A Rose For Emily and Other Short Stories

Summary and Analysis of There Was a Queen

Buy Study Guide

Summary of Part I

The story begins with a general history of the Sartoris family as it relates to Elnora, the mixed-race daughter of Colonel Sartoris and currently the Sartoris family cook. Now the only people living in the Sartoris house in Mississippi are Elnora, her children Isom and Saddie, Virginia Sartoris, whom they call Aunt Jenny, her great-niece Narcissa, and Narcissa's son, Benbow.

That afternoon, Elnora saw Narcissa take Benbow through the pasture toward the creek. She regards Narcissa with contempt, thinking "It's little you done for anybody since you come out here." The reader learns through Elnora's thoughts that Narcissa had disappeared to Memphis, and then returned suddenly that morning with no explanation.

Elnora passes through the kitchen where her daughter, Saddie, is reading a magazine, and enters the library where Aunt Jenny sits by the window. They discuss Narcissa's mysterious behavior, and Elnora declares, "She won't never be a Sartoris woman." Elnora reports that she and her son have now gone down to the creek. They watch out the window as Narcissa and Benbow come back toward the house in wet clothes.

Summary of Part II

Elnora prepares food in the kitchen and talks to her children, Isom and Saddie. She complains about how Narcissa is not "quality," and tells the story of how Aunt Jenny came through enemy territory to the house where they now live after her family was killed. Isom corrects some of the details of her story, like when she mistakes the distance that Aunt Jenny had to travel from Carolina to Mississippi, but she "paid no attention to him at all." She continues to put down Narcissa for leaving to go to Memphis.

Summary of Part III

Faulkner enters Virginia's consciousness as she remembers how she met Narcissa. Then she remembers when Narcissa showed her an "anonymous and obscene" letter before she married Bayard. Virginia had suggested finding the man and punishing him, but Narcissa said she was too embarrassed for anyone to know about the letter, so she would burn it. Then she became pregnant, but Bayard died before Benbow was born.

Virginia remembers how a week ago, Narcissa had had a male guest over for supper; it was the Federal agent, but Virginia doesn't know that yet. As soon as Aunt Jenny entered the kitchen, she realized he was a Yankee and had Isom wheel her away; she sulked in her bedroom until he left.

Benbow enters and tells Aunt Jenny how his mother made him sit in the swimming hole with his clothes on all evening. Aunt Jenny sends him away, and Narsissa enters. Aunt Jenny assumes she is going to announce that she would like to get married, and gives her permission, saying, "I won't blame you." But Narcissa confesses that she kept the letters she received thirteen years ago, did not burn it, and that she received ten more, and kept them hidden, too. Then, when Bayard was still alive, someone broke into their home and stole the letters; it was the bookkeeper from the bank, and he also robbed the bank. Narcissa had felt terrible about it, but eventually got over it.

Then the Federal agent arrived. He had found the letters where the bookkeeper had thrown them away, and wanted to use them as evidence in the trial of the bank robbery. Narcissa couldn't let that happen, so she went to Memphis and slept with him. In so many words, she confesses to Aunt Jenny, who reacts simply by saying, "Well, my Lord. Us poor, fool women." Then she calls for "Johnny," who is Benbow, to bring her her hat. She wears it when she is upset. She sends them both away to supper.

Summary of Part IV

Narcissa and Benbow sit at the table, and Narcissa asks him if he missed her, but he says he had a fine time with Aunt Jenny and was not lonesome.

In the kitchen, Elnora asks Isom if he overheard anything in the library during the white women's conversation. He only heard the part about marriage. Then Elnora "turned her head toward the door as though she were listening for something." She leaves the room and goes upstairs, finding Aunt Jenny dead in her wheelchair. Then she retraces her steps and goes to tell Narcissa and Benbow.

Analysis

By centering the first two sections of the story around Elnora, Faulkner leads the reader to share her views of Aunt Jenny and Narcissa; the reader has sympathy for Aunt Jenny and resentment for Narcissa. This is because Elnora sees Aunt Jenny as representing a time of grandeur and honor, while Narcissa seems to have wiled her way into the family by flattering Aunt Jenny and pretending to be like her, only to act so disrespectfully as to save inappropriate letters and then sleep with a Yankee in order to prevent him from sharing the letters.

The theme of the colored glass which Aunt Jenny brought with her to Mississippi represents Aunt Jenny herself, and the Sartoris pride she embodies. Faulkner makes this connection clear by personifying the glass: "The sparse colored panes which framed the window dreamed, rich and hushed." After Benbow brings her the hat to put on her head, when she is about to die, she sits "beside the window framed by the sparse and defunctive Carolina glass." Her death is indicated first in the description of the window: when Elnora enters the library, she "looked into the room where beside the dead window the old woman sat motionless."

Aunt Jenny also brought "a few flower cuttings" with her to Mississippi, and thus the garden also becomes a symbol of a time past, one that belonged to the honorable Sartoris men, that Aunt Jenny identifies with. As the time nears for Aunt Jenny to die, the sun sets over the garden, representing her life drawing to an end. When Elnora reports that Narcissa and Benbow went to the creek, "The sun was now falling level across teh garden below the window, and soon the jasmine in the garden began to smell with evening, coming into the room in slow waves almost palpable; thick, sweet, oversweet." As they enter the garden, "the light in the garden was beginning to turn copper-colored." Before Narcissa begins to confess to Aunt Jenny, the older woman stops her, saying, "Wait... Before you begin. The jasmine. Do you smell it?" Significantly, Aunt Jenny and Narcissa first "became acquainted" in the garden, reflecting how Narcissa tried to meet Aunt Jenny on the older woman's level.

The gap between the two women's moralities is made clear before their conversation, when Aunt Jenny remembers the first incident with the inappropriate letters. Aunt Jenny advised Narcissa to show the letters to the authorities, but Narcissa refused, saying she didn't want anyone to know about them. In order to preserve the semblance of morality, she sacrifices her dignity and sleeps with the Federal agent.

Even though Elnora is technically half-white, she considers herself totally black. In explaining why she puts up with Narcissa, she says, "I got nothing against her. I nigger and she white. But my black children got more blood than she got. More behavior." She may or may not know how true her statement is; her "black" children have Sartoris blood, especially Isam, whose father and grandfather is Colonel Sartoris; in contrast, Narcissa married into the family.

The Sartoris family is also central in the novels Sartoris and The Unvanquished. It is believed that Faulkner wrote it shortly after the completing Sartoris, and the story provides a sort of coda to the novel. It was rejected by Scribner's magazine in 1929, but after many revisions was eventually accepted for publication in 1933.

The "Queen" of the story, of course, is Aunt Jenny. She represents for Faulkner the grandeur of the old South. Her kingdom, the Sartoris family, has fallen apart before her eyes. She has survived four generations of Sartoris men. Other than Sartoris and The Unvanquished, she also appears as Mrs. Depre in Requiem for a Nun, The Town (in which she is referred to as old Bayard's sister, though in other instances she is described as his aunt), and "All the Dead Pilots."