Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950),better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic. His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support of democratic socialism.
Shooting an Elephant
In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically — and secretly, of course — I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.
One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism — the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem. Various Burmans stopped me on the way and told me about the elephant’s doings. It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone ‘must’. It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of ‘must’ is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours’ journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it. It had already destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.
The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over a steep hillside. I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains. We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away. There was a loud, scandalized cry of ‘Go away, child! Go away this instant!’ and an old woman with a switch in her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently shooing away a crowd of naked children. Some more women followed, clicking their tongues and exclaiming; evidently there was something that the children ought not to have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man’s dead body sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent an orderly to a friend’s house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had already sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and throw me if it smelt the elephant.
The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away. As I started forward practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no intention of shooting the elephant — I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary — and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you. I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people jostling at my heels. At the bottom, when you got away from the huts, there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted with coarse grass. The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd’s approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.
I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant — it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery — and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of ‘must’ was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.
But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast’s owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.
It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only of the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives’; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.
There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim. The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.
When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick — one never does when a shot goes home — but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time — it might have been five seconds, I dare say — he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.
I got up. The Burmans were already racing past me across the mud. It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open — I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.
In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dash and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.
Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.
Era: British Modernism
Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 to October 7, 1849) was an American writer, poet, critic and editor best known for evocative short stories and poems that captured the imagination and interest of readers around the world. His imaginative storytelling and tales of mystery and horror gave birth to the modern detective story. Many of Poe’s works, including “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” became literary classics. Some aspects of Poe’s life, like his literature, is shrouded in mystery, and the lines between fact and fiction have been blurred substantially since his death.
THE TELL-TALE HEART
by Edgar Allan Poe1843
TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it –oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly –very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously –cautiously (for the hinges creaked) –I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights –every night just at midnight –but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers –of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back –but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out –“Who’s there?”
I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening; –just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief –oh, no! –it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself –“It is nothing but the wind in the chimney –it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel –although he neither saw nor heard –to feel the presence of my head within the room.
When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little –a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it –you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily –until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye.
It was open –wide, wide open –and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness –all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.
And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? –now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! –do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me –the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once –once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eve would trouble me no more.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.
I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye –not even his –could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out –no stain of any kind –no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all –ha! ha!
When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o’clock –still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart, –for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.
I smiled, –for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search –search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: –It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness –until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.
No doubt I now grew very pale; –but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased –and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath –and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly –more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men –but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed –I raved –I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder –louder –louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! –no, no! They heard! –they suspected! –they knew! –they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now –again! –hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
Era: Victorian Period
American writer William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897. Much of his early work was poetry, but he became famous for his novels set in the American South, frequently in his fabricated Yoknapatawpha County, with works that included The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom! His controversial 1931 novel Sanctuary was turned into two films, 1933’s The Story of Temple Drake as well as a later 1961 project. Faulkner was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature and ultimately won two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards as well. He died on July 6, 1962.
“A Rose for Emily”
by William Faulkner (1930)
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 man-servant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen
in at least ten years.
It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated
with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome
style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street.
But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the
august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left,
lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and
the gasoline pumps-an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had
gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in
the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves
of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of
hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when
Colonel Sartoris, the mayor–he who fathered the edict that no Negro
woman should appear on the streets without an apron-remitted her
taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into
perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily would have accepted charity. Colonel
Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily’s father had
loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business,
preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation
and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have
When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors
and aldermen, this arrangement created some little dissatisfaction. On
the first of the year they mailed her a tax notice. February came, and
there was no reply. They wrote her a formal letter, asking her to call at
the sheriff’s office at her convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her
himself, offering to call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a
note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded
ink, to the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice was
also enclosed, without comment.
They called a special meeting of the Board of Aldermen. A deputation
waited upon her, knocked at the door through which no visitor had
passed since she ceased giving china-painting lessons eight or ten years
earlier. They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from which a
stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse–
a close, dank smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was furnished
in heavy, leather-covered furniture. When the Negro opened the blinds of
one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they
sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with
slow motes in the single sun-ray. On a tarnished gilt easel before the
fireplace stood a crayon portrait of Miss Emily’s father.
They rose when she entered–a small, fat woman in black, with a thin
gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning
on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and
spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in
another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long
submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in
the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed
into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the
visitors stated their errand.
She did not ask them to sit. She just stood in the door and listened
quietly until the spokesman came to a stumbling halt. Then they could
hear the invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain.
Her voice was dry and cold. “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris
explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records
and satisfy yourselves.”
