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Three Famous Short Novels ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Three Famous Short Novels

Three Famous Short Novels ~ A  Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. He was a genius, a literary stylist and innovator; there has never been anybody else quite like him. While some of his books are more accessible than others (As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary), his work is notoriously challenging to read. It helps sometimes, when reading Faulkner, to have a “study guide” or at least a synopsis of the chapters to be able to keep up with what is going on. He switches around from one time period to another, and the relationships among his numerous characters are often difficult to keep straight. There might, at times, even be different characters with the same name or with very similar names.

In this volume are three of Faulkner’s shorter, standalone works: Spotted Horses, Old Man, and The Bear. Not much happens in Spotted Horses. It’s about poor country people at an auction of some very wild Texas horses in Mississippi. These people are so poor that buying a horse for five dollars places a terrible financial burden on them. The thing about the horses is that they are so wild they can’t be caught after they’re sold. You don’t want to spend your last five dollars in the world for a horse you can’t catch. “Give me back my money. I wasn’t able to find the horse I bought.” “The owner of the horses took your money and has gone back to Texas. Too bad.” A fool and his money are soon parted.

The “old man” in Old Man is the Mississippi River. This readable and entertaining short novel is set in the Mississippi Delta in 1927, during a terrible flood in which there is much destruction of property, loss of human and animal life. (Faulkner renders a wonderfully vivid and evocative description of the flood.) Local officials enlist the aid of prison labor to help with sandbagging. Enter a stolid convict whose name we never know, in prison for the old-fashioned (even in the 1920s) crime of train robbing. He is soon swept away in a small boat on rising flood waters. He wants to get back before they think he has escaped, but he is not in control of where he goes. Eventually he rescues a woman who—guess what?—is about to have a baby. He saves her life (and the life of her baby) and with his strength is able to keep the boat upright. The man, the woman, the baby, and the boat end up very far away from where they started out. The prisoner wants nothing more than to get back to the relative comfort of the prison to finish his term. The irony is that he gets ten additional years tacked on to his sentence for his adventuring. Talk about gratitude! After all he went through, he should have been released from prison as long he promised not to rob any more trains.

Then we come to the short novel The Bear, which is notoriously difficult reading, at least in the fourth and fifth sections of its five sections. The time is the 1880s, when the wounds of the Civil War and slavery are still felt in the South (more about that comes later in the story). Every November all the hunters track the legendary bear, Old Ben, but there seems to be kind of an unspoken agreement not to kill him. Old Ben has been shot many times but never brought down. Tracking him is a sort of sport, not unlike a boxing match or some other sporting event. Young hunter Isaac McCaslin (“Ike” for short) grows up in the woods, becoming a more accomplished woodsman and hunter than most grown men while still a child. He comes to revere Old Ben as a sort of god. In one fateful encounter with a “legendary” dog, however, Old Ben has met his match. When one of the hunters, Boon Hoggenbeck, sees that Old Ben is about to kill the dog, he steps in and kills the bear with a knife instead of a gun. So much for the unspoken pledge not to kill the bear.

The death of Old Ben comes at the end of the third section of the novel. For the next two sections, Faulkner switches gear for some reason, making the story seem uneven. (He must have had his reasons; after all, he was the genius.) Fast forward to 1888, when Ike is twenty-one. He and his cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, are in the plantation commissary, looking at some old ledgers in which Ike’s father and Ike’s father’s twin brother, McCaslin’s father, recorded some semi-literate entries about slaves they had bought and sold before the Civil War and Emancipation. Ike and McCaslin read the ledger entries and we (the reader) read them too. They go on and on and are not all that interesting. Ike and McCaslin then engage in a long and dense discussion of how wrong slavery was for the South and how the South and everybody in it is cursed because of it. There are some very long sentences here and some very long paragraphs (one single sentence is 1600 words). You have to be a dedicated reader to wade through all this.

Faulkner is Faulkner and he is the one and only. Nobody else even comes close. You either find his work rewarding or completely incomprehensible. After you’ve read one of his sentences or one of his paragraphs, you might have to go back and break the sentence or the paragraph down into its various parts to understand what he is saying. And, as wordy and dense as his work is, he is also the master of the unspoken. Read him and you’ll see what I mean.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp


Absalom, Absalom ~ A Capsule Book Review

1936 first edition cover

1936 first edition cover

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the best American novelist of the twentieth century, the supreme literary stylist. His works are deep, cerebral, rich and complex. His style is dense, sometimes fragmented, wordy and difficult to read. He has the longest sentences and the longest paragraphs of any other writer. If you are trying to follow the thread of a sentence, you might have to go back and break it down into its many parts to figure out exactly what is being said. If reading a novel by Faulkner is frustrating and tedious at times (a painful slog), you must also know that it is worth the effort or you wouldn’t be doing it.

