, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.
A student in my Composition and Literature course told me that she had trouble relating to Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” She just “didn’t get” the story.
“She’s an old woman from a weird family. And she killed somebody.”
“Is Emily Grierson really that far removed from the average person?” I asked. “To somebody, each of us is old. And if we really think about it, aren’t most of our families weird in some way?”
A collective murmur of agreement engulfed the classroom.
“Okay, I may be old to my little brother,” she conceded, “and you’re right about odd families. Mine is definitely strange. But I’ve never killed anybody. I’m not a villain.”
“But have you ever been angry enough, hurt enough to at least think about killing another person?”
The tendency to expect our students to regurgitate what we tell them about the literature, instead of helping students make personal connections, abounds in education. While this approach to the literature is not completely without merit, demanding broad acquiescence to our ideas and beliefs is one way we rob students of their ability to relate to the literature on their unique terms.
Of course this method does not mean students have free reign to interpret works any old way. No, “A Rose for Emily” is not a happy love story. Emily Grierson’s life is not one held in high regard for our emulation; her life, however, does represent elements of humanity that most of us face, problems with which we find ourselves wrestling, on a regular basis. Don’t we, after all, want to teach the literature in a more personalized way?
When I was 18 or 19, relating to the death of an old woman who had been sleeping with the corpse of the lover she murdered was a stretch of my imagination. The same applies to our students now until we allow them to struggle with their own lives and experiences in terms of the broader human condition: everybody ages, most of us fall in love, we hurt when we’re betrayed, we seek some form of revenge.
Our students experience an inherent longing for acceptance and validation, and it’s that same longing that compels Miss Emily to take Homer’s life. Is she a bad person? No worse than the rest of us. Does she give in to her momentary desire for some aberrant sense of retribution? Yes, but we’ve all probably at least considered doing the same thing.
Each person who reads the story can relate to the struggle to overcome momentary urges that, while at the time may seem perfectly acceptable considering a vulnerable emotional state, ultimately carry with them legal or moral repercussions that will result in a far greater struggle in the long run. That’s a key lesson our students should know.
As we provide students the freedom to relate to characters, not only the protagonists, but the antagonists, too, in ways that make those universal struggles relevant, we empower students to move beyond a read-the-story-and-answer-the-questions mentality that permeates our profession. Sure, students may answer the assigned questions that accompany the readings, but do they actually care about how they’ve responded? Or, do they simply do the work in order to meet the requirements of the assignment? That’s really the core of our struggle as educators – creating relevance.
In the end, more students have something in common with Emily Grierson than they do Homer Barron. Homer may be the one who gets the poison, but Emily, like all of us, struggles with and succumbs to her desire to become whole after her fall. Once we give our students the autonomy to relate to the villain in the same ways we encourage them to find common ground with the characters we deem morally or ethically “good,” we help them realize that each of us has the potential to be the villain and commit a crime as egregious as murder. From Emily Grierson’s mistakes, though, we can all learn how to better manage our urges and begin to recognize each other’s basic humanity.