A Rose for Emily is a short story written by the American author, William Faulkner. The story was first published in 1930 and focuses on the character of Miss Emily, in the fictional town of Jefferson. A Rose for Emily engages with the themes of clinging onto the times of the past and traditions and thus, resonates with the resistance to change. Moreover, in the portrayal of the townspeople of Jefferson, the short story also brings forth the themes of intrusiveness contrasted with curiosity around the mysterious figure of Miss Emily.
A Rose for Emily | Summary
The short story is divided into five sections. The first section of the story begins as the narrator recalls the death of Miss Emily Grierson. And within a first-person-based narrative, the story remembers the funeral being held and the entire town attending it, but mostly out of curiosity to get an inside view of her house that no stranger had seen in almost ten years.
Emily is a member of the family who belongs to the high and mighty class of aristocracy. Thus, the narrator describes the house with such grandeur but as decayed and embodying an outdated style because the Grierson family had declined after the times of the Civil War, and Emily and her father had been the last survivors of that era. Long after the death of her father, Colonel Sartoris, the town’s previous mayor, had eliminated any taxes belonging to Miss Emily because her father paid him a large sum of money and as an act of charity, the Colonel remitted her taxes. But when members of the new generation persuaded Miss Emily to pay her taxes and were received with no response, they paid her a visit to her house. They are welcomed by Tobe, the servant negro man and as they assert the fact that Emily should resume paying her taxes, she responds by saying that her taxes had been taken care of and that she doesn’t have any taxes in Jefferson. Emily repeatedly tells the mayors that they should see Colonel Sartoris about this but the narrator tells us that, by this time, Sartoris had been long dead for about ten years. They are quickly dismissed.
The second section of the story describes yet another archaic and strange behavior of Emily, wherein the townspeople detected a horrible odor coming from her house. The townsfolk thought that this was because Tobe could not keep the house and kitchen clean and thus, they accused him. When several complaints were received by the townspeople about the odor emanating from Miss Emily’s house, Judge Steven, the mayor of the town at that time, decides to sneak in the middle of the night and sprinkle lime around the house, without the knowledge of Miss Emily. After a few weeks, the smell subsides. This happened around two years after her father’s death and shortly after the man who everyone believed would marry Emily, deserted her.
At the time when Emily’s father had been alive, he drove off many suitors and marriage proposals that came to Emily because none of them were deemed good enough to marry his daughter. With such history, the townspeople always believed that the Grierson family was too proud and thought highly of themselves. But they begin to pity Emily as she is left unmarried even at the age of thirty. She had grown to become too independent of her father and this is shown in the fact that she refused to believe that her father had died and thus, she resisted giving up his body for burial. But soon, with the intervention of law and force, they bury him quickly and Miss Emily finally breaks down.
The third section of the story recalls that Miss Emily had fallen sick for a long time after her father’s death. During that summer, the story introduces the town contractor, Homer Barron. Quickly, he becomes a popular figure in town and soon enough, the townspeople see him taking Miss Emily on buggy rides. The townspeople quickly assume that they are having an affair and condescend to their relationship because of the status differences they shared. They said to themselves that Emily was forgetting her reputation and status by being involved in a relationship with Barron, who is just a day laborer and a Northerner. The affair continues and at the end of this section, we see Emily as she goes to the drugstore to buy arsenic. Although the law requires a person to disclose the use of the poison, Emily refuses to offer any explanation. The package soon arrives at her house, labeled “For Rats”.
In the fourth section of the story, after the incident wherein Emily bought herself rat poison, the people of the town, once again, discuss among themselves the possibility that Emily will use the poison to kill herself because as the days passed, they believed that the marriage between Emily and Barron to be very unlikely. As the town gets curious and enraged about this, they force the minister to talk with Emily. And, he talks with her but never reveals the conversation and swears that he will never go back to her house. But the minister’s wife writes to her far familial relationships in Alabama and thus, her cousins pay a visit to Emily. Barron seems to be absent from town and the people assume that he must have gone back to the North to take care of the affairs of his marriage. As soon as the cousins leave, Barron comes back to Emily’s house but after which he is never seen again. Soon after this, Miss Emily becomes a recluse, refusing to come outside her house as she shuts the doors to them. Only Tobe, the servant, is seen to come and go out of the house. Thus, the townspeople only see Emily after her death, at her funeral, at the age of seventy-four.
In the final section of the story, the narrator describes the aftermath of Miss Emily’s death. After some days past her funeral, after which Tobe silently walked out of her house to never come back again. There was one particular room above the house that no one had seen in forty years and that always remained closed during that period. This door is broken down by the townspeople. Inside this room, among all her wedding gifts bought for Homer Barron, the decomposed body of his lies. And, upon the pillow beside him, the people notice a thin long iron-gray hair that belongs to Miss Emily, indicating that she has been sleeping with Barron’s corpse.
