A Rose For Emily And An Occurrence At Owl Creek: Comparative Analysis

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Despite being born to opposite sides of the Civil War, Ambrose Bierce and William Faulkner both share a critical and disapproving view of the Confederate South and its refusal to progress, as showcased in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek”. Somewhat surprisingly, the anti-confederate motif is more prevalent in southerner Faulkner’s short story “A Rose For Emily,” in which an aging woman, symbolizing the tradition and conservative nature of the American south, refuses modern input and change to the point of taking a man’s life in order to preserve things as they had been. From the second paragraph of the story, the reader gets a sense of Emily and her ideals through the symbolic description of her home. The lone, aging remnant of the past on a modernized street, Emily house is described in grand detail as “stubborn” and having once been white, the interior dirty and in various states of deterioration (Faulkner [1]). 

The house, with its similarities to the highly recognizable symbol of a southern plantation, is aging poorly and sticking out in lingering opposition among more modern changes all along the street, much in the same fashion as the ideals of the southern population. When Emily herself is described, she is shown to be not much different than her house, stubbornly refusing to begin to pay taxes, receive mail, or even acknowledge the death of her own father—all stemming from a fear or distaste of change. Eventually, she kills her suitor in an attempt to keep him around without marrying him. In this case, her fear of change conflicted in two different ways: she didn’t want Homer to leave (as evidenced by the fact that she was shown to have been in love with him and slept next to his corpse), yet knew that it would break tradition to marry him as he was her economic and social inferior. The latter struggle is best described by the following quotes: “ Older people [..] said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige…” ([3]) and “ That quality of her father which had thwarted her woman’s life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die” ([4]). In the former, the explicit mention of older people as those who mentioned noblesse oblige (defined as an obligation of those of higher social status to treat those below them a certain way; in this case, not marrying) is very important because it defines the idea as an older tradition, which Emily has been shown to follow. In the latter, the quality referenced is the same sense of obligation to act a certain way, a tradition that will not die out. The first of only two references to the Confederacy establishes the symbolism of Emily as the “set-in-their-ways” attitude of the south; former Confederate soldiers at her funeral are described as “confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years” (Faulkner [5]), a description that sticks out not as one of the only openly contemplative sections in the story, but as a description that is extremely fitting of Emily herself, thus providing a tie between the obstinate woman and the elderly men in Confederate uniforms.

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A reading of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” requires a bit more analysis to find the Confederate criticism, but it remains nonetheless. It entails the examination of the irony in the story of a man who gave his life to a cause he supported for having been born into it, making little to no difference. This ironic sentiment is most easily observable as we gain background insight into Peyton Farquhar’s life and support for the Confederate States of America, when Bierce writes Peyton as “a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war” (Bierce [2]). Peyton’s aforementioned lack of qualification and uneducated, open-hearted acceptance of the Confederate cause leads him to his death, when he meets a Union soldier in disguise, who tricks him into tampering with a Union bridge and getting himself executed for it (most of the story therefore being comprised of the pre-death hallucinations of Peyton. This is the beginning of the story’s recurring motif of the color grey. Obviously, grey was the color of Confederate uniforms, which leads into Bierce’s first point about the Confederacy and, in fact, war in general: Peyton could not tell that the man in the grey uniform was not a Confederate soldier because all of the soldiers were equal as human beings, only separated by the color of the uniforms. This same moral appears later as Peyton supposedly observes the grey eyes of a man shooting at him. Grey being the same eye color Peyton has, thus provides yet another tie between Peyton and the “other side”; furthermore, since the shooter was only a part of Peyton’s illusion as he died, it is likely that this attribute came solely from his mind, meaning he saw some of himself, some humanity, within the Union army sergeant. Another interpretation of this grey motif is contingent mostly upon two quotes in which Peyton marvels at the world around him in his first in his final moments and then within his dying hallucination. Within the first, found on page [3], Bierce writes that Peyton was distracted by the golden color of the setting sun. The second, “[The sand] looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds…” (Bierce [3]), compares the sand to colorful gemstones and later goes on to describe Peyton’s experience of the colors and feeling of the scene around him as he rejoices in the saving of his life. Both situations find Peyton marveling at the colors and sights he sees while alive; grey, the symbol for which he is giving his life, is an absence of color, and as such, is fitting for Peyton’s death.

In both the case of “A Rose for Emily” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, the disapproval of Confederate America may not be overt, but neither is it nonexistent. Though Faulkner’s story of a character closely related to the southern Civil War era ideology differed greatly from Bierce’s story set explicitly during the Civil War, both used symbolism within their stories to effectively voice their criticism of Confederate ideals from either region of the United States. 

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