A Rose for Emily is a short story by William Faulkner, originally published in The Forum in 1930 before being published in Faulkner's collection "These Thirteen" the following year. The story is about an unmarried woman living in the American South who draws suspicion and concern from the townspeople after the death of her father and she becomes romantically involved with a Northern Yankee.
It is a story that asks for a number of different critical interpretations and has drawn much analysis and commentary. Before analyzing the meaning of Faulkner's classic story, we recommend reading the plot/summary.
Emily's unwillingness to hand over her father's body for burial as we find out at the beginning of the story, for example, foreshadows (presumed) the murder of her lover and hiding his body in the upstairs bedroom, whom she killed when she realized it was the only way to keep him and make sure he remains forever by her side. A deteriorated Gothic house has become 'tainted', rotten, pale (like Emily's gray hair), and falling into ruins.
This offers a new, more unattractive take on a traditional trope in Gothic fiction: a dark secret that threatens to destroy a 'house' or family (see Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher for a notable nineteenth-century example), and (in many Gothic stories) a dead body which is exposed only at the end of the story.
But at least Poe's protagonists managed to bury their bodies or hid them under the floorboards. Faulkner's story rather points to a more dreadful and morbid idea: that Emily continued to 'sleep' with her lover even after his death.
Another reason why Southern Gothic is important to A Rose for Emily is that Emily, a Southerner, falls in love with a 'Yankee': a man from the North of the United States. Even though the American Civil War ended in 1865, decades before Faulkner wrote this story, the sense of a North-South divide, in terms of identity, class, and culture, confirmed long-lasting hate.
The townspeople are repulsed by the idea that Emily, an aristocratic Southerner, is seriously considering marrying a Northerner, whom they think is below her social status (hence the reference to noblesse oblige - Emily is supposed to be kind to Homer and entertain him, but the idea of marrying such a man terrifies the sensitivity of the residents of the southern city).
Faulkner gives details of Emily's relationship with Homer as mere guesses and hints, keeping the story in a narrative mode: the townspeople can only assume what happened between the two. Although it seems reasonable enough to assume that Emily fell in love with Homer - who, as it is strongly stated, had no intention of marrying her, we didn't get any information to be sure about it. All we could do is speculate.
Like Emily, Homer is also single, but while Emily is celibate due to her father's controlling influence, Homer is single by choice: a stark reminder of gender differences between men and women in Southern society at that time.
Women like Emily cause rumors and concern if they remain unmarried, while bachelor Homer Barron - whose name evokes nobility and Greek heroism, charms the townspeople and becomes popular, unlike Emily, who remains an outsider separated from all of them.
So, why does Faulkner call his story A Rose for Emily? In an interview he gave at the University of Virginia, he said that Emily deserves a rose because of all the difficulties she's endured, not giving us a better understanding.
As for the narration, this is a subtle story that combines first and third-person narration, with the elements of realism and gothic literature as well as present events combined with past memories. It seems as if the entire city is the narrator of the story, a kind of collective 'we' speaking together against and about Emily's odd behavior until we reach the finale and find out about the hidden body of Homer Barron.
This means that Emily stays far away from 'us', as readers, and we never get any information or learn about her inner life. We only see her from the outside, through the eyes of the townspeople. This is clearly suitable as Emily is represented as an outsider in the town, but it also keeps the mystery to the events narrated, as so little is known about Emily's emotions and motivations.
Because of this disturbing outcome, A Rose for Emily is considered an example of the Southern Gothic: a literary type practiced by writers of the American South whose novels and stories are represented by uncanny, horrible, or grotesque elements. Such a novel often also has a lot of realistic details, and Faulkner permits the mood of eeriness that saturates Emily's house and her life to arise gradually.
Southern Gothic is a literary practice that became popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is embedded in the Gothic style, which was popular in European literature for centuries. Gothic writers wrote wild, horrifying scenarios where mysterious secrets, supernatural events, and intense character compulsions plotted to create a breathless reading experience. The Gothic style focused on the grotesque and morbid, and this genre often had specific characters and scenes such as secret passageways, drafty, cobweb-strewn castles, and mysterious heroines whose innocence remains untouched. Although borrowing fundamental elements from the Gothic, Southern Gothic writers were not interested in incorporating elements of the shocking just to create suspense or excitement.
Southern Gothic writers were curious about exploring powerful, antisocial behavior that was usually a reaction to a restrictive code of social behavior. Southern Gothic was frequently based on the idea that everyday life was fragile and unreal, obscuring a disturbing reality or a malformed psyche. Faulkner, with his multi-layered prose, traditionally stands outside this group of practitioners, such as his Emily in the story. However, A Rose for Emily shows the influence that Southern Gothic had on his writing: this particular story has a moody and rough atmosphere; grotesqueness, decay, and an old crumbling castle.