A Rose for Emily | Analysis
Faulkner brilliantly approaches the theme of resistance to change within his enigmatic
characteristic portrayal of Miss Emily. Her mysterious figure is elevated more by Faulkner with respect to her exclusive house that gets introduced at the beginning of the short story itself. The narrator describes the house as such, “It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with
cupolas and spires” but now, “coquettish decay” lay above them and moreover, “It smelled of dust and disuse — a close, dank smell”. Such a description of the house is heightened by the narrator as the mayor of the town visits Miss Emily at her house and the parlor is narrated to be as such that “a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray”. Such shades of decay and antique manifest the mysterious figure of Faulkner’s protagonist, Miss Emily.
Within the perspective of the narrator, during the visit of the Board of Alderman to Emily’s house, she is portrayed as such:
“She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough…”.
Such a portrayal of Miss Emily, undoubtedly echoes the resistance to change from her side, especially, the description wherein her body looks as if they were “long submerged in motionless water”. The “motionless” body evokes an image of stagnant water that has been inactive and embodies a lack of flow that indicates an almost life-less figure of Miss Emily. Thus, the reeking smell emanating out of her house could be symbolic of this decaying and stagnant body of Miss Emily as well. Other than this, Faulkner gives a literal meaning to the odor emerging out of her house to the decomposed body of her lover, Homer Barron.
After the death of her father, Emily becomes more shut off from the world of the town of Jefferson. During this period, the narrator describes Miss Emily as such that she is compared “with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows — sort of tragic and serene”. The portrayal of Miss Emily as “tragic and serene” connotes her state of characteristic to be of a contradictory nature that refuses to put a closure of definition to her appearance and thus, evoking a sense of her mysterious and enigmatic nature. Therefore, with respect to such a vague description, Falkner only evokes an interruptive shade of the life of Miss Emily, wherein, subtly the narrator invokes the resistance from the side of Emily as a character, towards her incomprehensible life.
Such elimination of resistance to understanding Emily’s life and character echoes the theme of resistance to change with time in the short story. As the narrator gives insight, Miss Emily refused to dispose of the body of her father after his death, undoubtedly evoking her resistance to change. And, moreover, she has frozen time in the past as we witness the decomposed body of her lover in her room who once had been lying “in the attitude of an embrace”.
A Rose for Emily — Themes
One of the significant themes that Faulkner brings forward to his short story, A Rose for Emily, is the curious and intrusive side of the townspeople. The short story describes these people as judgmental and a group of gossipers that pretends to care and pity Miss Emily.
For instance, we witness in the short story, a woman complaining to the mayor about the reeking odor emanating from Miss Emily’s house and asking the mayor to send her a word to stop the smell. But this is manifested shrewdly by the narrator as only a shade of intrusiveness on the part of the townsfolk. In addition to this, at one point in the short story, the people are concerned about Emily because she was not upholding her class status by getting involved in a relationship with the day laborer, Homer Barron. Immediately, the people resort to the minister and ask him to write letters to her family in Alabama as a pretentious act of caring and concern for her.
Moreover, the following day when Emily bought herself a bottle of rat poison, the narrator describes, “So the next day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would be the best thing. When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, “She will marry him”. The narrator further gives insight from the perspective of “we”, an indication of narrating as part of a collective memory from the townspeople, to inform us once again about their intrusive nature and judgmental tone, “Later we said, “Poor Emily” behind the jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon in the glittering buggy..”.
A Rose for Emily — Title of the Story
More than the protagonist of the story, Faulkner bestows an association of obscurity and uncertainty to the title of the short story. The title might suggest the offering of a rose, symbolic of love and beauty, to Miss Emily, the woman who was confronted with great tragedy.
A Rose for Emily — Character Sketch
Emily Grierson – The mysterious and enigmatic protagonist of the short story, who is portrayed as a woman who stopped living after the death of her beloved father and lover. The story focuses on her perplexing life.
A Rose for Emily — Literary Devices
The short story employs great use of metaphors and similes to compare the character of Miss Emily and thus, build her characteristic portrayal. For instance, at the beginning of the short story, Miss Emily’s death is described as a “fallen monument”, highlighting the mighty and teeming status of the upper-class aristocracy. Moreover, the writer uses a simile to compare and express the mysterious figure of Miss Emily to that of “angels in colored church windows” and portrays her as “sort of tragic and serene”. Thus, these literary devices are greatly used by Faulkner to highlight and emphasize the characteristic style of the protagonist of the short story.
Moreover, the title of the short story echoes the offering of a rose for Miss Emily from the writer, which could be symbolic of the love and beauty that he has to bestow the tragic women in his short story.