Faulkner is a Structuralist’s field day. I don’t think “A Rose for Emily” would quite work without the binary oppositions that are present. Obviously life and death work largely into the plot. Most of the narrating town would consider Emily to be leading a haunted life, surrounding herself with the presence of death, not to mention the creepy scene in the grocer’s where she purchases arsenic. Another binary opposition would have to be the racial tension between the blacks and whites in the piece. It’s not a main focus of the piece, but when the black servant opens the door toward the end of the story, then runs out the back door, the racial roles are pinpointed. Not only do whites in the text maintain a creepy aura of secretive curiosity, but so do the African-Americans. The rich/poor opposition comes into play as well. Emily refuses to pay her taxes but affords servants and arsenic. A Marxist might say she locked her bourgeoisie potential in the attic with her husband in an attempt to remain part of a southern proletariat, although that’s a stretch and it’s very hard to analyze Faulkner politically.
The pivotal tension has to be life and death. Emily seems entirely reserved to the thought of revitalizing her life and getting herself out of that death-laden home. When her father died, it made a huge impact on how she perceived the world. She became angry, reserved, and patient for a target to enact that anger upon. When Homer Barron began construction in front of her house, Emily wasn’t having it. She probably turned on some sort of southern gothic charm and whittled old Homer down to a poor sap before knocking him out of his rocker with that arsenic. I think it’s interesting, too, that Emily tried to keep her father’s body when he died. They wouldn’t let her do that, but she kept Homer’s hidden away in the second floor.
Many of these oppositions can be seen throughout Southern Gothic work, dating back to Edgar Allen Poe and probably further. Flannery O’Connor certainly showcases some of these same elements in her work. In “As I Lay Dying”, the plot revolves around a dysfunctional southern family trying to get their dead grandmother across to California. Much of the irony in that novel comes from the fact that the story hinges on the awkward balance between life and death and how mortality is more fragile than anyone in the Bundren family originally thought. When the grandma is rocking around, dead and in her coffin, when they’re crossing the river, the audience so easily follows the comic bumbling of the rest of the family. Faulkner purposefully keeps our heads away from the fact that there’s a dead woman soaking through in a coffin and rotting her way to the hands of her quirky family.
Some universally recognizable mythemes would be the presence of death and its effect on a town or a family member. Another would have to be isolation, because everyone understands loneliness. Even if it’s not to the Virginia Wolff level that Emily Grierson exhibits, I think everybody can relate to sitting in some days, listening to some relaxing music, and getting away from the world. If you do that too much though, arsenic for your hubby probably isn’t too far down the line.