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Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and McLachlan’s “Possession”: Comparative Analysis

Possession by Sarah McLachlan

Listen as the wind blows
From across the great divide
Voices trapped in yearning
Memories trapped in time
The night is my companion
And solitude my guide
Would I spend forever here
And not be satisfied

And I would be the one
To hold you down
Kiss you so hard
I’ll take your breath away
And after I’d
Wipe away the tears
Just close your eyes dear

Through this world I’ve stumbled
So many times betrayed
Trying to find an honest word to find
The truth enslaved
Oh you speak to me in riddles and
You speak to me in rhymes
My body aches to breathe your breath
You words keep me alive

Introduction

In the story A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner the element of romantic obsession is not the usual type. It is not her lover, Homer, who is the object of her obsession, but rather, the idea of a perfect romantic marriage and, by extension, a perfect life. The parallels between the story and Sarah McLachlan’s song, Possession, are easy to see, since both involve absolute ownership of the lover, but do not necessarily involve actual love. In Faulkner’s work the obsession is with perfection, and in McLachlan’s song it is with possession.

We note early in the story that Emily was “quality”, and that her father had driven all the possible suitors away, possibly thinking they were not good enough for her. There are other, even darker, possibilities, but knowing what happened before the start of the main action in this story is not really important. We only need to know that she was isolated and so needful; of her father’s attention and approval that she refused to have his body removed from the house for three days after he died.

Comparison

This closely parallels the situation in Sarah McLachlan’s song. At the beginning, the singer is alone, isolated and feeling trapped in a situation, a “now”, which cannot possibly make her happy. The night is her only companion, just as it was Emily’s for so many years. Emily was isolated with her father for years, and then she passed from this to isolation with her trapped “husband”. She would never have publicly married him, since he was of an unacceptable social class, but she could “own” him, just as the singer would own the lover. This song was written during a time when Sarah McLachlan was being stalked by a crazed man who was obsessed with her. So we understand how she can sing this song, even though the “voice” is male. Perhaps in writing this she was attempting to understand the obsession.

It is interesting that Emily buys the perfect gifts for her “husband”, and sets them out so carefully. The obsessed lover in the song simply wants to kiss his objective so hard that he takes away her breath. He assumes there will be tears, which does not bother him any more than the murder of Homer bothers Emily. The objective is not to make the person upon which they focus happy, but merely to possess them, control them, own them forever. McLachlan’s singer does not want the woman to live freely at all: even if he could somehow woo her to his side, it is not what he wants. He wants to take her breath away, just as Emily did with Homer.

We know that both protagonists have had numerous bad experiences with the opposite sex, and had been finally totally isolated from them. For a substitute for real love and real life, both of these narrators will settle for possession of another person. They are both starved for affection and probably human companionship, and so will fill that void with possession.

The last verse of the song is a chilly reminder of the way that Emily resolved her problem. It shows us that the singer feels betrayed and that there is no truth for him. He feels that he cannot have an honestly true relationship, possibly believing that all women are deceitful. The line, “you speak to me in riddles” says just this. Emily was taught by her father that all men were beneath her and so she was doomed to spend her entire life alone. Just as Emily took the breath of her lover, the singer wants to breathe the breath of his, consuming even her air. IN this way, the object of their obsession will not only stay with them forever, but will remain perfect in a perfect relationship that they control.

The last line of the song shows us that the obsession has progressed to the point that the singer believes that he cannot live without his objective, “your words keep me alive”. We do not share any of Emily’s thoughts, and only observe what she did. However, the painstaking arrangement of the body and all the expensive gifts shows us that her delusion was complete. She probably did not even recognize that Homer was dead, and simply carried on “playing house” with the body. It is probably a good thing that there was no baby available for kidnapping or she might have tried to complete the illusion of the happy family.

While the singer is still only talking of possessing his love, taking her breath, we have no doubt that, given the opportunity, he would, at least, imprison her. Whether or not he would take the final solution as Emily did is conjecture, but the personality type and the psychological problems are very similar.

Conclusion

The story of obsession in A Rose for Emily is more implied than actually examined. We never see any of Emily’s thoughts and hear little of her conversation. We are simply told the story of her history as we are shown the grisly clues to her insanity. She is, like any, perfectly able to function in this world, in spite of the severe mental illness that pushed her to commit murder and then spend the rest of her days “playing house” with a corpse. The song seems saner by comparison, However, in examining the lyrics, we can see that the singer is moving in the same direction. The singer’s desires are to possess the woman and steal her breath. Both of the protagonists were isolated and desperate for what they perceived as a normal life. They were both obsessed with possessing another human being and creating the ideal relationship, thinking that this would bring them happiness. We can only guess that Emily’s thoughts must have been similar to the singer’s lyrics and she might even have had nightly conversations with her “companion”. In both works, the desire is both to possess and to make their desired object powerless, important and totally compliant to their wishes. That this required taking their breath away, literally, was not important.

References

Faulkner, William, 1930, A Rose for Emily, Stories of William Faulkner, Random House.

McLachlan, Sarah, 1995, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Legacy Edition.