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America's 20th Century: A Time of Struggle and Change
The 20th century marked an era of beginnings and endings for American society. During the 20th century women and African Americans started to gain the confidence essential to create, improve, and reshape the environment they live in. They began to define themselves through their own inner resources and create their own vision of existence. Both William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" and Alice Walker's "To Hell with Dying" give an insightful representation of the struggle women and African Americans were experiencing during the 20th century in American society. In spite of displaying the same message, the two stories exhibit numerous similarities and differences. Primarily, both stories rely on one character where he/she is the main focusing issue in the story. The two stories appear to be built on the main character and the way he/she interacts with the surroundings in his community. Furthermore, the stories are very similar in terms of the environment that each author creates for the main character in both stories. However, the two stories are very different when it comes to the main character's relationship to others in the community. In both "A Rose for Emily" and "To Hell with Dying," Faulkner and Walker generally reveal to the reader that someone others might reject as a person of no account may be in fact important to the community they live in.
Miss Emily in "A Rose for Emily" and Mr. Sweet in "To Hell with Dying" are very similar considering they are the center of the stories. Both William Faulkner and Alice Walker let Miss Emily and Mr. Sweet to respectively be their main concern in the stories. After reading both stories, we can notice that every action or event in the stories is tied to the main character in one way or another. For instance, in "A Rose for Emily" Faulkner's reveals to the reader an illustration of the life of Miss Emily and her relationship with others who live in his southern "fictional kingdom of Yoknapatawpha" (Moreland 395). Likewise, in Walker's short story in which she takes the role as a preserver of the cultural heritage of the black south (Lauret 5), "To Hell with Dying", the main message that Walker wants to display is the hard times that not only Mr. Sweet, but also everyone else in his community is going through while he is constantly on the brink of dying. Thus, one major similarity that we can catch right away when reading "A Rose for Emily" and "To Hell with Dying" is the use of Miss Emily and Mr. Sweet by both authors as the heart of the story. In spite of this, the characters are very different in both the way they appear and the manner that they behave with others in the story.
In "A Rose for Emily," Miss Emily appears with the qualities of the stereotypical southern "eccentric": unbalanced, excessively tragic, and subject to bizarre behavior (Eskridge 2073). Faulkner describes her as "a small, fat woman" (1171) that looks "bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water" (1171). Her voice, moreover, is displayed as being "dry and cold" (1171). During the few times that she even leaves her house, Miss Emily "[carries] her head high" (1174) and "[demands] the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson" (1174). Portrayed in "A Rose for Emily" as a "fallen monument" (1170), Miss Emily is pitied from the community she lives in. She demands to live life on her own terms. When the Board of Alderman "called a special meeting" and "knocked at [her] door through which no visitor had passed since she ceased giving china-painting lessons eight or ten years earlier" (1171), Miss Emily refuses to pay her taxes and ultimately "[vanquishes] them just as she vanquished their fathers thirty years before" (1172). To sum it all up, Miss Emily is displayed as the classic outsider, controlling and limiting the town's access to her true identity by remaining hidden.
On the other hand, in "To hell with Dying" Mr. Sweet is more open to community that he lives in. Even though he is going through many hardships, Mr. Sweet differs from Miss Emily by appearing like the everyday average human being in his community. Walker describes Mr. Sweet as a sick old man whose multiple ailments bring him often to the verge of death after being inspired by a real old man named Mr. Sweet who used to play his guitar while sitting in the kitchen of her grandmother's kitchen (Bloom 10). She describes "Mr. Sweet [as] a tall, thinnish man with thick kinky hair" (1181) that "had been ambitious as a boy only to find that black men fare better if they are not" (1181). In spite of being a "diabetic and an alcoholic" (1180), Mr. Sweet does not give up on life, instead he "[turns] to fishing as his only earnest career and playing the guitar as his only claim to doing anything extraordinarily well" (1181). His life being on the verge of death most of the time, Mr. Sweet spends most of his life very "melancholy and sad" (1181). Displayed as someone who erases the boundaries between adults and children, Mr. Sweet is also thought of as being "very kind" (1181) toward everyone in his community. Mr. Sweet and Miss Emily appear and interact with others very differently; however, I think that they both are very similar since they are constantly going through many hardships that block them from following their dreams aspirations.
According to Faulkner's "On the Meaning of "A Rose for Emily," Miss Emily had the normal aspirations that every young girl would typically have. In this case, she wanted "to find love and then a husband and a family" (Faulkner 1179). However Miss Emily could not make her dreams and aspirations become true due to the pressure and presence of her father. Miss Emily "was brow-beaten and kept down by her father" since he "didn't want her to leave home because he wanted a house keeper" (Faulkner 1179). Here Faulkner displays the poor tragic Miss Emily struggling for "the simple things which all humans want" (Faulkner 1179). Finally, Miss Emily's father, Mr. Grierson, is a controlling presence even in death, and the community clearly sees his lasting influence over Emily.