“But we have. We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn’t you get a
notice from the sheriff, signed by him?”
“I received a paper, yes,” Miss Emily said. “Perhaps he considers himself
the sheriff . . . I have no taxes in Jefferson.”
“But there is nothing on the books to show that, you see We must go by
“See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson.”
“But, Miss Emily–“
“See Colonel Sartoris.” (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.)
“I have no taxes in Jefferson. Tobe!” The Negro appeared. “Show these
So SHE vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished
their fathers thirty years before about the smell.
That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her
sweetheart–the one we believed would marry her –had deserted her.
After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went
away, people hardly saw her at all. A few of the ladies had the temerity to
call, but were not received, and the only sign of life about the place was
the Negro man–a young man then–going in and out with a market
“Just as if a man–any man–could keep a kitchen properly, “the ladies
said; so they were not surprised when the smell developed. It was another
link between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty
A neighbor, a woman, complained to the mayor, Judge Stevens, eighty
“But what will you have me do about it, madam?” he said.
“Why, send her word to stop it,” the woman said. “Isn’t there a law? “
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Judge Stevens said. “It’s probably just a
snake or a rat that nigger of hers killed in the yard. I’ll speak to him about
The next day he received two more complaints, one from a man who
came in diffident deprecation. “We really must do something about it,
Judge. I’d be the last one in the world to bother Miss Emily, but we’ve got
to do something.” That night the Board of Aldermen met–three
graybeards and one younger man, a member of the rising generation.
“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her word to have her place cleaned
up. Give her a certain time to do it in, and if she don’t. ..”
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of
So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and
slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the
brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a
regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his
shoulder. They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and
in all the outbuildings. As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had
been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and
her upright torso motionless as that of an idol. They crept quietly across
the lawn and into the shadow of the locusts that lined the street. After a
week or two the smell went away.
That was when people had begun to feel really sorry for her. People in
our town, remembering how old lady Wyatt, her great-aunt, had gone
completely crazy at last, believed that the Griersons held themselves a
little too high for what they really were. 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 back-flung front
door. So when she got to be thirty and was still single, we were not
pleased exactly, but vindicated; even with insanity in the family she
wouldn’t have turned down all of her chances if they had really
When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to
her; and in a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily.
Being left alone, and a pauper, she had become humanized. Now she too
would know the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more or less.
The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and
offer condolence and aid, as is our custom 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. Just as they were about to resort to law and
force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly.
We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. 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.
SHE WAS SICK for a long time. When we saw her again, her hair was cut
short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those
angels in colored church windows–sort of tragic and serene.
The town had just let the contracts for paving the sidewalks, and in the
summer after her father’s death they began the work. The construction
company came with riggers and mules and machinery, and a foreman
named Homer Barron, a Yankee–a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice
and eyes lighter than his face. The little boys would follow in groups to
hear him cuss the riggers, and the riggers singing in time to the rise and
fall of picks. Pretty soon he knew everybody in town. Whenever you heard
a lot of laughing anywhere about the square, Homer Barron would be in
the center of the group. Presently we began to see him and Miss Emily on
Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched
team of bays from the livery stable.
At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the
ladies all said, “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a
Northerner, a day laborer.” But there were still others, older people, who
said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige-
without calling it noblesse oblige. They just said, “Poor Emily. Her
kinsfolk should come to her.” She had some kin in Alabama; but years
ago her father had fallen out with them over the estate of old lady Wyatt,
the crazy woman, and there was no communication between the two
families. They had not even been represented at the funeral.
And as soon as the old people said, “Poor Emily,” the whispering began.
“Do you suppose it’s really so?” they said to one another. “Of course it is.
What else could . . .” This behind their hands; rustling of craned silk and
satin behind jalousies closed upon the sun of Sunday afternoon as the
thin, swift clop-clop-clop of the matched team passed: “Poor Emily.”
She carried her head high enough–even when we believed that she was
fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her
dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to
reaffirm her imperviousness. Like when she bought the rat poison, the
arsenic. That was over a year after they had begun to say “Poor Emily,”
and while the two female cousins were visiting her.
“I want some poison,” she said to the druggist. She was over thirty then,
still a slight woman, though thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black
eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples and
about the eyesockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face ought to
look. “I want some poison,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I’d recom–“
“I want the best you have. I don’t care what kind.”
The druggist named several. “They’ll kill anything up to an elephant. But
what you want is–“
“Arsenic,” Miss Emily said. “Is that a good one?”
“Is . . . arsenic? Yes, ma’am. But what you want–“
“I want arsenic.”
