Essay: Rotten Societies & Secret Lives in the American South
In A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner and Good Country People by Flannery O’Conner, the secret lives of seemingly harmless citizens are only revealed after it is too late, creating a grotesque turn of events that permeate the end of both short stories. While the grotesque can be defined as “distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre” (OED), the short stories A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner and Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor extend this definition of the grotesque by depicting a society that is rotting from the inside out, with characters who seem harmless but are secretly engaged in sinister or horrific actions. Emily murdered a man for not marrying her and kept his body in her bed for decades, much to the horror of her neighbours who enter her bedroom on the day of her funeral. Whereas Manley, the travelling bible salesman, pretends to have a harmless crush on Joy but traps her in a barn and steals her prosthetic leg. The secret lives of these characters reveal not only their “rotten” nature, but the general degradation of society in the American South.
While the public perception of Emily and Manley in A Rose for Emily and Good Country People is at first positive, as the stories progress the rotten, horrific nature of these seemingly harmless people is discovered, making the short stories grotesque in their depiction of people’s insidious private lives. Emily in A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner is a seemingly harmless old spinster who in reality has killed a man and slept beside his decomposing body for decades. The travelling salesman in Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor goes by the name Manley but is actually using this false identity to pose as a simple salesman and steal prosthetic limbs and body parts from women. These two characters are more than capable of hiding their crimes from society, and despite the unsettling hints that occur throughout the stories, the reader is unlikely to uncover the truth about Emily and Manley before it is revealed to them. In both stories, the grotesque element comes in the form of a surprise that both confirms and destroys the reader’s understanding of the text so far. In both A Rose for Emily and Good Country People, the safety of the American South is undermined by the subtle hints at the beginning, and by the grotesque reveal at the end, which surprises and horrifies the reader.
Both short stories begin by depicting safe communities where proper society seems to rule. In A Rose for Emily, Emily is a harmless old maid who never married and is “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (48). Emily does not pay taxes, and the townspeople are careful not to upset her. They even sprinkle lime around her property at night so she would never know that her house smelled (51). When she buys arsenic the druggist assumes that she is using it to kill rats and sells it to her without her providing a reason, and everyone in town believes that she will not use it for anything besides rats or potentially suicide (54). When she dies, the “whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument” (47). The townspeople believe that Emily is a harmless lady who is in need of their protection — not a woman capable of murder.
Similarly, Mrs. Hopewell believes that Manley is a harmless boy and does not suspect that he is trying to seduce her daughter and steal her prosthetic leg. She believes him when he tells her that he’s “real simple” and “just a country boy” who wants to go into the ministry (450–451). When she discusses him with her daughter, Joy, she says “he bored me to death but he was so sincere and genuine I couldn’t be rude to him. He was just good country people, you know … just the salt of the earth” (452). The backstory that he tells at dinner claims that his mother raised him and his eleven other siblings after his father died when he was eight and that she always sent her children to church and made them read the bible every night (451). Manley says that he wants “to become a missionary because … that was the best the way you could do most for people,” which characterizes him as a kind, giving, and holy boy (451). His improper grammar, such as “do most” or “I would sher love that” suggests that he comes from the country and is a simple person (450–451). Yet, Manley’s story is only a story, and in truth the “Manley” he presents is only a façade for a far more sinister person.
The secret nature of Emily and Manley are hinted at during the story, but never fully investigated by the narrators. Both stories are told from a limited viewpoint, either as an unnamed townsperson in A Rose for Emily or a third person narrator in Good Country People. In A Rose for Emily, the smell of Emily’s house, her isolation, and her lone servant hint that she is misunderstood by the town — that she is possibly not the harmless old maid that she is accepted to be. Her house begins to smell soon after her relationship with Homer Barron ends, but the townspeople blame it on the black male cook she hired and do not realize it is the smell of Homer’s dead body (50). Her isolation after her father’s death is taken to be her clinging to the one man in her life, the narrator saying 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 robber her, as people will” (52). Emily’s isolation after her father’s death is believed to be caused by her lack of a man, not her will to live alone, which is social suicide. Even her purchase of the arsenic hints that she is up to something illegal, but the townspeople do not connect these clues — the isolation, the arsenic, then disappearance of Homer, then the smell — and they do not discover the truth about her until after her death.