Similar to the hardships Miss Emily faced as she was growing up, Mr. Sweet grew up during a time where a person's skin color played a huge role into the status and future of that person. The job he/she has, the way he/she is treated by others, and the rights that he/she possesses were all determined based on one's color and race. Moreover, according to Harold Bloom, when Walker wrote "To Hell with Dying" "lynchings were still fairly common in the south" (Bloom 8). Thus, Mr. Sweet being a part of the African American race, did not have the ability to become what he dreamt of being as a boy; he "wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or sailor" (1181). On top of the struggles that he had to face due to his race and skin color, Mr. Sweet "[is] constantly on the verge of being blind drunk" (1181). After reading both stories, I personally think that both William Faulkner's use of Miss Emily and Alice Walker's use of Mr. Sweet signifies the sad and awful condition in which some people hope and dream but never get the opportunity to make their dreams become reality. Therefore, even though the situation of Mr. Sweet and Miss Emily are very similar, Mr. Sweet's response to the awful burdens of life that he had to face is far better than Miss Emily's rejection of humanity.
The relationship that Miss Emily and Mr. Sweet have with the community surrounding them validates also how both "A Rose for Emily" and "To Hell with Dying" appear similar to the reader while also displaying distinct differences. In "A Rose for Emily," Miss Emily is the kind of person that the community is bothered from. The people in the community that she lives in constantly complain about her presence in the community. At one moment even in the story, "a neighbor complained to the mayor" (1172) about the gross smell that developed in Miss Emily's home. Here Faulkner could be displaying the way that Miss Emily is viewed in her town. This supports the idea that the town surrounding Miss Emily rejects her as a person while still not understanding how many hard times she has been going through since she has been young. Mr. Sweet's community, on the other hand, appears to be more of an understanding community that "loved him dearly" (1185) and "did want him" (1180) to remain in their everyday life.
Although being an indifferent cotton farmer, an inveterate smoker, and "was constantly on the verge of being blind drunk" (1181), the family surrounding Mr. Sweet never held these things against him when he was part of the community. Instead, they would constantly be around him and play with him. Whenever Mr. Sweet would "come to [the family's] house with his guitar, the whole family would stop whatever they were doing to sit around him and listen to him play" (1182). The children usually enjoyed being around Mr. Sweet. They really loved playing with him every time he was around. Surprisingly, even "[the children's mother] never held [Mr. Sweet's] drunkenness against him and would let [the children] play with him even when he was about to fall in the fireplace from drink" (1181). Thus, we can conclude that, unlike Miss Emily's community, the family surrounding Mr. Sweet does not reject him as a person of no account. However, they consider him to be very important to the family as a whole. Anyhow, even though the relationship between both Miss Emily and Mr. Sweet and the community surrounding them is very different, the environment and setting that the main character lives through is very similar in both "A Rose for Emily" and "To Hell with Dying."
In both stories, Faulkner and Walker create a dark and mysterious environment that the main character has to live through. If we start with "A Rose for Emily," we can notice that Miss Emily is faced with a community that is devoted to its own opinions and prejudices while also exhibiting animosity toward her just because she is of differing beliefs. Moreover, they appear to be not understanding of her situation and that she "was brow-beaten and kept down by her father" (Faulkner 1179). Add on to this Miss Emily's bizarre behavior and style of life to produce a mysterious, dark, and gloomy environment that Miss Emily lives in. On the other hand, if we closely examine Walker's short story that represents her (little known) children's writing (Lauret 5), "To Hell with Dying," we find that this environment is caused by Mr. Sweet constantly being on the verge of death. Living in a similar environment and since my grandfather was in a coma for three years, I notice that this kind of situation makes everyone in the family to live in a dark and gloomy environment that they just cannot understand how to fix.
Considered to be "Faulkner's most widely read, criticized, and anthologized short story" (Moreland 400), "A Rose for Emily" is very similar to Walker's "To Hell with Dying". The two stories are both centered on the main character and also have a dark and gloomy environment. However, the two stories are very different in terms of the main character's relationship to others in the community. After exploring similarities and differences between the two stories I came to understanding that both stories portray the hard times that women and African Americans were experiencing during the 20th century. Moreover, I noticed that the stories display a message that while some people may reject a person in their family or community, this person may be very important to the family or to the overall community that they live in. Furthermore, I learned that both stories contributed to the efforts in changing American society in the 20th century. Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" played a significant role into changing the way men viewed women in the south. Also, Walker's "To Hell with Dying" was equally important in ending the era of racism and discrimination towards African Americans in the north.
Faulkner, William. "A Rose for Emily." Responding to Literature. Ed. Judith A. Stanford. NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 2006. 1170-1177. Print.
Faulkner, William. "On the Meaning of "A Rose for Emily"." Responding to Literature. Ed. Judith A. Stanford. NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 2006. 1179-1180. Print.
Walker, Alice. "To Hell with Dying." Responding to Literature. Ed. Judith A. Stanford. NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 2006. 1180-1185. Print.
Eskridge, William. "Some Effects of Identity-Based Social Movements on Constitutional Law in the Twentieth Century." Michigan Law Review 100.8 (2002): 2062-2407. Print.
Moreland, Richard. A Companion to William Faulkner. Singapore: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. Print.
Bloom, Harold. Alice Walker (Bloom's BioCritiques). United States of America: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. Print.
Lauret, Maria. Alice Walker (Modern Novelists). United States of America: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Print.