Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sample Literary Analysis: Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"

Original image by Don,  Gothic Rest, used with 
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Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" ends with a shockingly macabre scene, but that may not resonate with some readers. Why not? And how do we write about that?

When writing a literary analysis, student writers should try to keep some key ideas in mind. First, a good literary analysis is based on an interesting observation. Second, a good literary analysis must be framed as an argument (a statement that is neither verifiably true nor false,  but can be argued). Finally, a literary analysis should be narrowed to focus on one literary element within the story, and a writer should provide examples of that literary element in the context of his or her argument.

What follows in italics is a breakdown of how an argument about William Faulkner's short story, "A Rose for Emily" changes from observation to argument as the writer expands on the main idea. This argument begins with the writer's own personal observations, and then the writer focuses on one literary element while providing examples from the story.

Beginning with an Observation: Social Distance and Loss of Affect in "A Rose for Emily"

Skeleton Woman by Original Bliss
To begin, after reading the story a few times, a reader might notice a few things about the story. The reader
might notice some lines in the story that make her uncomfortable, and she might notice that although it seems to her  like the ending of the story should be shocking, it just isn’t.  She just doesn't feel "shocked."  The reader might then go on to try to figure out why the ending isn’t as shocking as she thinks it is supposed to be.  "It's probably because of all the violence on television," she thinks, as she has heard it so many times.  "I'm desensitized to the violence."

It might be easy for the reader to consider the argument that Faulkner's short story, "A Rose for Emily" is no longer relevant because today's readers have become desensitized to the macabre ending of the story. The reader jots that down as a working thesis statement and then looks for evidence in the story.

The reader jots down: When the narrator and other townspeople enter the room that "no one had seen in forty years," and discover Miss Emily's "rotted" love, the narrator reports they "just stood there" (Faulkner, 1931, pg. 183). The narrator and townspeople are shocked by the scene, whereas today's readers might easily recall seeing such a scene, or worse, in dozens of films, television shows, or even newspapers in recent years. It would be easy to say these readers would not be shocked, and this moment in the story, meant to be a jarring revelation, might be lost on them. 

However, although that argument can be supported, there’s something just not right about it. The reader knows that she is often shocked by any violence she sees in the media, so she knows that her exposure to violence can’t really be the reason the ending is lost on her. In order to reframe the argument, this writer must reexamine her initial interesting observations and dig deeper into the story.  "There are no shortcuts or easy answers in literature," she remembers her professor saying.  She draws a line through her first thesis and continues to work.

Reframing an Observation as an Argument: The Narrator's Tone Distracts the Reader

The reader knows she is not shocked by the ending of “A Rose for Emily,” but she knows it isn’t because of her desensitization to violence. The reader’s job is to find a better reason why she is disconnected from the end of the story. Going back to her original observations, she sees that she highlighted and starred a few lines in the story that all make her very uncomfortable, almost distracted. All of the lines, if spoken today, would be highly offensive to women or other races.  All of the lines she has marked demonstrate a lack of diversity consciousness.

The reader considers that her disconnect with the story has a lot to do with those lines and her own discomfort.  She was so distracted by the blatant racism and sexism in the lines, she wasn't even thinking about the ending of the story when it came along.

Supporting the Argument with Examples of the Distracting Narrative Tone

The reader jots down: A deeper argument about the relevance of this story has much more to do with the tone of the narrator, and much less to do with violent images in the media. Almost offhandedly, throughout the story the narrator demonstrates a negative and superior attitude toward both the Black race and female gender. The narrator seems to accept as fact his superiority over the two groups.

Then, the reader looks for examples in the story that support her argument: For example, “Only a woman could have believed it,” the narrator states when describing the invented business that led to Miss Emily’s tax remittance (pg. 177). Additionally, the female Blacks in this town are not allowed out on the streets without aprons (pg. 17), the judge uses what we refer to today as “The N Word” (pg. 178), and Miss Emily’s servant, Tobe, is her servant until the day she dies and he leaves the premises (pg. 183).

This tone, or attitude, toward both the Black servants and Miss Emily and the other women of the town creates a distracting distance between the reader and the cultural atmosphere of Faulkner's story. Because of the narrator's tone, today’s younger reader just cannot imagine himself or herself in that setting without feeling a bit of moral indignation. Distracted by their own thoughts and discomfort about the moral indignation within the story as gauged by contemporary standards, the morally wrong act committed by Miss Emily, the murder, is lessened. In fact, it's actually that distance, that unwillingness on the part of the reader to accept these negative attitudes, that causes the reader's disconnect with the jarring ending, not contemporary society's fascination with violent media images.

At this point, our reader can begin to add her ideas to an outline so the paper can be planned and drafted.  She has learned that to write about literature is to make observations about a work, frame the observation as an argument, focus on one literary element within the story, and provide examples in the context of the argument.


  • Faulkner, W. (1931). A Rose for Emily. In P. Schakel & J. Ridle (Eds.), Approaching Literature: Reading + Writing + Thinking, (3rd ed.), (pp. 176 - 183. Boston, MA: Bedford/ St. Martins.

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