When I first started reading Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom, I found the first chapter (told in the voice of Miss Rosa Coldfield in 1909 when she is 64 years old) so difficult that I almost gave up. If you are able to make it through the first chapter, however, the following chapters are easier. Not easy, but not quite as difficult. (There’s no linear structure to the novel.)

Absalom, Absalom is the multilayered family saga of the Sutpen and Coldfield families in the American South in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Thomas Sutpen confounds the town of Jefferson, Mississippi—and particularly the Coldfield family—when he comes from nowhere and acquires a huge tract of land, called the Sutpen Hundred (square miles, not acres), and builds an enormous house on the edge of a swamp with the help of his band of wild black men and a French architect, who he more or less treats as a captive.

For years after the house is built, Thomas Sutpen entertains a band of his male friends with wild hunting and drinking parties and wrestling matches, until the day arrives when he decides he wants to acquire respectability in the form of a wife and children. He drives away his male friends and proposes to a town girl named Ellen Coldfield. (Faulkner compares her throughout the novel to a butterfly.)

To the unlikely union between Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield are born Henry and Judith. (Thomas Sutpen also has a half-black daughter named Clytemnestra, or “Clytie,” that he had with a slave woman.) Ellen Coldfield has a sister, Miss Rosa Coldfield, who is twenty-seven years younger than she is (younger than her own children). The first part of the story is being told by the elderly Rosa Coldfield to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was the best friend of Thomas Sutpen. The part that Rosa Coldfield plays in the novel is more of an observer than active participant in what is going on.

When Henry Sutpen is grown (or almost grown), he goes away to college in Oxford, Mississippi. There he meets and becomes good friends with one Charles Bon. Charles is older and more worldly-wise and sophisticated than Henry. (Henry is clearly infatuated with Charles Bon. Faulkner later suggests more than just simple friendship between the two, especially on Henry’s part.) When Henry writes home about Charles Bon, his mother immediately sees Charles as a likely husband for Judith. Charles visits the Sutpen home with Henry on more than one occasion. His interest in Judith seems perfunctory. Will he propose to her or won’t he? We learn later a dark secret about Charles Bon, which I won’t reveal here, and that his association with the Sutpen family is part of an elaborate scheme of revenge. This element of the story drives the narrative for much of the second half of the novel.

The Civil War obtrudes upon the lives of the characters. The three principal male characters (Thomas Sutpen, Henry Sutpen, Charles Bon) all find themselves in battle. (Thomas Sutpen achieves the rank of colonel.) The war, of course, doesn’t turn out the way many Southerners hoped it would or expected it would. (Faulkner points out that the Southern army had the highest mortality rate of any army in history.) The men who survive, defeated not only in war but also in spirit, return home starving and in tatters to discover that everything they loved or cared about has been swept away. It is this defeat that is subtext to everything else.

Absalom, Absalom (the name derives from a character in the Bible) is a dark story, full of revenge, incest (or almost incest), miscegenation, family secrets, hubris, intentions gone awry, class distinction, loss and suffering. There’s no redemption for anybody, no life-affirming conclusion. Nobody writes about these things (or about the South) the way Faulkner does. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Requiem for a Nun ~ A Capsule Book Review

Requiem for a Nun cover

Requiem for a Nun ~ A Capsule Book Review By Allen Kopp

William Faulkner, the master of twentieth century Southern American gothic writing, wrote Requiem for a Nun as a sort of sequel to his novel Sanctuary, meaning that it’s a brief glimpse into the life of fallen woman Temple Drake eight years after the close of Sanctuary. Requiem for a Nun was written around 1951, when Faulkner was 54 years old, about twenty years after Sanctuary.

Requiem for a Nun is an odd little book, not a traditional novel. The story is told in dramatic form, meaning that reading it is like reading a play. That’s not all, though. The “acts” of the novel are interspersed with some of Faulkner’s dense prose; dense in the sense that sentences are frequently half-a-page long or longer, and you won’t know what he’s saying unless you’re reading carefully and go back and break down the sentences into their various parts. Faulkner is the master of interjectional writing. Great writer though he was, it’s as if his mind was so twisted with interweaving thoughts that he couldn’t finish one thought before he started in on another. I suppose this is part of his “innovation,” although not easy on the reader.

The “narrative” portions of the book that are interspersed with the “dramatic” portions are about the fictional history of the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, in fictional Yoknapatawpha County; specifically the jail, the courthouse, and how the town was begun. These fictional historical details actually have nothing to do with the “story” told in dramatic form.

