A Rose for Emily

“A Rose for Emily” is a short story written by William Faulkner and was originally published in 1930. William Faulkner was a writer for Hollywood, working on about 50 different screenplays over nearly two decades. From about 1932 to 1954, he worked with MGM, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox. Some films he is credited with include Today We Live (1933), The Big Sleep (1946), and To Have and Have Not (1944). But, have you heard of “A Rose for Emily?” It never made it to the big screen, but it is one of his most famous pieces, dealing with social norms, expectations, murder, and some even say necrophilia!

A Rose for Emily A Rose for Emily

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Table of contents

    A Rose for Emily, Dark Rose, StudySmarterFig. 1 - In this dark tale, a rose never actually appears, but the rose symbolizes ideas of love and romance.

    “A Rose for Emily” Summary

    “A Rose for Emily” centers on the title character, Miss Emily Grierson, her role in Jefferson County, Mississippi, the societal expectations she faces, and how they shape her and influence her actions. This piece of Gothic fiction comes full circle as it both begins and ends with the death of Emily. Told in first-person plural from the perspective of an unnamed peripheral narrator – presumably a resident of Jefferson – “A Rose for Emily” contains five sections and ends with a shocking revelation.

    A peripheral narrator is when the narrative voice is another character within the story witnessing the actions and relaying them to the reader. A peripheral narrator is never the central focus of the story, although they may take part in the actions. The character of Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is another example of a peripheral narrator.

    Section I

    Section I begins with the unnamed narrator telling us of Miss Emily Grierson’s death and how the town felt she was a sort of monument to be respected and admired but still kept at a distance. She had become an enigma to the Jefferson community. We learn that Emily had gone more than ten years without paying taxes, and when the new city leaders try to collect taxes from her, she dismisses them. The audience’s initial introduction to Emily reveals her as cold, stubborn, proud, and resolute in her ideas.

    Section II

    The narrative flashes back in time to a couple of years after her father’s death and when Homer Baron, a man everyone thought would marry Emily, disappeared from her life. The neighbors and townspeople complain about an odor coming from Miss Emily’s yard, but the Board of Aldermen, the town leadership, refuse to approach Emily Grierson about the issue because they refuse to accuse a lady of smelling. Rather than face Miss Emily and possibly embarrass her, they sneak around the decaying Grierson property at midnight and sprinkle lime all around to absorb the foul odor. The smell dissipates within a week or two.

    When Emily’s father, an overbearing, protective, and stern man, unexpectedly dies, he leaves Miss Emily with nothing but the house. She was penniless, lacked any prospective husbands (as her father had turned them all away) and had no viable skills. Upon her father’s death, Emily initially refused to believe the reality of her situation and refused to let the minister or doctor in for three days. Finally, she accepts his death and allows her father to be buried.

    Section III

    The town of Jefferson sees great developments and starts construction on the streets. As a day-laborer, Homer Baron is the foreman and soon becomes a favorite among townspeople. Miss Emily and Homer spend Sunday afternoons driving in a yellow-wheeled buggy together. The town begins to gossip about Miss Emily and the nature of her relationship with Homer. Then, while Miss Emily has family visiting, she goes to a druggist to buy arsenic. Although Emily refuses to indicate what the poison is for, the druggist writes it is for rats on the directions.

    Section IV

    The town is abuzz hoping that Miss Emily and Homer Baron will marry; they expect her to convince him to. When they see no sign of marriage, the minister’s wife writes to Emily’s relatives, a pair of cousins. Upon their arrival, Homer Baron disappears. While the cousins are in town, Emily purchases a man’s silver toilet set, a complete outfit of men’s clothing, and a man’s nightshirt. For the people of Jefferson, this is proof that Emily and Homer are married.

    The cousins leave, and three days later, Homer Baron is back in town and visits Miss Emily. He is admitted in by Emily’s house servant and he is not seen again. Except for a few children who enter the Grierson residence for china painting lessons, the doors remain closed, and Emily is rarely seen. Years pass and Miss Emily’s servant begins to show the physical signs of aging: gray hair and a stooped walk. But, Emily herself is rarely seen. Every year Miss Emily is sent a notice to collect taxes, and each year the letter is returned, unpaid. Emily grows older, plumper, and her hair grays, but she remains locked in her residence.

    Emily Grierson dies in the house, with her head propped up on an old, yellow, and moldy pillow.

