William Faulkner is on of the most famous figures in American literary history. This sample literature paper explores the balance of power between masters and servants in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” as well as in Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.”
Faulkner and Browning’s representation of the power struggle
William Faulkner was the son of an old Mississippi family, and his works focus on Southern society and relationships within this world. “A Rose for Emily” is no exception and is heavily influenced by these Southern roots, the master-servant relationship is seen throughout the story and is a foundational theme that is woven through the flow of memories from the characters of the story. (Faulkner Biographical 2013)
Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” also focuses on the master-servant relationship, as the poem is unveiled, the reader sees the power and control demanded by the Duke, of his late Duchess, his disobedient “servant”. The relationships in Emily’s life in Faulkner’s work all lean towards this master-servant identification. There is never a balanced relationship in the story, only role-playing of master and servant. When anyone attempts to create a balance in the relationships, it does not end well for them.
“A Rose for Emily” and Faulkner’s themes of social isolation
Emily’s father has kept her separated from society and available to himself alone. He has disapproved of her suitors and emphasizes her class difference from the rest of town and the men she might have developed a normal life with. He has successfully isolated her and removed her from society – available only to himself. When his portrait is described, the reader sees a man with his back placed towards Emily, she is separated from him, in the foreground of the painting.
Emily’s father is holding a horsewhip in his hand, with his back to his daughter. The image is a master-slave relationship. There is no balance of power in the portrait, no love or freewill. He stands with his whip, in control, the master, emotionally removed with his back presented to her, impersonal and imperial. (Faulkner 1970) When Emily’s father dies, he leaves her only the house as her inheritance. She is his natural heir, and the house is hers. But she must find a way to overcome the gender stereotyping in a male-dominated society.
He’s not prepared her and, in death, he has again turned his back on her. She is left with the house and no means to pay for her expenses, and he has spent years removing her from society, training her to be his servant. This master-servant relationship is so apparent in “A Rose For Emily” that it spreads from father and daughter into the society around Emily.
Emily’s portrayal of power over the town
Emily is put in a position of master in her relationship with the townspeople. She has been raised to feel superior and above the townspeople, and they ensure this viewpoint by viewing her as an “idol” placed in the window. (Faulkner 1970) There is no balance of power in the relationship. This role of master-servant is passed from generation to generation, unquestioned until the issue of the back taxes on the house becomes important to some of the younger generation, who begin to question the master-slave relationship.
When the group of prospective tax collectors assembles at Emily’s house, they are clearly shown their servants role. She greets them in her parlor, nobody is offered a chair or refreshments. The tax collectors are put into a groveling position, and Emily, regal with her handsome gold topped cane tells them abruptly that no taxes are owed.
Society at the time subscribed to specific gender roles, but the people knew Emily held the real power and not the men. The contingent leaves defeated, tail between their legs. The master has spoken, the balance of taxes will not be set even – she is treated as a special case and does not owe taxes to the democracy below her. This is not the first time Emily has put the townspeople in their “place”.
Emily had defeated the townspeople thirty years earlier when they complained about the strange smell coming from her house. She imperiously refused to allow anyone to enter and inspect her castle-like home, and the townsmen created a mote of lime around her dwelling, further isolating her and setting her apart as the master of her small world, apart from the rest of the county.
Whenever the townspeople attempted to treat her like anyone else, they were summarily put in their place in the master-servant societal relationship. Emily’s potential suitor, Homer, was the closest relationship Emily has experienced to what would be considered a normal balance of power. This balance was met with a violent rejection.
Forced into a position of authority
After Emily’s father passes away, and she no longer has a master, she has assumed the role of master to the townspeople, just as her father had trained her. She has been made an idol by the townspeople, untouchable and permanently cut apart from society. The greatest hope Emily has of a normal relationship is Homer, the sidewalk salesman.
Society didn’t accept lower-class people and had a differnt ideology about race than people living in modern times. He enters her life and the townspeople are disturbed that their master may be lowering herself and fraternizing with a lesser class. Faulkner’s Southern class sensitivity is evident throughout this story, and Emily seems to be playing with fire by hanging out with Homer.
The townspeople are disturbed enough that they meddle and send for Emily’s cousins to help unbalance this democratic union. The town sees the relationship as rocking the family, community, and tradition, and would prefer Emily poisons herself, as a solution, rather then unite with a man that is the “servant” class, and not on equal footing with their master. However, Emily has other plans for her rat poison.
Perhaps Homer is on to equal a footing, perhaps he’s going to reject the master or is not following her game plan. Emily takes control of the situation and creates a compliant and permanent bedmate for herself. The master has again won the battle and there will be no equal footing in her home. The only acceptable relationship in this home is the master-servant role, and the only relationship that truly lasts is the clearest master-servant relationship: Emily’s black manservant Tobe.
Displays of racism and slavery
Tobe was probable born around the same time as Emily and perhaps even on a plantation. His role in society was even more restricted than Emily’s, with few options. He has taken care of Emily his entire adult life. Their master-servant relationship is clear and unchallenged. He is not free from Emily until her death, where he alerts the townspeople and hands over the responsibility of her body to their care.
It is only after her death that he leaves through the back door and the reader doesn’t hear anything else about him. (Faulkner 1970) The relationship between Emily and Tobe is the least problematic and doesn’t ever present any confrontation or challenge. Each accepts their role and never asks for more or less. The master-servant relationship is intact and unquestioned, causing no drama or conflict.
“My Last Duchess” and Browning’s portrayal of the master-servant relationship
Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” like “A Rose for Emily,” highlights the master-servant relationship, and the problems that arise when the personality seen as the servant appears to challenge the master. The Duke, like Emily’s father, clearly sees himself superior to those around him. He is infuriated by his wife’s disregard for his superior position, as if “she ranked My gift of a nine-hundred years old name with anybody’s gift”. (Browning 1999. Line 33)
Browning’s poem and Faulkner’s short story both explore the sexual double standards, fear men have of the women in their lives potential sexuality, and the male need for absolute power and to fix female sexuality. This leads into the role of master-servant in the controlling relationship of these dominant men over the women in their power. The difference in the two stories is that Emily turns the tables on conventional woman’s gender roles and becomes the master after her father’s death.
The Duke “gave commands, then all smiles stopped together.” (Browning 1999) He controlled his wife the Duchess eventually be destroying her. Emily controlled Homer eventually be killing him. He would never leave her – his rotting corpse occupied her bed. The Duchess is “safely” ensconced in a portrait for the Duke to pass and comment on. Both stories deal with the end result of violent death, as a solution to the master’s problems of perceived loss of control over their sexual counterparts.
Conclusion and summary
Both stories are heavily influenced by societal conventions separating class, race and gender roles. The master-servant relationship is seen throughout Faulkner’s short story and Browning’s poem, it is a foundational theme that is woven through the flow of memories from the various narrators of “A Rose for Emily” and the Duke as he rants about his ungrateful Duchess. The dominant master finds resolution to the perceived threat of the audacious counterpart by killing the “servant”. In both story and poem, society turns a blind eye and allows this abuse, choosing to ignore the lethal consequences of the masters need to control their counterpart.
Browning, Robert. My Last Duchess Ferrara. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 199. Print.
Faulkner, William, and M. Thomas Inge. A Rose for Emily,. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1970. Print.
“William Faulkner – Biographical.” William Faulkner – Biographical. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1949/faulkner-bio.html.