Readers familiar with the character Temple Drake from Faulkner’s earlier novel Sanctuary know that she ended badly. She was witness to a murder and lied on the witness stand to defend the real murderer, a deformed thug named Popeye, who took her to Memphis and set her up in a whorehouse to keep her from going to the police and telling them what she knew. Requiem for a Nun picks up her story eight years later. She is free of Popeye (he was hanged for another crime that he apparently was innocent of) and is married to her drunken male companion, Gowan Stevens, from Sanctuary. They have two children, an infant daughter and a slightly older son.

Temple has taken a black woman named Nancy Mannigoe, former drug addict and prostitute, into her house as a sort of governess for her two small children. Temple believes she is saving Nancy from her terrible life and giving her a chance to have a better one. When the action of Requiem for a Nun begins, Nancy has murdered Temple and Gowan’s baby daughter in her crib and is going to be executed in a few days for her crime. Temple decides within two days of Nancy’s execution that she herself is responsible for the murder of her own baby, beginning with her actions eight years earlier, and attempts to save Nancy’s life. There is one very long scene where she and her husband’s lawyer uncle go and see the governor of the state in the state capital in the middle of the night to plead for Nancy’s life, even though Temple knows there is no use.

Since there is no nun in Requiem for a Nun, I’m not sure what the title means, although I’m figuring it refers to Nancy Mannigoe. She goes to her death serenely because she believes she deserves to die and because she is a “believer.” Nancy’s serenity is something that Temple Drake cannot touch, understand or share. She is a tormented woman and we get the distinct impression that she will never be anything but that.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp  

Sanctuary ~ A Capsule Book Review

Faulkner - Sanctuary

Sanctuary ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Many readers find William Faulkner’s work difficult to navigate. His style is very dense at times and we don’t always know at first what he is saying. Whereas many writers walk the reader step by step through what is going on, Faulkner leaves the reader to make certain connections that aren’t always easy to make. For example, in his 1931 novel, Sanctuary, the character Horace Benbow mentions Little Belle, his stepdaughter, on numerous occasions. Little Belle seems to be extremely important to Benbow but we never really known why. Is he in love with her? Does he lust after her? Why has he run away from his wife, Little Belle’s mother? Why does the subject of Little Belle come up with him so much? Why does Benbow have such a contentious relationship with his sister, Narcissa? Is Narcissa his conscience?

These small things aside, Sanctuary is (along with As I Lay Dying) one of Faulkner’s most accessible works, at 250 pages. I first read it many years ago and, after seeing the sanitized 1935 film version, called The Story of Temple Drake, I dug the book out of a box in my basement and read it again. It’s a sordid story about bootleggers (it takes place, after all, during Prohibition), prostitutes, and a fallen woman. Over everything looms the presence of a character named Popeye (we never know him by any other name). Popeye is a sociopath with a misshapen body (he was sickly as a child and never developed properly).

Bootlegger Lee Goodwin operates out of the shattered shell of an antebellum mansion. He has a woman with him (apparently they are not married) and a baby that’s sick all the time. Several nefarious types, including Popeye, hang around Lee Goodwin’s place. His “woman” cooks for them, complains all the time, and takes care of the baby.

Pretty college girl Temple Drake goes to Lee Goodwin’s with a male friend to buy some illegal booze. When the male friend becomes permanently drunk and can’t be relied upon to remove Temple from this awful place, she finds she is in for an extended stay, whether she likes it or not. She tries to get somebody to take her back to town, but it seems that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. She captures the attention of the low men who inhabit the place, including Popeye.

In the course of sexually assaulting Temple, Popeye shoots and kills Tommy, a halfwit who has taken it upon himself to protect Temple. Popeye then leaves with Temple and installs her in a Memphis whorehouse. Lee Goodwin, the bootlegger, is assumed to have killed Tommy and jailed to await trial, although he is innocent of the charge.

At the whorehouse where Popeye has taken Temple, she becomes mentally unhinged. She seems to have given up on being able to return to her old life. Is she willing to let Popeye do whatever he wants with her, or is she only pretending? We learn later that Popeye is not able to perform sexually. (In his initial assault of her, he used a corncob.) At one point he uses a man named Red to engage sexually with Temple while he watches and then shoots Red in the head and kills him.

The whorehouse gives Faulkner the chance to add some humor to the story, especially in the person of Miss Reba, who runs the house. She has two little yapping dogs named Reba and Mr. Binford. (Mr. Binford is a long-dead sweetheart of hers.) In one of the chapters that provides a comic interlude, Reba and two lady friends have just come from the funeral of Red and are getting drunk. One of the ladies has a small boy with her whom they call Uncle Bud who has an unusual (for a child) fondness for beer.

