“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner is often seen in short story anthologies. It has attracted a lot of critical attention, and has also been enjoyed by the average reader. It can be read in the Amazon preview of A Rose for Emily and Other Stories. (18% in)
The story is set in the fictional town of Jefferson, in Mississippi. It’s generally categorized as Gothic horror or Southern gothic. It’s told by the seldom-seen first-person narrator who uses plural pronouns—”we” instead of “I”, and “our” instead of “my”. Its shocking ending makes a second reading even better, as we try to organize its chronology and look for clues.
Summary of “A Rose for Emily”
An unnamed narrator, who seems to be speaking on behalf of the group, tells us that when Miss Emily Grierson died, the whole town attended her funeral. The men felt obligated, while the women were curious about her house, which no one save a servant had seen in years.
When Miss Emily’s father died in 1894, the mayor, Colonel Sartoris, waived all her future taxes out of charity, but on the fiction that this would repay a loan from her father.
Years later, a new body of politicians mail her a tax notice. They make further attempts at contacting her, but they’re ignored. She returns the notice.
The Board of Alderman send a delegation to her house. The servant, Tobe, shows them in. The house is dusty and dank. Miss Emily is small and fat, and uses a cane.
They state their case. She responds that she has no taxes to pay in Jefferson. They try to explain that there’s no official reason she should be tax-exempt. She tells them to see Colonel Sartoris and tells Tobe to show them out. The narrator says Sartoris has been dead for 10 years.
Thirty years prior, which was also two years after her father’s death and shortly after her sweetheart left her, there was another incident.
Emily has become reclusive. The only activity at the house is from the Negro servant. A few of the neighbors complain to Judge Stevens, eighty-years-old, about a terrible smell coming from her house. They want official action taken. The Board of Alderman meet. A younger member says to simply send word to clean it up or face consequences. Judge Stevens balks at accusing a lady of smelling bad.
Late the next night, four men sneak around Emily’s house and outbuildings, sprinkling lime on the ground. As they work, a window lights up with Miss Emily’s motionless torso visible. They leave. The smell dissipates soon after.
People in town begin to feel sorry for Miss Emily. They remember how her great-aunt, lady Wyatt, had gone crazy. No young men were ever good enough for her. After her father’s death, all she had was her house. The townspeople also feel it’s right that the pompous Grierson’s have come down in the world.
When Miss Emily’s father dies, she holds out for three days, claiming he’s still alive. She finally breaks down and allows his body to be buried.
Miss Emily is sick a long time. When she reappears, she has a short haircut.
In the summer, a construction company is in Jefferson to pave the sidewalks. It’s led by Homer Barron, a Northerner. He becomes popular. On Sundays, he and Miss Emily drive together in a buggy. There are whispers in town about the relationship. Some say that her estranged kinsfolk in Alabama should come talk to her. She’s viewed as a fallen woman, but she still carries herself with dignity.
About a year after the relationship started, Miss Emily bought poison. The druggist questioned her because the law required customers to say what a poison will be used for. She didn’t answer and stared him down until he handed it over. He wrote, “For rats,” on the box.
Gossip spreads that Miss Emily will kill herself. Homer isn’t the marrying kind; they believe her position is hopeless. The ladies force the Baptist minister to call on her. He keeps the happenings secret and never goes back. His wife writes to her cousins in Alabama.
Soon after, Miss Emily orders some male accessories and clothing. The town believes she and Homer are married. They also want her cousins to leave. Homer leaves as the paving job is finished. The cousins return home. Three days later, Homer returns to Miss Emily’s.
Homer isn’t seen again, and Miss Emily isn’t seen outside for six months. She’s fat now and her hair goes iron-gray. At about forty, she gives china-painting lessons for six or seven years. The daughters and granddaughters of the older generation are sent to her. When her group of pupils grown up, there are no replacements. She becomes a recluse. When Jefferson gets postal service, she refuses an address and a mailbox.
The years pass. Her servant gets grayer, her tax notices go unclaimed, and she’s occasionally seen through a downstairs window. The top floor of her house seems to be closed off. Miss Emily falls ill and dies in one of her downstairs rooms.
The servant lets people in the front door. He walks out the back and isn’t seen again. The funeral is held on the second day. They wait until after Miss Emily is buried to deal with her upper room.
They break the door down. The room has the atmosphere of a tomb and is thick with dust. It’s decked as a bridal suite.
Homer Barron’s body lies on the bed. He looks to be smiling. There’s an indentation on the pillow next to him. On it is a long, iron-gray hair.
Theme: Denying Death
Death permeates the story, and it could be looked at from many angles. We’ll focus on how it’s denied by Miss Emily.
A denial of death occurs when the town authorities visit Miss Emily about paying her taxes. She won’t to listen to their position, twice refusing with, “See Colonel Sartoris.” The narrator tells us Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.
