16 October 2002
Reading stories often leads people to find specific similarities and differences between them, whether they are in certain character traits, plot twists, or themes within the stories. Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Miss Brill” makes for an interesting comparison to William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose For Emily.” Although the stories seem to be very different, the relationships they share are of much more value. The differences in social involvement between Miss Brill and Emily Grierson cannot outweigh the similarities in their lack of genuine social and romantic lives and their tragic states of denial.
Normally, people become prideful when they take an interest in their community. It makes them feel as if they are a part of something bigger. An important difference between the characters Miss Brill and Emily Grierson is that Miss Brill took this to an entirely different level. It is clear that Brill’s home life is boring when an almond slice in her cake can excite her and when she goes home to her dark cupboard of a room. Through the depths of her sadness and loneliness she has convinced herself that she was a necessary part of her community, that it would be unable to function properly without her presence. This is demonstrated when she thinks to herself, “They were all on the stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all” (Mansfield 20). She also comments, “Only two people shared her ‘special seat’” (Mansfield 18), meaning she has that seat because she is important, again trying to make herself seem a key component in her surroundings.
This contrasts sharply with the way Emily Grierson shuns society. This is first implied when the narrator tells of the town’s reaction to Emily’s death. It says, “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 manservant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years” (Faulkner 32). Though her father had kept her locked in the house, she had remained there, a hermit, even after his death, leaving the townspeople curious as to what went on in her life. The only thing Emily did with people was teach a few children to paint China, which, in itself, was an outdated, useless craft that faded in the interests of the people. Her lack of involvement and complete disinterest in society is also shown in the way she ignored all of the tax notices mailed to her and, when she spoke with the deputation about her taxes, insistently stating, “See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson” (Faulkner 34) she revealed how sheltered she had been living, as Colonel Sartoris had been dead for about ten years.
No matter how much people interact within their society, they need to make relationships to create an actual social binding. Miss Brill and Emily were lacking both prosaic and romantic relationships in their lives. Though their public practices varied so significantly, neither woman ever ended up with an authentic social life. Upon reading both stories it is obvious that both women are very lonely. As we know, Brill’s life was not very exciting. She would spend her Sunday outings watching people, in anticipation of hearing their voices. “They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her” (Mansfield 18). Brill lived vicariously through the characters in her real-life theatrical performance. She encountered a range of boredom, awe, and even happiness from the different things she observed and unconsciously related them to her life. One example of this is, “A beautiful woman came along and dropped her bunch of violets, and a little boy ran after to hand them to her, and she took them and threw them away as if they’d been poisoned. Dear me! Miss Brill didn’t know whether to admire that or not!” (Mansfield 19). This example implies that she has passed up several opportunities for love in her youth. She subconsciously parallels herself with the younger woman, not knowing whether or not she should admire her choice to reject the man that gave her the flowers. She isn’t sure because she knows the girl could end up like the next woman Miss Brill observed. She wore an ermine toque and was flirting with a man, but was disrespected when he “…shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on” (Mansfield 19). The woman was old and unwanted, again making a reference to Brill’s life.
Emily Grierson was left with no relationships because of the unique relationship she had with her father. The story states, “None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the backflung front door” (Faulkner 36). This creates the image of Emily’s father chasing off people, and it is confirmed in the quote, “We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will” (Faulkner 36). That is exactly what Emily did. Her father took away all of her chances to surround herself with loving people, and so she held tightly to the only man she had, and later, after his death, to his body. As we know, the cycle continued, and she remained locked in her house alone until her own passing.
There are many different ways people handle their problems. Some people deal with their problems right away, some try to run from their problems, and others choose a more extreme approach. They refuse to acknowledge that their problem exists at all. This defense mechanism is known as denial, and it is a common theme that runs throughout both “Miss Brill” and “A Rose for Emily.” One example of this is the way Miss Brill denies her aging. In the quote, “She felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly—something gentle seemed to move in her bosom” (Mansfield 17), she tries to make up an excuse for an obvious sign of poor circulation caused by growing old. The feeling in her bosom is the sadness she then suppresses and denies was ever there. When thinking about the band Brill thinks, “And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill—a something, what was it? —not sadness—no, not sadness—a something that made you want to sing” (Mansfield 21). Here she again changes her wording from sadness to something lighter and happier. Brill most blatantly denies the dulling sadness of her life, however, as she lives vicariously through others. Unwilling to feel her own despair, she makes other people’s feelings her own. She again pushes her feelings back when she says she thinks she hears the fur cry when she puts it away. It is obvious that the cry is her own pain showing through.
Emily’s denial is first apparent when she refuses to accept that her father is dead. Though we know she was deeply attached to him, the quote, “Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body” (Faulkner 36), shows the extremes to which she was willing to go in order to repress her sorrow. She took her fear of losing people to another level when she poisoned Homer. Because she knew deep down that Homer was probably gay, as “Homer himself had remarked—he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Club—that he was not a marrying man” (Faulkner 39), she feared him leaving her and poisoned him so he would never have the chance to go.
Though the stories “Miss Brill” and “A Rose For Emily” seem to be about two different women living completely different lives, they parallel in many subtle, but important ways.
“Miss Brill.” A
Pocketful of Prose. Vol. 2.
Ed. David Madden. Ft. Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
William. “A Rose For Emily.”
A Pocketful of Prose. Vol.
1. Ed. David Madden.
Ft. Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1992. Faulkner
short story that begins with the death of Emily Grierson.
An anonymous neighbor tells how she had lived with her father her whole
life. He had chased away all of the
men that had liked Emily, leaving her with only him.
Upon his death, Emily refused to acknowledge he had died and wouldn’t
give up his body. She eventually
did, though, and spent the majority of her life thereafter locked in her house
with only one manservant present. She
later met a man named Homer who, being possibly gay, frightened Emily.
Fearing that he might leave her, she poisoned him and kept his body so
that he wouldn’t be able to. After
her death, the townspeople, curious as to what had gone on in Emily’s life,
discovered Homer’s body in an upstairs room with one of Emily gray hairs lying
on the pillow next to it.