A Rose for Emily

“infobox Book “
name A Rose For Emily
image caption Tale Blazers Edition
author William Faulkner
country America
language English
genre(s) Southern Gothic
publisher TaleBlazers
release date 1930
media type Short Story
pages 36

‘A Rose for Emily’ is a short story written by William Faulkner and first published in 1930. The story centers on an unmarried woman by the name of Miss Emily Grierson who is living in the American South in a large house. When the story starts Emily has just died and the narrator, who is not identified, but is viewed by critics of the text as representing the collective viewpoints of the townspeople, recounts some of the controversy which surrounded Grierson during her life.

We learn that over thirty years earlier Emily’s father had died under rather suspicious circumstances. Emily’s sweetheart abandoned her around this time and she became increasingly reclusive, rarely leaving her home where she lived with only an African American servant woman. About two years after her father’s death a noxious smell had begun to come from Emily’s house, so much so that the mayor of the town had to respond to the townspeople’s complaints about it by ordering some men to go and spread quicklime around the perimeter of the house to dispel the smell. This was not the only instance of Emily being a controversial figure in the town. Ten years before her death the aldermen of the town had gone to her house to question her failure to pay taxes for many years. She chased them away from the house.

As the story progresses the narrator provides further details of how peculiar Emily’s behavior over the years was. For instance, when her father died the townspeople had to convince her to have his body buried. However, many of the townspeople did not believe Emily was mad, but blamed her eccentric behaviour on her father who sought to control her too much while he was alive and left Emily stunted in her personal development.

One of the few exceptions to this was a time many years ago when a northerner or Yankee from New York City who was visiting the region, by the name of Homer Barron, began courting Emily and would ride out to her house to visit her on Sundays. The townspeople viewed this askance, wondering why she would show interest in a Yankee. Concerns were then raised that they had married privately, but then all of a sudden Barron vanished one day and was never seen again. Emily became even more reclusive thereafter, only appearing rarely in public and having little contact with anyone other than her servant.

The narration then returns to the present when Emily has died. When she passes away some of the townsfolk venture into her house and are shocked to find the decaying corpse of a dead man lying on a bed upstairs surrounded by debris and dust. Although it is not proved, they assume that this is the body of Emily’s suitor from many years ago, the Yankee, Homer Barron. Strands of Emily’s hair are found on the pillow next to his body and it is generally agreed that Emily was in the habit of sleeping next to the body of Homer Barron.

‘A Rose for Emily’ is a classic example of a Southern Gothic tale, a genre of American literature characterized by the macabre and an element of horror. For instance, at the end of the story when the townspeople enter Emily’s home after her death we are invited to assume that she killed Barron when he tried to end their courtship and has been lying next to his decaying corpse for decades in her home while she avoids contact with the outside world.

The story also explores the ongoing divide between the north and the south of the United States decades after the end of the American Civil War. The townspeople, for instance, are incredulous when Emily and Homer are courting that she, as a southern lady, would marry a Yankee.

Faulkner’s tale was also a commentary on gender divisions in America of the early twentieth century. Ultimately Emily’s tragic life has been shaped by the controlling influence of her father and her inability to shake off his control even years after he had died. Indeed in an interview he gave sometime after publishing the story in 1930, Faulkner noted that the title of the story, ‘A Rose for Emily’ is meant to indicate that Emily is a subject of some sympathy. Ultimately her life was dogged by the controlling influence of her father, the failure of her courtship with Barron and the judgements and biases of the townspeople. As such, regardless of how peculiar her behavior has been, Faulkner presents her as a character that we should empathize with.   

Character Summaries

Emily Grierson

A tragic figure. It is implied Emily killed Homer and kept his body in her house, sleeping next to it each night.

Homer Barron

Homer and Emily have a relationship which scandalizes the town because of their differences in station. It is implied that Homer is poisoned by Emily, and his body remains in her house for forty years.

Detailed Plot Summary

Section One

Emily Grierson passes away and her funeral is described by the narrator. Emily’s house used to be in the middle of an elegant neighbourhood, but it has all gone to rack and ruin. Emily did not pay taxes because the previous mayor had suspended the payments after Emily’s father died (as he had donated a large amount of money to the community). As new mayors come and go, they all try to get Emily to pay her taxes, but none are successful. When even members of the Board of Alderman come to her door, Emily is adamant that she does not have to pay taxes, and asks the men to leave.

Section Two

Thirty years ago, Emily was investigated because of a strange smell coming from her house. Emily is alone, having been abandoned by her supposed fiancé and her father having passed away. Complaints continue to the point where Judge Stevens (the town’s mayor at the time) has lime sprinkled along the foundation of Emily’s house at night, unawares to her. The odour does go away eventually.

Everyone pities Emily because she is all alone and never goes outside. This is similar to what happened to her great aunt, who went insane. Most people in the town think that the Griersons were too proud, and now that has resulted in Emily having nobody to marry despite being thirty years old.

When Emily’s father dies, the women of the town come to console Emily, however, she refuses to believe that her father is dead. This keeps up for three days until she finally relinquishes her father’s body so it can be buried.

Section Three

After her father passes, Emily is ill for along time. She begins a relationship with Homer Baron, who is contracted to pave the sidewalks of the town. Despite Emily no longer being as reclusive, the town still pities her, because they all believe Emily to be dating someone beneath her.

Emily’s reputation is tarnished by her relationship with Baron. She purchases arsenic, but does not disclose how she will use it (despite being required to by law).

Section Four

Most of the people in the town think that Emily will kill herself with the poison. It seems unlikely that she and Homer will be married, despite the fact they go out together every Sunday. Some women convince the Minister of the town to talk to Emily, but something happens there that makes the Minister refuse to return, although he never speaks of it. Emily’s cousins arrive from Alabama after being requested by the Minister’s wife. They come and stay for a long time.

It eventually seems as if Homer and Emily will be married, although Homer is not seen for a while. It is assumed that he is organising things for the wedding, or that he doesn’t want to be around her cousins.

The cousins leave and Homer returns, but never emerges from the Grierson home after calling in to visit one night. Emily never leaves the house, growing old and fat. She very rarely talks to anyone, never pays her taxes, and eventually dies of old age.

Section Five

When Emily dies, her house is opened up for her funeral. The upstairs floor, which Emily had stopped using, has a room upstairs with items for a wedding. The room also has Homer’s decayed body on a bed, a bed that it appears that Emily slept on as well.

External Links