    Section V

    After her death, Emily’s servant admits some Jefferson women into the house. Then, she walks out the back door and is never heard from or seen again. The two female cousins arrive and have a funeral for Emily Grierson. The entire town attends out of curiosity and a sense of obligation. After a respectable amount of time, the residents of Jefferson decide to enter Miss Emily’s house and open the upstairs door that had been bolted shut for over 40 years. Once the dust settles, they see the skeletal remains of Homer Baron, lying in bed. Next to his remains is a pillow with a head indentation and a single long gray hair.

    “A Rose for Emily” Setting

    The short story “A Rose for Emily” is set in Jefferson, Mississippi. The entire story takes place over several decades and moves from the past to the present several times. Faulkner employs the method of relating a story out of chronological order to show how past and present intermingle and have an irrevocable effect on one another.

    Setting its roots in the antebellum South, we see the town of Jefferson transition from a rural area to a burgeoning city. The population expands and buildings develop around the Grierson residence, which remains the same because of Miss Emily’s resistance to change. Like many of Faulkner’s pieces, “A Rose for Emily” takes place in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, a fictive section of Mississippi that Faulkner fashioned after the real Lafayette County in Mississippi. Jefferson, where “A Rose for Emily” is set, is the county seat of Yoknapatawpha.

    Yoknapatawpha is a name derived from two different Chickasaw words. The first, yocona, means land, and petopha means split. Yoknapatwpha, therefore, means split land and was the original name for what we now call the Yocona River.

    William Faulkner worked as a writer-in-residence for the University of Virginia. During lectures and discussions, he would often respond to student questions about his writing process or specifics about his fiction.

    “A Rose for Emily” Analysis

    Let’s take a look at the short story in more detail.

    Expectations

    “A Rose for Emily” is an examination of the damaging effects of societal pressures and how traditional ideals, although well-meaning, can sometimes have adverse effects on an individual’s esteem, mental health, and self-perception. For the town of Jefferson, Miss Emily Grierson and her ancestors represent the traditional ways of the antebellum South. From her youth, Miss Emily is bound by the expectations of her father and those of the town. However, when they fail to reach her expectations of producing a suitable mate, she is doomed to live as a single woman. The townspeople expect her to behave in a certain manner, to uphold the ways of old, and to remain an unmoved emblem in their minds of what once was.

    Emily’s Father

    However, as the town progresses, her lack of evolution is seen as weight. Although she sits in her “stubborn” home as an immovable statue (Section I), Emily is expected to have the skills to maintain her home and her life without having been granted the resources to do so. She had been locked up by her father, who turned away any prospective suitors, and when he was gone, she felt as though she had nothing left, so she had to “cling to that which had robbed her” (Section II). Emily’s inability to come to terms with her father’s death foreshadows later events with Homer Baron and, from an objective perspective, reveals her mental instability. However, because the audience is told the story from one of Jefferson’s folks, our perspective is as shrouded in dust as theirs.

    Language

    The town of Jefferson progresses in social and political views as the narrator’s diction changes from the offensive and derogatory term nigger to the somewhat less drastic term, but still offensive, Negro. This marked change in diction, however, does not mirror the stagnant expectations the townspeople maintain of Miss Emily. While “contracts for paving the sidewalks” (Section III) are secured, Miss Emily is still expected to not “think seriously of a Northerner” and maintain her “noblesse oblige” (Section III).

    Independence

    As she fails again and again to meet the social expectations set forth for her, each boundary becomes easier and easier to cross. Emily Grierson sees she can live without her father as she’s left to face that reality alone. She sees she can date without an escort. She learns that the expectation of marriage is flexible. However, in order to maintain her image, she crosses moral boundaries rather than merely social boundaries. We see her physical appearance begin to mirror her mental state, as she purchases “the arsenic” strong enough to kill “an elephant” (Section III).

    A Rose for Emily, Woman at Pharmacy, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The woman goes to the pharmacy to purchase arsenic, a chemical element that is poisonous.

    Ending

    In the last section of Faulkner’s literary work, the townspeople gain entrance to the house after Emily “was decently in the ground” (Section V). This allows the reader to feel the same shock and dismay the people of Jefferson feel. The room they force open has the “acrid pall as of the tomb” (Section V) and is, in actuality, the resting place of Homer Barron’s remains. “The man himself lay in the bed” with a “long strand of iron-gray hair” (Section V) in the indentation beside his corpse, revealing the unspoken secret Miss Emily hid under her veil of dust.

