Short story writers are an interesting breed, as they are writers who must create vivid characters, landscapes, and plots in a prose format meant to be read in one sitting. Whereas a novel might not need to capture your utmost attention at all times, expecting you to continue reading for the eventual payoff coming in some later chapter, short stories need to be economic and eloquent, wasting few words and no sentences.
Short stories tend to feature a dense opening that engenders both a wealth of questions and an investment in what is soon to be revealed. A distinct example of this that promptly comes to mind is William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily. Here’s the opening line/paragraph of the story:
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.
Faulkner, a writer who could best described as writing in the baroque style, eccentric, extravagant, and heavily ornamented, is quite simple and direct in the outset of Miss Emily Grierson’s story. As Faulkner constructs the story’s opening sentence, he introduces the reader to the fundamental characters and audience of the story, as well as their relationship to Miss Emily Grierson. So far as we know, the critical incident in the story has taken place: Miss Emily Grierson has died and the town has arrived at her home for the funeral.
The brilliance of Faulkner’s writing is that while reading the opening sentence the reader is met with a barrage of immediate analysis and questions. Such elucidations and inquiries that are evoked are as follows, going meticulously by every few words:
When Miss Emily Grierson died
Who is she? She goes by “Miss,” so was she married and widowed, or was she always single? How did she die? What makes her important enough that her death is of importance?
Our whole town went to her funeral
She or her family must have had some importance to the town. Knowing that this is Faulkner, a Southern Gothic author, one can assume that her and/or her family must have had ties to the history of the South.
The men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument
These previous thoughts are proven true. If he is describing her death to a “fallen monument,” one can ascertain that he is comparing this to the South’s tragic view of the Civil War’s outcome. Her and/or her family must have had harbored a great deal of respect in the town, likely being tied to the South’s antebellum aristocratic society, as well as defending it valiantly during the Civil War. Her death, in this way, is a loss of a society that once was, further erasing the eclectic history of this town.
The women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house
While petty, we now know that Miss Emily Grierson must have been a recluse, especially if they wanted to see the inside of her house. More so, was she hiding something within the house? Is the reason why the women wanted to see it, out of some gossip that had spread around town?
Which no one save an old man-servant — a combined gardener and cook — seen in at least ten years.
Why was the old man-servant the only other person in the house? Had all of her family perished? Since this is the South post-Civil War, is the man-servant black? Does the fact that they have been the only two people in the house make the townspeople uncomfortable? On the other hand, is this old man-servant the only person that Miss Emily Grierson can trust? Maybe she does have something to hide, especially if he is the only person around. We also know she is a recluse, since no one else has seen the inside of her home in at least ten years. Perhaps she was hiding in her home out of embarrassment over her and her family’s loss of societal importance. Maybe she does not want to be a part of a society that feels tainted in comparison to her family’s history. It could be that none of that matters. For all one knows, she might have something to hide from the rest of the town.
The story only flourishes from here, developing the deeply troubled character that is Miss Emily Grierson. From the perspective of the townsfolk, we learn about the Grierson family’s history in Faulkner’s fictional city of Jefferson, Mississippi, as well as the sorrow and compassion that they feel for Emily’s lonely life.
I don’t want to spoil the story for those that have not read it, but Faulkner finds his stride from the provocative beginning of this story to the climactic escalation in the end. Conveyed through this one reclusive woman, Faulkner presents a tainted, troubled image of the South following the tragic demise of the Antebellum aristocracy from the white perspective. In the end, he leaves us pondering whether or not this woman deserves the sympathy this town has felt for her.