Horace Benbow defends Lee Goodwin in his trial for killing Tommy, but it is a miscarriage of justice. Lee knows that Popeye killed Tommy but won’t say so. When they bring in Temple Drake, she testifies that she saw Lee Goodwin kill Tommy. She is afraid of what Popeye will do to her if she tells the truth. Her testimony seals Lee Goodwin’s fate.

Popeye leaves town but, we learn, his past catches up with him when he is apprehended someplace else for an earlier murder he committed. Temple is free of Popeye but apparently her life is ruined. She is beyond redemption.

Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp 

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

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William Faulkner (1897-1962)

A Rose for Emily ~ A Classic American Short Story by William Faulkner

WHEN Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years.

It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps-an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.

Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor–he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron-remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it.

When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen, this arrangement created some little dissatisfaction. On the first of the year they mailed her a tax notice. February came, and there was no reply. They wrote her a formal letter, asking her to call at the sheriff’s office at her convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her himself, offering to call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice was also enclosed, without comment.

They called a special meeting of the Board of Aldermen. A deputation waited upon her, knocked at the door through which no visitor had passed since she ceased giving china-painting lessons eight or ten years earlier. They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse–a close, dank smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was furnished in heavy, leather-covered furniture. When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray. On a tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait of Miss Emily’s father.

They rose when she entered–a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand.

She did not ask them to sit. She just stood in the door and listened quietly until the spokesman came to a stumbling halt. Then they could hear the invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain.

Her voice was dry and cold. “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and satisfy yourselves.”

“But we have. We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn’t you get a notice from the sheriff, signed by him?”

“I received a paper, yes,” Miss Emily said. “Perhaps he considers himself the sheriff . . . I have no taxes in Jefferson.”

“But there is nothing on the books to show that, you see We must go by the–”

“See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson.”

“But, Miss Emily–”

“See Colonel Sartoris.” (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.) “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Tobe!” The Negro appeared. “Show these gentlemen out.”


So SHE vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell.

That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart–the one we believed would marry her –had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all. A few of the ladies had the temerity to call, but were not received, and the only sign of life about the place was the Negro man–a young man then–going in and out with a market basket.

“Just as if a man–any man–could keep a kitchen properly, “the ladies said; so they were not surprised when the smell developed. It was another link between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty Griersons.

A neighbor, a woman, complained to the mayor, Judge Stevens, eighty years old.

“But what will you have me do about it, madam?” he said.

“Why, send her word to stop it,” the woman said. “Isn’t there a law? ”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Judge Stevens said. “It’s probably just a snake or a rat that nigger of hers killed in the yard. I’ll speak to him about it.”

The next day he received two more complaints, one from a man who came in diffident deprecation. “We really must do something about it, Judge. I’d be the last one in the world to bother Miss Emily, but we’ve got to do something.” That night the Board of Aldermen met–three graybeards and one younger man, a member of the rising generation.

“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her word to have her place cleaned up. Give her a certain time to do it in, and if she don’t. ..”

“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”

So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder. They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings. As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol. They crept quietly across the lawn and into the shadow of the locusts that lined the street. After a week or two the smell went away.

That was when people had begun to feel really sorry for her. People in our town, remembering how old lady Wyatt, her great-aunt, had gone completely crazy at last, believed that the Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were. None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door. So when she got to be thirty and was still single, we were not pleased exactly, but vindicated; even with insanity in the family she wouldn’t have turned down all of her chances if they had really materialized.

When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to her; and in a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily. Being left alone, and a pauper, she had become humanized. Now she too would know the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more or less.

The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body. Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly.

We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.


SHE WAS SICK for a long time. When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows–sort of tragic and serene.

The town had just let the contracts for paving the sidewalks, and in the summer after her father’s death they began the work. The construction company came with riggers and mules and machinery, and a foreman named Homer Barron, a Yankee–a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face. The little boys would follow in groups to hear him cuss the riggers, and the riggers singing in time to the rise and fall of picks. Pretty soon he knew everybody in town. Whenever you heard a lot of laughing anywhere about the square, Homer Barron would be in the center of the group. Presently we began to see him and Miss Emily on Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched team of bays from the livery stable.

At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the ladies all said, “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.” But there were still others, older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige– –

without calling it noblesse oblige. They just said, “Poor Emily. Her kinsfolk should come to her.” She had some kin in Alabama; but years ago her father had fallen out with them over the estate of old lady Wyatt, the crazy woman, and there was no communication between the two families. They had not even been represented at the funeral.

