Killing in the Name
Killers have always been friendly to me. Whether in books or movies (perhaps even in real life, though I have never consciously known a murderer) the shadowy figure with bloody hands has always captivated me in a way that may seem perverse to some. I find the psychology of the killer to be interesting; it is the dangerous, unstable, and desperate motivation for murder that is compelling, not the act of murder itself. Killers come to life in the most dramatic way for me within the pages of literature and “My Last Duchess” and “A Rose for Emily,” written by Robert Browning and William Faulkner, respectively, display brutality and murder during different time periods and under differing circumstances. However, the motive the killers within these narrative works possess, as well as the corresponding characters themselves, share a striking commonality: an overblown sense of entitlement and a distorted need for control, even after murders in which they participate, link Ferrara (from “My Last Duchess”) and Emily despite the chasm of time and circumstance.
“A Rose for Emily,” written in 1931, is a short story describing the life and eventual death of a “monument” in the Southern town of Jefferson. This monument was not made of stone, but the townspeople involved with Emily would beg to differ. Emily is displayed as a stubborn woman still clinging to the past of her social status and, later, the ghost of her father in the physical form of a poisoned man. Her family was old, august in its time, but the convening years had seen the Grierson family in steep decline. Emily’s unwillingness to observe the new society that has crowded her out is evident in the way she handles her finances. She refuses to pay taxes, claiming that “Colonel Sartoris explained it to [her].” The favor had been made decades before and Colonel Sartoris had been dead for almost ten years at that point in the story. Ferrara, the sly speaker in “My Last Duchess” (written in 1842), holds his own social status in high regard as well. Ferrara owns many valuable possessions including an odd statue of Neptune “taming a seahorse” and a painting of his last wife. Innocuous though it may seem, the painting of his last duchess is a key element in understanding Ferrara’s psychology. It is obvious to the reader that Ferrara had his wife killed by “[giving] commands; / Then all smiles stopped together” (45-46). One hint as to why the murder took place is found in lines 20 through 34. Ferrara explains that his deceased wife took pleasure in almost everything without placing greater merit to his “nine-hundred-years-old name.”
The main character’s use of unyielding control is prominently displayed throughout both works and forms the basis for each character’s motivation to kill. Emily’s father never allowed her to date men while she was younger; her father “thwarted her woman’s life so many times,” and the townspeople “remembered all the young men her father had driven away.” It is deduced by the town at large that “with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her.” To illustrate Emily’s perverted use of control, she kept her father in the old house for three days, denying claims of his death and refusing condolences from ladies of the town. Emily had lost the one thing that made her Emily. Without the towering figure of her father to direct her, she felt rudderless and “clung” to whatever she could. As mentioned, she is stubborn and unwilling to believe her father has left her without the direction and familial aristocracy he had supplied.
Then along came Homer Barron.
Homer was a Northerner and the foreman for the town’s sidewalk repaving project. Being new to town, Homer did not know of Emily’s eccentricities, and they began to be seen walking together in town. The ladies of the town did not approve of the match saying, “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.” The ladies’ reaction is interesting because everyone in the town knows how the Grierson’s name and rank had fallen. Though they lack any sense of real warmth toward Emily, the townspeople expect her to keep up appearances if only to benefit themselves; they want their monument to remain intact no matter how decayed and moss-covered it may be. Things do not work out between the would-be couple, however. It is shown at the end of the story that Emily uses arsenic to poison Homer, and his body is kept in an upstairs room where proof is found that Emily has been practicing necrophilia; silver purchased by Emily with the initials H.B. are found on a table and a suit is hanging on a chair while the bed Homer has occupied has “a long strand of iron-gray hair” on the pillow next to him.
Homer himself said he was “not a marrying man” and the purchase of the silver must have made him uneasy. Perhaps after consideration, he opted to speak to Emily about the matter but was poisoned by the arsenic on his return to her house. Emily could not let this physical representation of her father get away; she kept him, even after death as an act of control and as an act of the dedicated obedience that she craved to perform to please not only her father, but her idea of a Grierson.
