"A Rose for Emily" opens with Miss Emily Grierson's funeral. It then goes back in time to show the reader Emily's childhood. As a girl, Emily is cut off from most social contact by her father. When he dies, she refuses to acknowledge his death for three days. After the townspeople intervene and bury her father, Emily is further isolated by a mysterious illness, possibly a mental breakdown.
Homer Barron’s crew comes to town to build sidewalks, and Emily is seen with him. He tells his drinking buddies that he is not the marrying kind. The townspeople consider their relationship improper because of differences in values, social class, and regional background. Emily buys arsenic and refuses to say why. The ladies in town convince the Baptist minister to confront Emily and attempt to persuade her to break off the relationship. When he refuses to discuss their conversation or to try again to persuade Miss Emily, his wife writes to Emily’s Alabama cousins. They come to Jefferson, but the townspeople find them even more haughty and disagreeable than Miss Emily. The cousins leave town.
Emily buys a men’s silver toiletry set, and the townspeople assume marriage is imminent. Homer is seen entering the house at dusk one day, but is never seen again. Shortly afterward, complaints about the odor emanating from her house lead Jefferson’s aldermen to surreptitiously spread lime around her yard, rather than confront Emily, but they discover her openly watching them from a window of her home.
Miss Emily’s servant, Tobe, seems the only one to enter and exit the house. No one sees Emily for approximately six months. By this time she is fat and her hair is short and graying. She refuses to set up a mailbox and is denied postal delivery. Few people see inside her house, though for six or seven years she gives china-painting lessons to young women whose parents send them to her out of a sense of duty.
The town mayor, Colonel Sartoris, tells Emily an implausible story when she receives her first tax notice: The city of Jefferson is indebted to her father, so Emily’s taxes are waived forever. However, a younger generation of aldermen later confronts Miss Emily about her taxes, and she tells them to see Colonel Sartoris (now long dead, though she refuses to acknowledge his death). Intimidated by Emily and her ticking watch, the aldermen leave, but they continue to send tax notices every year, all of which are returned without comment.
In her later years, it appears that Emily lives only on the bottom floor of her house. She is found dead there at the age of seventy-four. Her Alabama cousins return to Jefferson for the funeral, which is attended by the entire town out of duty and curiosity. Emily’s servant, Tobe, opens the front door for them, then disappears out the back. After the funeral, the townspeople break down a door in Emily’s house that, it turns out, had been locked for forty years. They find a skeleton on a bed, along with the remains of men’s clothes, a tarnished silver toiletry set, and a pillow with an indentation and one long iron-gray hair.
A Rose for Emily Summary
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A Rose for Emily is a short story by celebrated American author William Faulkner. First published in 1930, it was Faulkner’s first short story in a national magazine. It tells the story of one small Mississippi town’s local recluse and is written in Faulkner’s signature non-linear style.
The story begins with the funeral of town recluse and eccentric, Emily Grierson. The town views her funeral as an obligation and a bit of a chore. From there, the story is told in a non-linear fashion based on the narrator’s memories of Emily’s increasingly unpredictable behavior.
Emily’s family was once Southern aristocracy, and after the Civil War, they fell on hard times. Although the war is over, Emily and her father continued to live as they did before, with her father refusing to allow her to marry. When he dies and leaves her alone at age 30, she is shocked and devastated. When she refuses to bury him, the townspeople write it off as an eccentric grieving process.
Emily recovers eventually, and she becomes friendly with a man named Homer Barron, a Northerner who came to town shortly after her father’s death. The townspeople are pleased but surprised. However, Homer claims that he isn’t the marrying kind and intends to stay a bachelor forever. When Emily is seen buying arsenic from the local store, the townspeople are convinced that Homer’s declaration has driven her to suicide.
The town arranges for Emily’s distant cousins to come into town to watch over her, and Homer leaves. After a brief return to town three days later, he disappears and is never seen again. Despite all these events, Emily continues with her haughty, eccentric ways as if nothing has happened.
The town is soon plagued by a ghastly smell coming from Emily’s house, but as always, they deal with the problem in a roundabout way. Late at night, men sprinkle lime around her house, and the smell soon dissipates. The mayor decides to waive Emily’s taxes under the pretense of paying back her father after his death, and Emily is left alone in her house.
Years later, with a new generation of leaders in office, Emily insists on the same arrangement. At this point, the town has begun to think of her as a “hereditary obligation” and they politely tolerate her erratic behavior.
Emily funeral at the end of the novel is a large affair. Many come only to gawk at the legendary local recluse. After the funeral, speculation about the state of her house is high, and a few townspeople decide to explore what’s left. They find her bedroom locked, and they kick down the door to find inside every gift Emily ever bought for Homer. On the bed is the badly decomposed body of Homer Barron with an indentation in the pillow beside him and a single gray hair.
Faulkner’s nonlinear style in A Rose for Emily allows him to examine both the events as they happened, but also the subjective nature of memories. The events have a relationship to one another, and this connection becomes clearer as the narrator is given the freedom to recall the events as they come to mind.
Tradition is a major theme within this story. Emily is born into a traditional Southern way of life that crumbles after the Civil War. Without the structure of a rigid class system, Emily’s father begins controlling the only thing he can—his daughter.She, in turn, is unable to shirk that control even after his death, a fact she demonstrates when she refuses to give up his corpse for burial. This control is reflected in her relationship with—and murder of—Homer Barron, a Northerner who doesn’t fit into the rigid traditions of her small town and life.
Emily’s isolation is another persistent theme. The town watches her but also leaves her alone. She is extremely isolated and yet, every action is also put under a microscope by her neighbors. Her behavior under this isolation contributes further to her isolation, and simultaneously contributes to the curiosity that prevents the town from setting her free.
To some extent, her character mirrors what Faulkner himself felt about the Old South. Emily refuses to relinquish her control and her traditions, and when Homer arrives into town but threatens to leave, it is a sign of disrespect toward everything Emily has known. Likewise, the old traditions of the South were dying out and forcing its people to reconcile changing times with what they had always known.
The story is a haunting example of what happens when the mind refuses to accept change, and what happens when an entire community both watches and ostracizes one of its members. Emily is an enduring figure and one that the reader sympathizes with despite her murder of Homer. Abandoned by those close to her, she found comfort only when by their corpses.