A Rose for Emily: Introduction
William Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily” was originally published in the April 30, 1930, issue of Forum. It was his first short story published in a major magazine. A slightly revised version was published in two collections of his short fiction, These 13 (1931) and Collected Stories (1950). It has been published in dozens of anthologies as well. “A Rose for Emily” is the story of an eccentric spinster, Emily Grierson. An unnamed narrator details the strange circumstances of Emily’s life and her odd relationships with her father, her lover, and the town of Jefferson, and the horrible secret she hides. The story’s subtle complexities continue to inspire critics while casual readers find it one of Faulkner’s most accessible works. The popularity of the story is due in no small part to its gruesome ending.
Faulkner often used short stories to “flesh out” the fictional kingdom of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, for his novels. In fact, he revised some of his short fiction to be used as chapters in those novels. “A Rose for Emily” takes place in Jefferson, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha. Jefferson is a critical setting in much of Faulkner’s fiction. The character of Colonel Sartoris plays a role in the story; he is also an important character in the history of Yoknapatawpha. However, “A Rose for Emily” is a story that stands by itself. Faulkner himself modestly referred to it as a “ghost story,” but many critics recognize it as an extraordinarily versatile work. As Frank A. Littler writes in Notes on Mississippi Writers, ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ has been ‘‘read variously as a Gothic horror tale, a study in abnormal psychology, an allegory of the relations between North and South, a meditation on the nature of time, and a tragedy with Emily as a sort of tragic heroine.’’
A Rose for Emily Summary
The story, told in five sections, opens in section one with an unnamed narrator describing the funeral of Miss Emily Grierson. (The narrator always refers to himself in collective pronouns; he is perceived as being the voice of the average citizen of the town of Jefferson.) He notes that while the men attend the funeral out of obligation, the women go primarily because no one has been inside Emily’s house for years.
In a once-elegant, upscale neighborhood, her house is the last vestige of the grandeur of a lost era. Colonel Sartoris, the town’s previous mayor, had suspended Emily’s tax responsibilities to the town after her father’s death, justifying the action by claiming that Mr. Grierson had once lent the community a significant sum. As new town leaders take over, they make unsuccessful attempts to get Emily to resume payments. When members of the Board of Aldermen pay her a visit, in the dusty and antiquated parlor, Emily reasserts the fact that she is not required to pay taxes in Jefferson and that the officials should talk to Colonel Sartoris about the matter. However, at that point he has been dead for almost a decade. She asks her servant, Tobe, to show the men out.
In section II, the narrator describes a time thirty years earlier when Emily resists another official inquiry on behalf of the town leaders, when the townspeople detect a powerful odor emanating from her property. Her father has just died, and Emily has been abandoned by the man whom the townsfolk thought she was going to marry. As complaints mount, Judge Stevens, the mayor at the time, decides to have lime sprinkled along the foundation of the Grierson home in the middle of the night. Within a couple of weeks, the odor subsides, but the townspeople begin to pity the increasingly reclusive woman, recalling that her great-aunt had succumbed to insanity. The townspeople have always believed that the Griersons thought too highly of themselves, with Emily's father driving off the many suitors deemed not good enough to marry his daughter. With no offer of marriage in sight, she is still single by the time she turns thirty. The day after Mr. Grierson's death, the women of the town call on Emily to offer their condolences. Meeting them at the door, Emily states that her father is not dead, a charade that she keeps up for three days. She finally turns her father's body over for burial.
In section III, the narrator describes a long illness that Emily suffers after this incident. The summer after her father's death, the town contracts workers to pave the sidewalks, and a construction company, under the direction of northerner Homer Barron, is awarded the job. Homer soon becomes a popular figure in town and is seen taking Emily on buggy rides on Sunday afternoons, which scandalizes the town. They feel she is becoming involved with a man beneath her station. As the affair continues and her reputation is further compromised, she goes to the drug store to purchase arsenic. She is required by law to reveal how she will use the arsenic. She offers no explanation, and the package arrives at her house labeled “For rats.”
In section IV, the narrator describes the fear that some of the townspeople have that Emily will use the poison to kill herself. Her potential marriage to Homer seems increasingly unlikely, despite their continued Sunday ritual. The more outraged women of the town insist that the Baptist minister talk with her. After his visit, he never speaks of what happened and swears that he'll never go back. So the minister's wife writes to Emily's two cousins in Alabama, who arrive for an extended stay. Emily orders a silver toilet set monogrammed with Homer's initials and talk of the couple's marriage resumes. Homer, absent from town, is believed to be preparing for Emily's move or trying to avoid her intrusive relatives.
After the cousins' departure, Homer enters the Grierson home one evening and is never seen again. Holed up in the house, Emily grows plump and gray. Despite the occasional lesson she gives in china painting, her door remains closed to outsiders. In what becomes an annual ritual, Emily refuses to acknowledge the tax bill. She eventually closes up the top floor of the house. Except for the occasional glimpse of her in the window, nothing is heard from her until her death at age seventy-four. Only the servant is seen going in and out of the house.
In section V, the narrator describes what happens after Emily dies. Her body is laid out in the parlor, and the women, town elders, and two cousins attend the service. After some time has passed, the door to a sealed upstairs room that had not been opened in forty years is broken down. The room is frozen in time, with the items for an upcoming wedding and a man's suit laid out. Homer Barron's body is stretched on the bed in an advanced state of decay. The onlookers then notice the indentation of a head in the pillow beside Barron's body and a long strand of Emily's gray hair on the pillow.
Emily Grierson - The object of fascination in the story. An eccentric recluse, Emily is a mysterious figure who changes from a vibrant and hopeful young girl to a cloistered and secretive old woman. Devastated and alone after her father’s death, she is an object of pity for the townspeople. After a life of having potential suitors rejected by her father, she spends time after his death with a newcomer, Homer Barron, although the chances of his marrying her decrease as the years pass. Bloated and pallid in her later years, her hair turns steel gray. She ultimately poisons Homer and seals his corpse into an upstairs room.
Homer Barron - A foreman from the North. Homer is a large man with a dark complexion, a booming voice, and light-colored eyes. A gruff and demanding boss, he wins many admirers in Jefferson because of his gregarious nature and good sense of humor. He develops an interest in Emily and takes her for Sunday drives in a yellow-wheeled buggy. Despite his attributes, the townspeople view him as a poor, if not scandalous, choice for a mate. He disappears in Emily's house and decomposes in an attic bedroom after she poisons him.
Judge Stevens - A mayor of Jefferson. Eighty years old, Judge Stevens attempts to delicately handle the complaints about the smell emanating from the Grierson property. To be respectful of Emily’s pride and former position in the community, he and the aldermen decide to sprinkle lime on the property in the middle of the night.
Mr. Grierson - Emily's father. Mr. Grierson is a controlling, looming presence even in death, and the community clearly sees his lasting influence over Emily. He deliberately thwarts Emily's attempts to find a husband in order to keep her under his control. We get glimpses of him in the story: in the crayon portrait kept on the gilt-edged easel in the parlor, and silhouetted in the doorway, horsewhip in hand, having chased off another of his daughter's suitors.
Tobe - The Black African American. Emily's servant. Tobe, his voice supposedly rusty from lack of use, is the only lifeline Emily has to the outside world and he cares for her and tends to her needs. After her death, he walks out the back door and never returns.
Colonel Sartoris - A former mayor of Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris absolves Emily of any tax burden after the death of her father, which later causes consternation to succeeding generations of town leaders.