Burke’s Pentad Applied to Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” unless it is a rose for Emily. Life can be sweet, but, it takes players who are, in the game, and willing to break the rules of formality which oppress the marginalized. This Shakespearean quote comes from Romeo and Juliet meaning how personal labels do not matter—people matter. In a world of type casting, we all struggle on the stage of life; whether we believe or not—the show must go on. However, there are instances when a person steps out of the social paradigm only to be rejected and forced into isolation. When we break from our societal roles we actually do serious ground breaking (often times law breaking, too). Our freedom comes into question. Do we live for ourselves or do we live for others in this series of continued drama? According to Kenneth Burke, the entire world is a stage; life is drama. We are motivated by certain elements in reaching our desired goals. All motivation, fact or fictional, can be best understood when one begins applying the dramatistic pentad found in Burke’s Grammar of Motives (1945). At best, Burke’s dramatistic pentad of act (what), scene (where/when), agent (who), agency (how), and purpose (why), are the quintessential elements in determining why people do what they do. By applying Burke’s pentad to William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” the reader is able to make sense of the story’s ground breaking conflict. Moreover, the reader will be able to unlock why Faulkner would deem Emily Grierson, a fallen, grotesque, idol worthy of a rose.

The scene of any story is the background or backdrop of ‘when’ and ‘where’ events are taking place. The scene also effects a person’s actions. Faulkner’s setting is a fictional town in Mississippi, in the old south, after the Civil War. The story is told by a collective town folk i.e., ‘we’ who tells the story of Miss Emily Grierson’s life. This collective town folk (backdrop of gossipers), the ones who tell the story, are a major influence on Emily’s character and her motivations toward love and loss. The only way for Emily to escape her scene is total isolation i.e., locking herself inside her home and shutting the doors. Emily never has a voice in the story (which should be well noted by the reader). Emily never has an identity of her own expect for the scrutiny and inference from the town on how she should live her life. She is the last of the “high and mighty Grierson’s” living in a world that is ever changing from plantation slavery to northern industry. It was said, in the beginning, her home was a dilapidated eyesore. Basically, her house was a pimple being squeezed out by the industrial movement from plantation slavery to factory slavery.

The act, or action that took place, was the murder of Homer Barron. After Emily’s father dies. She falls in love with a blue collar man (day laborer), Homer Barron, who is not a typical Southern Gentleman or caller. For years, Emily lived under the thumb of a controlling father, who was seen, by the town’s people, as a man standing in the front door, of their pristine colonial house, with a whip, standing behind a submissive Emily. The statement becomes one of the most powerful visual statements in the story. Homer is a typical ladies man who sports a “yellow wheeled buggy,” and according to the social network, a man who liked playing around with men. She gives herself to a man who was below her social upbringing and status. This is seen as scandalous by the town folks who again intervene by calling upon her cousins to visit to set Miss Emily straight. Constant inference and speculation about Emily and her relationship with Homer cause Emily to act out defensively i.e., she goes out to buy a man’s toilet kit with the monogram of H. B. on it, night shirt, and men’s clothing.

The agent asks for ‘who’ i.e., who is the person responsible for the act. The star of the show, although she has no say, is Miss Emily. Labeled as a recluse and insane (cause she has an insane Auntie), Emily goes from being out on the social scene to isolation i.e., withdraws from the societal noise of pity and prejudice by shutting her doors. She is a woman who never marries or has a family—two things which she was robbed of (two things which caused more gossip from the town folk and more depression from Emily). When her father died she was left with nothing. She was so devastated by her father’s death the town’s people said it took three days to retrieve her father’s body. The town summated, “she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as most people will.” Miss Emily couldn’t let her father go because he was still holding her—a dominating figure in death. When he died she reverted back into childhood by cutting her hair off symbolizing her castration of the role of becoming a woman. After Emily loses Homer, which the town believed deserted her, she starts on a downward spiral of letting herself go by 1. Gaining weight, 2. Growing gray hairs, 3. Becoming ill, and 4. Shutting the world out. These fab four become the death of any social life or marriage opportunities. She literally shuts her life down. Likewise, Emily is a notorious agent for her rebellion against her southern upbringing in which the town pities and is jealous of. She would be likened to, in today’s world, a type of celebrity. Because she was born of nobility and money, she is stripped of the right to not have a private life.