In Good Country People, Joy’s prosthetic leg is repeatedly alluded to in the story, hinting that it is important to the climax of the novel. Mrs. Hopewell is ashamed of how bitterly her daughter copes with it and mentions that Joy’s leg was “shot off in a hunting accident when Joy was ten” and that it was upsetting for her to think of the opportunities Joy has missed out on because of this accident, such as dancing and having other “normal good times” (447). Joy is described as “stump[ing]” into the kitchen, having “ugly” remarks, a “glum” face, and being “stout” (possibly a pun on stump), all of which draw attention to her misfortune (447). Additionally, Joy changes her name to “the ugliest name in any language:” Hulga, the ugliness of which references her unfortunate accident (447). Mrs. Freeman also has a fascination with Joy’s leg and other deformities: “Mrs. Freeman has a special fondness for the details of secret infections, hidden deformities, assaults upon children. Of diseases, she preferred the lingering or incurable” (447). Mrs. Freeman enjoys hearing how Joy’s leg was “literally blown off, how she had never lost consciousness … Mrs. Freeman could listen to it any time as if it had happened an hour ago” (447). The narrator’s focus on Joy’s leg hints that it has a larger role to play in the story, but since Manley says only good things about it, such as her being “brave,” it is not immediately apparent that Manley also has an unpleasant obsession with the leg just like Mrs. Freeman.
In the final moments of A Rose for Emily, it is revealed that a dead body is in Emily’s bedroom. First the narrator noticed a man’s belongings in the room: his “toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished the monogram had disappeared,” his “collar and tie, as if they had just been removed, which, lifted, left upon the surface a pale crescent of dust,” and his “suit, carefully folded; beneath it two mute shoes and the discarded socks” (58). The monogramed toilet set was referred to earlier in the story, when Emily bought it and the townspeople assumed it was for after she married Homer. The clothes are presumably what Homer was wearing when he went to visit Emily that last time. The narrator then goes on, in a new, one-line paragraph to say: “The man himself lay in the bed” (58). The short, simple line completes the mystery of Emily’s strangeness, the smell, and reveals the grotesque nature of the story that had been kept secret for so long. The body “had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace,” meaning that Emily lay holding the man as she slept, but it was now so decomposed that “what was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay” (59). This phrase gives the reader the horrifying picture of a body so decomposed it has become attached to the sheets and bed beneath it. Finally, the truly grotesque line is the last sentence in the short story: “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” (59). The iron-grey hair is the last stage that Emily’s hair turned before she died. Earlier in the story her hair’s progression had been described, from “pepper-and-salt” to a “vigorous iron-grey” (56). The grey hair proves that she had slept in that bed until she died, or at least until her hair turned completely grey. The grotesque aspect of this revelation is not the disgustingly decomposed dead body, but the fact that Homer was murdered by Emily and she slept beside his dead body for years. Her secret is what makes the story grotesque — the fact that no one caught her, no one suspected her capable of doing such a thing.
Similarly, Good Country People hints that Manley is not as harmless as he looks, but in the end he is capable of doing something quite grotesque. It is suggested to the reader that there is more to Manley’s story than there seems because of phrases such as “he pretend[ed] to look puzzled but … his eyes sparkl[ed],” but the narrator does not go into any further detail until Manley and Joy are in the barn. When Manley first starts to kiss Joy, he is compared to a child, the narrator stating “his breath was clear and sweet like a child’s and the kisses were sticky like a child’s,” and Manley says the he loves her, mumbling “like the sleepy fretting of a child being put to sleep by his mother” (455). Manley’s tenderness and childlike awe continues through the prosthetic leg removal scene, where he is “reverent” towards her leg, nut then his description changes and his eyes are described as “two steel spikes” when he coaxes her to have sex with him before getting angry at her (457). When he looks at her again, he “no longer had any admiration [for her]” and tells her that he “got a women’s glass eye this way” (458). He reveals that he used a false name and she “ain’t that smart” because she fell for his lies (458). After Manley leaves her trapped in the barn, he is noticed by Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, and Mrs. Hopewell says “Why, that looks like that nice dull young man that tried to sell me a Bible yesterday… He was so simple … but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple” (458). Manley is not the simple character in this story: the women who fell for his tricks are. In reality, Manley is a conniving, horrific young man who preys on women and steals peoples’ prosthetics, countering the women’s social expectations of him and reinforcing the grotesque theme of the story.
These surprising turn of events work alongside the earlier hints to create a grotesque theme in the short stories. In both stories, the seedy personal lives of two seemingly harmless people are revealed, threatening the peaceful, socially righteous façade of the American South. The reader is now either surprised that they did not see this coming, or their fears of secretly horrific people are confirmed: either way, both short stories cause the reader to distrust the characters depicted. A Rose for Emily and Good Country People use the grotesque to undermine reader’s expectations and depict communities that are secretly horrifying under their harmless façade. The characters of Emily and Manley are set up as harmless, everyday people then slowly turned into monsters, with no development as to how they turned out to become such terrifying individuals. Thus, the novels focus on portraying the secret grotesqueness of society by first depicting its façade, then removing the façade to reveal the true nature of the South. Such stories not only counteract the stereotypical society of the south, but portray a version of the American South that is forgotten beneath social pleasantries and false fronts.
“Grotesque.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford English Dictionary, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Selected Short Stories. New York: Random House, 2012. 47–59. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. E. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 445–58. Print.