The druggist looked down at her. She looked back at him, erect, her face
like a strained flag. “Why, of course,” the druggist said. “If that’s what you
want. But the law requires you to tell what you are going to use it for.”
Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him
eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and
wrapped it up. The Negro delivery boy brought her the package; the
druggist didn’t come back. When she opened the package at home there
was written on the box, under the skull and bones: “For rats.”
So THE NEXT day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would
be the best thing. When she had first begun to be seen with Homer
Barron, we had said, “She will marry him.” Then we said, “She will
persuade him yet,” because 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. Later we said, “Poor Emily” behind the
jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon in the glittering buggy,
Miss Emily with her head high and Homer Barron with his hat cocked and
a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove.
Then some of the ladies began to say that it was a disgrace to the town
and a bad example to the young people. The men did not want to
interfere, but at last the ladies forced the Baptist minister–Miss Emily’s
people were Episcopal– to call upon her. He would never divulge what
happened during that interview, but he refused to go back again. The
next Sunday they again drove about the streets, and the following day the
minister’s wife wrote to Miss Emily’s relations in Alabama.
So she had blood-kin under her roof again and we sat back to watch
developments. At first nothing happened. Then we were sure that they
were to be married. We learned that Miss Emily had been to the jeweler’s
and ordered a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each
piece. Two days later we learned that she had bought a complete outfit of
men’s clothing, including a nightshirt, and we said, “They are married.”
We were really glad. We were glad because the two female cousins were
even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been.
So we were not surprised when Homer Barron–the streets had been
finished some time since–was gone. We were a little disappointed that
there was not a public blowing-off, but we believed that he had gone on
to prepare for Miss Emily’s coming, or to give her a chance to get rid of
the cousins. (By that time it was a cabal, and we were all Miss Emily’s
allies to help circumvent the cousins.) Sure enough, after another week
they departed. And, as we had expected all along, within three days
Homer Barron was back in town. A neighbor saw the Negro man admit
him at the kitchen door at dusk one evening.
And that was the last we saw of Homer Barron. And of Miss Emily for
some time. The Negro man went in and out with the market basket, but
the front door remained closed. Now and then we would see her at a
window for a moment, as the men did that night when they sprinkled the
lime, but for almost six months she did not appear on the streets. Then
we knew that this was to be expected too; as if that quality of her father
which had thwarted her woman’s life so many times had been too virulent
and too furious to die.
When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning
gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained
an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day
of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the
hair of an active man.
From that time on her front door remained closed, save for a period of
six or seven years, when she was about forty, during which she gave
lessons in china-painting. She fitted up a studio in one of the downstairs
rooms, where the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris’
contemporaries were sent to her with the same regularity and in the same
spirit that they were sent to church on Sundays with a twenty-five-cent
piece for the collection plate. Meanwhile her taxes had been remitted.
Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the
town, and the painting pupils grew up and fell away and did not send
their children to her with boxes of color and tedious brushes and pictures
cut from the ladies’ magazines. The front door closed upon the last one
and remained closed for good. When the town got free postal delivery,
Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her
door and attach a mailbox to it. She would not listen to them.
Daily, monthly, yearly we watched the Negro grow grayer and more
stooped, going in and out with the market basket. Each December we
sent her a tax notice, which would be returned by the post office a week
later, unclaimed. Now and then we would see her in one of the
downstairs windows–she had evidently shut up the top floor of the
house–like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking
at us, we could never tell which. Thus she passed from generation to
generation–dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.
And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with
only a doddering Negro man to wait on her. We did not even know she
was sick; we had long since given up trying to get any information from
He talked to no one, probably not even to her, for his voice had grown
harsh and rusty, as if from disuse.
She died in one of the downstairs rooms, in a heavy walnut bed with a
curtain, her gray head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age
and lack of sunlight.
THE NEGRO met the first of the ladies at the front door and let them in,
with their hushed, sibilant voices and their quick, curious glances, and
then he disappeared. He walked right through the house and out the back
and was not seen again.
The two female cousins came at once. They held the funeral on the
second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass
of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly
above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men
–some in their brushed Confederate uniforms–on the porch and the
lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs,
believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps,
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.
Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs
which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced.
They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they
The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with
pervading dust. A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere
upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance
curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the
dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man’s toilet
things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the
monogram was obscured. Among them lay a collar and tie, as if they had
just been removed, which, lifted, left upon the surface a pale crescent in
the dust. Upon a chair hung the suit, carefully folded; beneath it the two
mute shoes and the discarded socks.
The man himself lay in the bed.
For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and
fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an
embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even
the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted
beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the
bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay
that even coating of the patient and biding dust.
Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head.
One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and
invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of irongray
Era: The Great Depression