Though possibly less grotesque, Ferrara had his own plans for partner’s permanence. During what must have been her last days, Ferrara hired Fra Pandolf to paint his wife’s portrait. The painting was most likely done during the final days of the Duchess’ life because of the care and presentation the painting is displayed with after her death. During “My Last Duchess,” Ferrara is speaking to an emissary of a Count whose daughter Ferrara is to wed—pending negotiations of dowry. Ferrara explains to the emissary why “none puts by/ The curtain I have drawn for you, but I” (9-10). Ferrara mentions in greater detail that his former wife’s joys were easily found and that others could “[call] that spot/ Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek” (14-15). Ferrara hides the painting behind a curtain so she can only smile when he allows her to; only he can draw back the curtain to allow others to see that smile. Just as Emily wanted Homer Baron all to herself, Ferrara ensures that his last Duchess will smile for no one else but him. Noteworthy is the fact that Ferrara even shows the emissary the painting at all. Ferrara is so confident in his control, his standing, that he knows that even blatantly admitting to the murder of his former duchess will not stall the proceedings with his next.
The characters within these works have similarities in varying degrees. The most obvious similarities can be found between Emily and Ferrara, but other connections can be made. Fra Pandolf, the Duchess’ painter, was hired to immortalize the Duchess through his art. Likewise, the “Negro servant” was a hired hand in the Grierson home who sustained Emily with food and supplies from town. Both of these characters play a role in preserving their masters, but both also display a lack of responsibility in the end. Fra Pandolf most likely knew the fate of the Duchess before his painting was finished; Pandolf said to the Duchess, perhaps to Ferrara himself, “Paint/ Must never hope to reproduce the faint/ Half-flush that dies along her throat” (17-19). This sort of talk may have been sexually tinged, but Pandolf could have been trying to be as nice as possible to the Duchess before her death, possibly even warning her since the word “dies” is used in the statement. However, the painter is not mentioned again, and the Duchess dies whether she picked up the compliment/warning or not. The servant in the Grierson home takes care of Emily until she passes which is very responsible; however, after admitting townspeople into the house after Emily’s death, “he [walked] right through the house and out the back and was not seen again.” The servant did not want to take indirect responsibility for what was going on in the upstairs room, but it is possible that Emily could have been holding him against his will and at the first opportunity he escaped from his captor.
Perhaps the most influential component of Emily’s decaying state of mind comes from the silently watching townspeople, an aspect mirrored by the emissary of the Count which visits Ferrara. Speaking of the townspeople as a single, great entity shows that they “sat back to watch developments,” which ultimately spelled ruin for Homer Baron and the last of the Grierson line. The silent emissary also displays his lack of action by the negative space he provides during “My Last Duchess.” The only speaker in the poem is Ferrara, so it is assumed that the emissary “sat back”—just as the town of Jefferson—while the negotiations took place, effectively sending the new Duchess to a likely grave, or worse, a painting behind a curtain.
Emily and the last Duchess herself are linked in the most tragic way. In Jefferson, Emily is a creaking memorial to a by-gone era. She lingers in the town; a reminder if nothing else. The painting of the ill-fated Duchess (a more meaningful character than the actual woman, remarkably) is a shrine of filth also. She loiters unwillingly, hidden, exposed only by the drawing of her concealing curtain by a man of greater social standing. Emily conceals herself, but “the rising generation,” a generation unaccustomed to the social hierarchy that made Emily powerful, make no attempt to draw back her “curtain.” The Duchess is painted in a way that makes her “[Look] as if she were alive” (2), but she’s as dead as arsenic-poisoned rats. Emily, however physically alive she may be during “A Rose for Emily,” represents death. Emily’s family has, for all intents and purposes, disowned her. She “looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water,” and her very ideals are dismissed by “the rising generation.” Emily never had a chance, and neither did the Duchess.
Murder is part of the human experience. Whether someone knows a murderer personally or has only witnessed it through the lens of a camera or a page in a book, everyone is aware of the act and, to some degree, what can motivate a person to kill. The murderers in “My Last Duchess” and “A Rose for Emily” have one important thing in common; this commonality overshadows the power of high social standing and the need for control because it encompasses both of these desires: Neither Ferrara or Emily would stoop. In lines 42-43, Ferrara makes it clear to the Count’s emissary that he has “[chosen]/ Never to stoop.” Ferrara would not allow his Duchess to live while his power went unrecognized, and Emily never allows herself to be convinced of her family’s decline in society. As a result, people died. People will continue to kill and die because of what the Greeks discovered ages ago: Hubris. With all its romantic, legendary connotations aside, hubris is an easy route for some shadowy figures toward having blood-soaked hands.