It’s reasonable to thinks Miss Emily is aware of this fact. Her servant, Tobe, makes regular trips into town. The narrative indicates the townspeople like gossiping about each other. He would have heard the significant goings on in Jefferson, and kept Miss Emily updated. She simply refuses to acknowledge the death of Sartoris.
Another denial occurs when Miss Emily’s father dies, and she acts like nothing has happened. Some ladies call to offer sympathy and help. She meets them dressed normally and without grief. She says her father is not dead. She keeps this up for three days, fending off sympathizers, ministers and doctors. Finally, she accepts the death and breaks down.
The ultimate denial is, of course, the keeping of Homer Barron’s corpse for over forty years. The narrator says it looked as though it had once been positioned “in the attitude of an embrace.” Added to this is “the indentation of a head” on the next pillow, and the discovery of the “long strand of iron-gray hair” on it. At the least, Miss Emily spent some time lying down next to Homer and embracing his dead body.
In chronological order, Miss Emily’s rejection of death first evinced itself with her father’s death, culminated with her plans for Homer, and was merely echoed in her decree to speak with a dead man.
Miss Emily’s denial of death certainly doesn’t improve her life in the long term. It prevents her from being a normal citizen of Jefferson. In the short term and in her isolation, it gives her the temporary relief she’s looking for.
While Miss Emily is a part of the community of Jefferson, she keeps separate from it.
She didn’t date when she was younger, because her father didn’t think anyone was good enough. She doesn’t respond to her tax notice, and ignores a formal letter requesting she contact the sheriff. Her only response to a letter from the mayor is a note saying she doesn’t go out. After her father’s death she’s rarely seen in town.
After Homer leaves, some ladies call on her. She doesn’t receive them. She isn’t seen in town for almost six months.
The Baptist minister’s visit is a one-time thing. It can be assumed Miss Emily strongly discouraged any more.
She refuses a mailbox. This wouldn’t prevent people writing her letters or leaving notes, but it symbolically cuts off communication. After she stops giving china-painting lessons, she stays secluded until her death.
It can be argued whether Miss Emily’s isolation is a cause or an effect of her mental state. Most likely, it’s both. Isolation certainly makes her life worse and contributes to her abnormal psychology.
The times Miss Emily interacts with others also emphasize her isolation, such as how:
- the Mayor’s deputation is quickly dismissed,
- her Sundays with Homer attract a lot of attention,
- her visit with the druggist is matter-of-fact and uncomfortable,
- her china-painting lessons are forced on children by the older generation, and
- the visit from her cousins is short.
Theme: The Changing South
Throughout “A Rose For Emily”, there’s tension between the aristocratic, antebellum south and the post-Civil War south.
The old south has a code of honor and chivalry that isn’t observed by the new generation. There are many contrasts between the two systems, such as:
- the story Colonel Sartoris concocts about Miss Emily’s taxes to spare her from accepting charity with the new politician’s request for payment.
- how a young alderman wants to order Miss Emily to clean up her place, while Judge Stevens (an eighty-year-old) won’t accuse a lady of smelling bad.
- how Miss Emily’s neighborhood goes from aristocratic to an eyesore.
- how Homer is popular with the younger people, but the older ones think the match is inappropriate as he’s a Northerner and day-laborer.
- how Miss Emily’s china-painting is valued by the older generation but dismissed by the new.
- how Miss Emily’s father chases socially acceptable men off because they’re not good enough, with her later dating a Northern laborer.
1. What does the title mean?
I haven’t been able to confirm it, but Faulkner is quoted as saying it “was an allegorical title; the meaning was, here was a woman who had had a tragedy, an irrevocable tragedy and nothing could be done about it, and I pitied her and this was a salute…to a woman you would hand a rose.”
This sounds right to me. I was thinking along similar lines, that the narrator was offering a rose to Emily as an acknowledgement of what she had been through. This seems consistent with the non-judgmental tone used. The narrator says nothing critical, either about her hanging on to her father’s body or after the discovery of Homer’s.
2. Are there any examples of foreshadowing?
The story’s climax is the discovery of Homer Barron’s body in the bed. We would expect something this significant to be foreshadowed, and it is. Some of the “hints” include:
- the strong smell coming from the house,
- how Miss Emily keeps her dead father’s body for three days,
- the decayed atmosphere of her house,
- how the upper floor had been closed off,
- her purchase of arsenic, and
- how Miss Emily looks like a corpse, “bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water.” It’s fitting that her partner is also a corpse.
The fact that Miss Emily’s mental state would allow her to do something so abnormal is also foreshadowed. One, already mentioned, was keeping her dead father’s body for three days. Another is that her great-aunt, lady Wyatt, “had gone completely crazy.”