Faulkner's story has shocking elements to emphasize an individual's struggle against an unjust society experiencing rapid change. Another aspect of the Southern Gothic style is transformation. Faulkner lifted the image of the girl in despair and converted her into Emily, a mentally damaged spinster. Necrophilia and her mental instability made her a metaphorical heroine of Southern Gothic.
Genre: gothic fiction
Setting: a fictional city Jefferson in Mississippi
Point of view and Narrator: first-person plural voice meaning that the collective is narrator
Tone and Mood: eerie, ominous and melancholy
Protagonist and Antagonist: Emily is both the protagonist and antagonist
Major Conflict: the major conflict starts with Homer Barron and him not wanting to marry Emily
Raising action: when Homer Barron comes to town
Climax: when Emily buys poison (arsenic) from the local pharmacy
Ending: Emily dies at her home, and townspeople discovering body of Homer Barron in the upper bedroom
Symbols and Metaphors
Time - in this story, Faulkner's approach is showing the lives and motivations of his characters. Instead, he manipulates time, stretching the story across several decades.
We learn about Emily's early life through a series of flashbacks. The story starts with a description of Emily's funeral and then proceeds into the near-distant past. At the end of the story, we can see that the funeral is also a flashback, leading to the discovery of the secret of the upstairs bedroom. We see Emily as a young girl, who attracts admirers driven away by her father, and as an old woman, when she dies at seventy-four. As Emily's hold on reality weakens over the years, the South itself experiences major changes.
By moving forward and backward in time, Faulkner illustrates the past and the present as co-existing and can discuss how they influence each other. He forms a complex, multidimensional world.
Faulkner offers two visions of time in the story. One is based on the mathematical accuracy and objectiveness of reality, in which time moves inexorably forward, and "what's done is done"; while only the present exists. The second vision is more subjective. Time moves forward, but events do not remain in the distant memory; rather, memory can exist peacefully, alive and active regardless of how much time passes or how things change. Even if a character is physically tied to the present, the past can play a dynamic role. Emily stays firmly rooted in the subjective realm of time, where life moves on with her in it - but she remains dedicated, regardless, to the past.
Narrator - the unnamed narrator of the story acts as the collective voice of the city. Analysts debated whether it was a man or a woman; an ex-lover, a boy who remembers the sight of Mr. Grierson at the door; or town gossip, spearheading efforts to eventually break down the door.
It is also possible that the narrator is Emily's former servant as he would have known her intimately and all of her secrets. Several elements of the story support this theory, such as the point that the narrator often refers to Emily as "Miss Emily" and delivers only one explanatory detail about Colonel Sartoris, the mayor: the fact that he passed a law requiring black women to wear aprons in public. In many cases, the narrator hides behind the pronoun "we" that defines collective. By using "we", the narrator can describe what might be his or her own views and beliefs to all the citizens of the town, turning private ideas into universally accepted beliefs.
The narrator heightens the mystery of who he is and how much he knows at the end of the story when the townspeople discover Homer's body. The narrator admits "We already knew" that the upstairs bedroom was sealed. However, we never learn how the narrator knows about the room. More significantly, at this point, for the first time in the story, the narrator uses the pronoun "they" instead of "we" to refer to the townspeople.
First, he says: "We already knew there was one room..." then it changes to: "They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it." This is a significant transformation. Until now, the narrator has preferably grouped himself with the other citizens, accepting the actions, thoughts, and premises of the community as his own. Here, however, the narrator alienates himself from the action, as if the breaking of the door is something he cannot accept.
The change is quick and modest, and he reverts to "we" in the paragraphs that follow but gives us an essential clue about the narrator's identity. Whoever he was, the narrator loved Emily, despite her quirks and her awful, frantic act. In a city that treated her as an anomaly and, ultimately, a kind, human gesture (even one as small as a symbolic averting of the gaze when a private door is forced open) stands out.
The quotation "Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town..." appears near the beginning of the story, in Part I, when the narrator describes Emily's funeral and the town's history. Town members have a proprietary relationship with her, heightening the image of a great lady whose family history and reputation deserve great respect.
At the same time, the townspeople criticize her odd life and relationship with Homer Barron. Emily is an object of fascination. Many people feel driven to protect her, while others freely watch her every move, hovering at the edges of her life. Emily is the last representative of the once-great Jefferson family, and the townspeople feel that they have inherited this daughter of a fallen empire of wealth and prestige, for better or for worse.