And as soon as the old people said, “Poor Emily,” the whispering began. “Do you suppose it’s really so?” they said to one another. “Of course it is. What else could . . .” This behind their hands; rustling of craned silk and satin behind jalousies closed upon the sun of Sunday afternoon as the thin, swift clop-clop-clop of the matched team passed: “Poor Emily.”

She carried her head high enough–even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness. Like when she bought the rat poison, the arsenic. That was over a year after they had begun to say “Poor Emily,” and while the two female cousins were visiting her.

“I want some poison,” she said to the druggist. She was over thirty then, still a slight woman, though thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples and about the eyesockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face ought to look. “I want some poison,” she said.

“Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I’d recom–”

“I want the best you have. I don’t care what kind.”

The druggist named several. “They’ll kill anything up to an elephant. But what you want is–”

“Arsenic,” Miss Emily said. “Is that a good one?”

“Is . . . arsenic? Yes, ma’am. But what you want–”

“I want arsenic.”

The druggist looked down at her. She looked back at him, erect, her face like a strained flag. “Why, of course,” the druggist said. “If that’s what you want. But the law requires you to tell what you are going to use it for.”

Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up. The Negro delivery boy brought her the package; the druggist didn’t come back. When she opened the package at home there was written on the box, under the skull and bones: “For rats.”


So THE NEXT day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would be the best thing. When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, “She will marry him.” Then we said, “She will persuade him yet,” because 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. Later we said, “Poor Emily” behind the jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon in the glittering buggy, Miss Emily with her head high and Homer Barron with his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove.

Then some of the ladies began to say that it was a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young people. The men did not want to interfere, but at last the ladies forced the Baptist minister–Miss Emily’s people were Episcopal– to call upon her. He would never divulge what happened during that interview, but he refused to go back again. The next Sunday they again drove about the streets, and the following day the minister’s wife wrote to Miss Emily’s relations in Alabama.

So she had blood-kin under her roof again and we sat back to watch developments. At first nothing happened. Then we were sure that they were to be married. We learned that 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. Two days later we learned that she had bought a complete outfit of men’s clothing, including a nightshirt, and we said, “They are married.” We were really glad. We were glad because the two female cousins were even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been.

So we were not surprised when Homer Barron–the streets had been finished some time since–was gone. We were a little disappointed that there was not a public blowing-off, but we believed that he had gone on to prepare for Miss Emily’s coming, or to give her a chance to get rid of the cousins. (By that time it was a cabal, and we were all Miss Emily’s allies to help circumvent the cousins.) Sure enough, after another week they departed. And, as we had expected all along, within three days Homer Barron was back in town. A neighbor saw the Negro man admit him at the kitchen door at dusk one evening.

And that was the last we saw of Homer Barron. And of Miss Emily for some time. The Negro man went in and out with the market basket, but the front door remained closed. Now and then we would see her at a window for a moment, as the men did that night when they sprinkled the lime, but for almost six months she did not appear on the streets. Then we knew that this was to be expected too; as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman’s life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die.

When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man.

From that time on her front door remained closed, save for a period of six or seven years, when she was about forty, during which she gave lessons in china-painting. She fitted up a studio in one of the downstairs rooms, where the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris’ contemporaries were sent to her with the same regularity and in the same spirit that they were sent to church on Sundays with a twenty-five-cent piece for the collection plate. Meanwhile her taxes had been remitted.

Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town, and the painting pupils grew up and fell away and did not send their children to her with boxes of color and tedious brushes and pictures cut from the ladies’ magazines. The front door closed upon the last one and remained closed for good. When the town got free postal delivery, Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it. She would not listen to them.

Daily, monthly, yearly we watched the Negro grow grayer and more stooped, going in and out with the market basket. Each December we sent her a tax notice, which would be returned by the post office a week later, unclaimed. Now and then we would see her in one of the downstairs windows–she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house–like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which. Thus she passed from generation to generation–dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.

And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering Negro man to wait on her. We did not even know she was sick; we had long since given up trying to get any information from the Negro

He talked to no one, probably not even to her, for his voice had grown harsh and rusty, as if from disuse.

She died in one of the downstairs rooms, in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her gray head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight.


THE NEGRO met the first of the ladies at the front door and let them in, with their hushed, sibilant voices and their quick, curious glances, and then he disappeared. He walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again.

The two female cousins came at once. They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; 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.

Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced. They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it.

The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust. A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man’s toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured. Among them lay a collar and tie, as if they had just been removed, which, lifted, left upon the surface a pale crescent in the dust. Upon a chair hung the suit, carefully folded; beneath it the two mute shoes and the discarded socks.

The man himself lay in the bed.

For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.