Agency examines how the act was accomplished. This act was accomplished though the use of poison. The climax of the story is when Emily goes into the drug store to buy arsenic; wanting only the best that the druggist could give. Looking the pharmacist dead in the face she haughtily refuses to tell him if the poison is for rats or not; she’s above having to explain her reasons for wanting poison. The reader may know by the time she is buying the arsenic alongside with a men’s silver toilet kit (with the H. B. monogram), she is going to be using it on Homer as an ultimatum (stay willing alive or stay unwilling dead). However, until the town sees Homer’s dead body in Emily’s upstairs bedroom, thirty years later, they thought the poison was for Emily. They also thought it would “be the best thing” for Emily to do since Homer was shooting his mouth off about liking boys; a bisexual embarrassment for their Miss Emily.

The purpose is the most sought out question and most interesting in examining any story using Burke’s pentad. It answers the question why people do what they do. Why did Emily kill Homer Barron (and use his dead body as a demented play ground)? First, Homer ruined her for any other men. In a traditional sense, a woman’s virginity was her weight in gold as much as her ability to bear children. Second, the dead can’t walk out or protest. Once poisoned, Homer was not able to reject and deny Emily anymore; it solved the problem of him walking out. Being able to keep a man, especially, a man below her class would have made sense. Not being able to keep a “loud mouth” that was below her marrying station would have been a great embarrassment. Thwarted by a man who had no intentions of marrying her, she murders him. Remembering that once a woman gives herself to a man it’s a final act of commitment. No woman, north or south, likes being made a fool.

Are we responsible for the actions of others? Can we prevent crimes of hate and passion? If a tree is in a dire environment it shows. If a child is in an unloving home it shows. If a kite gets loose and runs into an electrical wire it shows. We need to be accountable. We need to start being those heroes we believe ourselves to be. This year marks the anniversary of a young musician who took his life by jumping from the Washington Bridge because some cruel individuals exposed him in a private manner. Without his consent, his sacred life was chatted about and mainstreamed, on the internet, for people to view, to judge, to mock, and to handle ‘not with care’. The participants who do the exposing are not harmed, but vindicated, but those who are exposed are backed into a corner and devastated. I was told by a very important lady (who quoted Edgar Allan Poe), “Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.” We have to be the ones who root for the underdog and speak up in the face of social formalities that stand against those who want to be free to live their lives (but are too ashamed)—those people should be heard and not forced into a pressure chamber of isolation. Whether we agree with changing lifestyles, we agree in humanity and a person’s right to walk the streets freely with their dignity intact. Incessant interference and gossip does destroy lives.

In Emily’s case she was rotting away physically i.e., getting more bloated and more round, mentally getting more sick and afraid to let the dead go, getting more insane breaking down in front of a town who felt vindicated for her suffering ready to watch her fall. She can’t win because her identity is tied to a collective prejudice of the role she was given before she was born. If she doesn’t follow what the town believes her to be, she is forced back into the mold of a southern obligation.

Finally, “A Rose for Emily” is a sympathetic gesture. Faulkner’s sensitivity of Emily’s situation is apparent. She was a symbol of the Old South—hierarchy and tradition and nobility. With steel gray hair and enough ovaries to go into a drug store to buy arsenic without giving a reason, she becomes the symbol of a woman still fighting—still holding on. It is also a tribute to a life that never had the chance to live to its fullest because of mentally ill men like her father, twisted horny blue-collar-scum like Homer, and vindictive jealous town’s people, like the town folk of Mississippi, who can’t seem to get their noses out of everyone’s business to see their own (no wonder why Faulkner created this town as fictional—so as not to place the blame). Think about the next time you have the reins of another person’s self esteem, try not to pull too hard—people still bleed. When you start to judge another person on the way they are living their life that is when you need to place the reins down—you are not their driver: They are.


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