    “A Rose for Emily” Symbolism

    There are many symbols in Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily.” While Miss Emily herself is recognized by the townspeople as “a tradition, a duty, and a care” (Section I), the narrator states in the opening paragraphs through the use of metaphor that she symbolizes “a fallen monument” (Section I) for them. She is a reminder of the past and evidence of how history can still affect the present. There are other symbols throughout the fictive piece worth mentioning and exploring.

    The Grierson House

    The Grierson homestead itself begins as a picturesque building “decorated with cupolas and spires” (Section I) like the traditional antebellum architecture from the Neo-Classic Era. A squarish plantation home that once sat on the most “select street,” (Section I) Emily’s home becomes crowded with gas stations, gins, and an industrialized setting. The house ages and becomes an “eyesore among eyesores,” (Section I) the worst of the buildings that surrounded it. The exterior and interior remain as a sort of museum and an emblem of dead traditions and ideals. It is simultaneously honored, ignored, and despised by the Jefferson residents.

    Dust

    Dust in “A Rose for Emily” is ever-present from the onset of the story when the aldermen visit to collect taxes from her. Her home “smelled of dust and disuse” (Section I) and even when they sat “a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs” (Section I). It covers the entire house, shows her lack of visitors and isolation, represents the death of her youth, and proves her to be buried long before her physical end. All that surrounds her is covered in dust and mystery and proves that her judgement is clouded and the townspeople can’t see the whole truth.

    A Rose

    Roses are traditional symbols of love. In “A Rose for Emily,” an actual rose never appears. Although portions of Emily’s home furnishings are described as being rose-colored, they are all in reference to the lighting in her house. Some speculate that the “rose” is actually Homer Baron, who has been preserved and cared for as one does a flower to commemorate a special occasion or emotion. Others side with Faulkner and see the rose as a salute to Emily, a southern belle, whose life has caused her immense suffering.

    “A Rose for Emily” Themes

    Here are some of the main themes of the text. Can you think of others?

    Tradition and Change

    “A Rose for Emily” stands as a reminder of the heritage of the proud, stubborn, and immovable antebellum South. When societal expectations and social pressures become the definition of an individual and are valued above the needs and identity of a person, such as Miss Emily, it becomes difficult to let go. To progress and thrive, it is necessary to forget the traditions and ideals of the past that do not serve the present, embrace change, and welcome what the future brings.

    Adhering to Social Conventions and Judgement

    In “A Rose for Emily,” the narrative voice and use of the pronoun “we” throughout the story indicates that the narrator speaks for the town of Jefferson and as an active member of society. Miss Emily is objectified by the members of the town, and she loses her identity (which is an emblem of the Old South) in the eyes of the Jefferson community. Emily Grierson feels immense social pressures and expectations to be what they want. She can hear their whispers and perhaps because of the judgement she experiences, she feels forced to maintain a certain image.

    A Rose for Emily - Key takeaways

    • “A Rose for Emily” is a short story classified as Gothic fiction published by William Faulkner in 1930.
    • It is the story of Emily Grierson, a southern belle who continuously shocks the town by breaking the social customs expected of her. Miss Emily represents the old South and fights change.
    • The story proves how far a person can go when pressured to adhere to social norms.
    • Miss Emily represents the old South and fights change, ultimately having a difficult time with the progression of her town and life.
    • The central symbols of the short story are the Grierson house, dust, and the rose. They represent a testament to how necessary progression is, death, the inability to see clearly, and kindness towards the protagonist.
    Frequently Asked Questions about A Rose for Emily

    What does the dust symbolize in  “A Rose for Emily?” 

    The dust in “A Rose for Emily” symbolizes death, decay, and the inability to see clearly.

    What happens at the end  of “A Rose for Emily?” 

    At the end of “A Rose for Emily,” the townspeople discover Emily murdered Homer Baron with arsenic, kept his rotting corpse in her home, and has been lying down next to him in bed. 

    What is the main theme in “A Rose for Emily?” 

    The main theme in “A Rose for Emily” is how the inability to adapt and the pressure to adhere to societal expectations can lead to desperate acts. 

    What is  “A Rose for Emily” about? 

     “A Rose for Emily” is about the title character, Miss Emily Grierson, her role in Jefferson County, Mississippi, the societal expectations she faces, and how they shape her and influence her actions. 

    What does the rose symbolize in “A Rose for Emily?” 

    In “A Rose for Emily,” the rose only appears in the title and is a symbol of kindness toward Miss Emily, which she was never shown during her life. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or FalseMiss Emily comes from a stable home. 

    What metaphor does the narrative voice use to describe Miss Emily in the opening paragraph? 

    Which one is not a symbol in "A Rose for Emily"?

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