history.” (Horton, American Literary Thought, 384) The life of the slaves was determined by strict rules and regulations of their owners and they were sold like animals on markets. Not all of the slaves worked on the cotton plantations, some of them worked in the households of their owners, too.

William Faulkner refers from the Old Southern viewpoint to the aspect of slavery in the American South after the Civil War. In “A Rose for Emily” he describes the attitude towards the former slaves in the South after 1865.


[1] The Reconstruction Act divided the former South into five districts, which were under military control of the Government. The goal was to re-unite all the US States and to obtain equal civil rights for the former slaves.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Fact meets Fiction
References to history of the American South in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglophone Studien)
A Survery of American Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
444 KB
Fact, Fiction, Survery, American, Literature
Quote paper
Wiebke Engel (Author), 2005, Fact meets Fiction , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/111817


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