33 pages 1 hour read

William Faulkner

A Rose for Emily

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1930

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A Rose for Emily”

Published in 1930, “A Rose for Emily” is one of American author William Faulkner’s most popular short stories and was his first to appear in a national magazine. Like many of Faulkner’s other works, “A Rose for Emily” takes place in the fictional town of Jefferson, which is based on Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Through the titular character Emily Grierson, Faulkner explores the complex relationships between individuals and society in the American South, and the tensions between tradition and change that marked the Reconstruction era. The story is representative of Faulkner’s Southern Gothic style and features themes such as The Reconstruction Era and the Decline of the Old South, Challenging Early 20th-Century Southern Gender Roles, and The Dangers of Social Isolation.

This study guide is based on the 2012 Modern Library edition of the Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner.

Content Warning: The source text contains depictions of intimate partner violence and racist language. This study guide obscures Faulkner’s use of racial slurs, which were common in both his time and in the story’s period.

“A Rose for Emily” is narrated in the first-person plural from the perspective of Jefferson’s townspeople. The story takes place in the Reconstruction era following the American Civil War. Faulkner relies on a nonlinear narrative structure; the collective narrative voice moves back and forth in a series of flashbacks and recounts Emily’s life from multiple points in time.

The story opens with the death of 74-year-old Emily Grierson, the last member of a once-respected Southern aristocratic family who fell from grace after the Civil War. The townspeople attend Emily’s funeral out of a sense of duty and curiosity, and the funeral becomes an opportunity for them to reflect on the curious details of her life. The narrator describes Emily as a “hereditary obligation upon the town” (48). Unlike the other residents of Jefferson, Emily did not pay local taxes. After her father’s death in 1894, she continued to live in a large, empty plantation house gone to seed since the Civil War. At the time, Colonel Sartoris, the mayor of the town, unofficially remitted Emily taxes out of sympathy for her unworldliness. He claimed that Emily’s father loaned the town money, which accounts for the tax remittance. Emily was survived only by an African American servant named Tobe and estranged kin in Alabama.

About 40 years later and a decade after the colonel’s death, the new political administration—“the next generation, with its more modern ideas” (48)—attempted to formalize its relationship with Emily and her estate to collect on taxes. When representatives visited her, her home “smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell” (49). Emily, believing Colonel Sartoris to still to be alive, claimed, “I have no taxes in Jefferson” (49). Emily stubbornly held to the former mayor’s promise that, because of her father’s position, she wouldn’t have to pay taxes. The town representatives were therefore “vanquished,” unable to make Emily see reason.

The story then moves further back in time, and the narrators recount Emily’s upbringing as the only daughter of a wealthy and controlling man. Emily’s father forbade her from socializing with the young men of Jefferson, who he thought were “not quite good enough” (51) for a Grierson woman. As a result, Emily became increasingly isolated from the rest of the town and was unmarried when her father died. After her father’s death, Emily’s behavior became increasingly erratic. She denied the truth of his passing and barricaded his body in their home for three days before finally allowing officials to bury him. Although her father left her their decaying family home, she had no money and, as a 30-year-old unmarried woman, very few prospects. The townsfolk speculate about her haughty loneliness and the fact that all her local suitors were turned away without consideration. Many in the town believe that her attachment to her father kept her alone.

Despite her isolation, Emily remained a subject of fascination and horror among the residents of Jefferson. Two incidents in particular caused fierce speculation and gossip. The first was Emily’s relationship with Homer Barron. Soon after Emily’s period of reclusive mourning, a charming Northerner named Homer Barron came to town, working as a foreman for public infrastructure work. Emily and Homer were seen together “on Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy” (52). Emily picked out a few men’s implements (such as a nightshirt and monogrammed toiletries) and brought them into her home, even though Homer had admitted that he was “not a marrying man” (54). In addition, Homer admitted that “he liked men” (52) and was known to spend time with young unmarried men in Jefferson. The news of Emily’s potential romance generated debate among the townsfolk. Some were unhappy to see a well-born Southern lady like Emily with a Northern day laborer, while others were amused to observe the new lack of social standing such a match represented. The town ladies petitioned the Baptist minister to intervene. After an unsuccessful attempt to confront Emily, the minister never returned to the Grierson home. Determined, the minister’s wife wrote to Emily’s cousins in Alabama. However, despite the town’s disapproval, Emily continued to spend time and money on Homer, and the people of Jefferson accepted that the two would eventually marry.

Emily’s estranged cousins from Alabama came to visit her, and during this visit, Emily convinced the local druggist to provide her with arsenic. The druggist asked her how she intended to use the poison, noting her legal obligation to divulge this information. When Emily did not answer, he gave her the poison and wrote “For rats” on the box. Many in the town determined that she planned to kill herself to avoid the shame of her romantic mismatch and suggested that her suicide “would be the best thing” (54). One day, however, without any “public blowing-off” (52), Homer disappeared. After the cousins’ departure, Emily was left alone in her decaying house once again, triggering the second troubling incident.

After Homer’s disappearance, Emily refused to accept any visitors to the house. A strange smell began to disturb her neighbors, who complained to Judge Stevens, Jefferson’s elderly mayor. Stevens dismissed the odor, attributing it to Tobe’s negligence. When the smell persisted, the townspeople were forced to take extreme covert measures to eliminate the odor without offending Emily’s perceived feminine sensibilities. Four Jefferson boardmen snuck onto her property in the middle of the night and scattered lime, a strong chemical powder that they believed would destroy any odor-causing materials. As they crept away from the house, they looked up and saw Emily in the window, “her upright torso motionless as that of an idol” (51). The smell eventually dissipated, and Emily’s isolation continued.

Much time passed, with Emily becoming more reclusive and her hair turning an “iron-gray” shade. Years after Homer’s disappearance, Emily opened her home to give lessons in china painting. However, her principal point of human contact was with Tobe, who grew “old and stooped” with the passage of time: “He talked to no one, probably not even to her, for his voice had grown harsh and rusty, as if from disuse” (58). Eventually, the newer generation of Jefferson took over, and there was no longer any interest in Emily’s archaic tutelage. She became so wholly removed that when the town offered her a mailbox number, she refused to be a part of the newly adopted postal delivery service.

The climax of the story comes after Emily’s death, when the townspeople are finally able to enter her home and investigate. Tobe lets in the visitors and then quickly disappears, never to be seen again. After the burial, the townspeople explore the house, including the room in the “region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced” (58). Inside a room “furnished as for a bridal” (58), they find the skeletal remains of Homer Barron. In this rose-colored tomb, the townspeople observe Homer’s decomposed nightshirt, which is barely distinguishable from the rotted bed. The implication is that Emily murdered Homer with arsenic and kept his body in her house for four decades. Upon closer inspection, the visitors discover signs of cohabitation: “a long strand of iron-gray hair” (59) on the bed’s second pillow, suggesting that Emily slept next to Homer’s decaying body.