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The title character of "Elly" is eighteen years old. She "lives in Jefferson . . . with her father and mother and grandmother in a biggish house" (208). Elly has inherited her given name, Ailanthia, from her grandmother, a link that Faulkner uses to underscore the generational tension between the grandmother's Victorian sexual repression and Southern racial prejudices, and Elly's restlessness with these taboos. Modern enough to engage in kissing sessions with the young men who court her, Elly loses her virginity to Paul - an outsider whose ambiguous racial identity (Elly's grandmother is sure Paul is a Negro) attracts Elly in ways that remain unarticulated. Elly expresses herself largely through her physicality, first using her youthful sexuality to attract suitors, and then later climbing the stairs "with the tread almost of an old woman" when she is burdened by her grandmother's censure (208). She is able to "change completely" (208), depending on her mood and her company. She is injured, but apparently not fatally, in the automobile accident that, technically, she causes, but that psychologically is the result of her own ambivalence about both her grandmother's prejudices and Paul's 'blackness.'

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