The order of Faulkner's words in this quote is important. Although Emily once portrayed the great Southern tradition centered on the landed gentry with their extensive inheritances and numerous resources, Emily's legacy has been passed down, making her more of a duty and obligation than a romanticized remnant of a dying order. City leaders conveniently ignored the fact that in her normal events and solitary life, Emily can no longer pay her tax obligations to the city. Emily appears not only as a financial burden to the town but also as an infuriating figure as she devalues the community's strict social codes.
The last quotation "Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair." describing Emily's secret, finally revealed, cements her reputation as the town's eccentric. Her shaky mental state led her to a grotesque act that goes beyond the wildest imaginations of the townspeople. Emily, even though she lives a slow lonely life, cannot let go of the men who shaped her life, even after they have died. She hides her father's body for three days, then Homer's body in an upstairs bedroom for good. By not burying her lover, Emily keeps her fantasy of marital bliss eternally intact.
Emily's extreme need for privacy is challenged by the citizens' extreme curiosity about the truths surrounding her life. Dissatisfied with the views caught through the doors and windows, the townspeople break into the Griersons' house after Emily's death. Persuading themselves to behave respectfully while waiting for the usual period of mourning to expire, they satisfy their horrible curiosity by opening the bedroom on the second floor. There is no real moral justification for their actions, and in light of their blatant violation of Emily's home and privacy, Emily's strange, grotesque behavior takes on a layer of almost sympathetic pathos. She did a horrible, nightmarish thing, but confirming the citizens' worst beliefs seems sad rather than satisfying.
Emily lives in a timeless void and a world of her own making. Rejecting to put metal numbers on her house when the town gets modern postal service, she is out of touch with the reality that continually threatens to breach her carefully sealed perimeters. The councilors are trying to break up the unofficial tax deal that Colonel Sartoris and Emily once made. This new and younger generation of leaders brings Homer's company to pave the pavement. Although Jefferson still holds traditional ideas of honor and respectability in high regard, the narrator is critical of the old men in their Confederate uniforms who gather at Emily's funeral. The past is not a dull shimmer but an ever-present, idealized realm.
Death - Except for the motive of time, we can also notice a motive of death. Death dominates over A Rose for Emily, from the narrator's mention of Emily's death at the beginning of the story to the description of Emily's life haunted by death to the overthrow of tradition in the face of modern change.
In any case, death prevails over any attempt to master it. Emily, a constant in the community, is slowly surrendering to death. The narrator compares her to a pale, bloated figure and a dead body left too long in the water. Emily became a symbol of the Old South, a grande lady whose reputation and charisma declined rapidly with age. The death of the old social order will win, despite the attempts of many citizens to stay faithful to the old traditions.
Emily tries to have power over death by rejecting the very fact of death. Her strange relationship with the dead bodies of the men she loved is revealed for the first time when her father dies. Not able to accept that he has died, Emily sticks to a father figure whose denial and control have become the only form of love she has known. She reluctantly gives up his body. When Homer dies, Emily again refuses to admit it - even though this time she was responsible for the death. By killing Homer, she managed to keep him close to her. Emily and Homer's grotesque marriage shows Emily's problematic attempt to reconcile life and death. However, death wins in the end.
Emily is the subject of the extreme, controlling eye of the narrator and the residents of Jefferson. Instead of a real connection with Emily, residents create personal and often deformed interpretations of a woman they know little about. They come to her funeral under the impression of respect and honor, but in reality, they want to satisfy their weird curiosity about the town's most famous eccentric. One of the ironic dimensions of the story is that despite all the buzz and theorizing, no one can know the perverse extent of Emily's true nature.
For most of the story, Emily is only seen from a distance, by people watching her through windows. The narrator calls her an object - an "idol". This pattern alters briefly during her affair with Homer Barron, when she leaves her house often. However, others spy on her just as greedily, and she continues to be relegated to the role of an object. In this sense, the act of watching is powerful because it replaces real human presence with a fictional story that changes depending on who is watching. No one knows Emily who exists beyond what they can see, and her true self is only visible to them after she dies and her secrets are revealed.
Dust - we can also see a symbol of dust - a blanket of dust hangs over the story, highlighting the decay of that figure so visibly. The dust in Emily's house is a suitable addition to the faded lives inside. When the councilors arrive to try to secure Emily's annual tax payment, the house smells of "dust and disuse". As they sit down, the movement kicks up dust all around them, which slowly rises, rolling across their thighs and catching the thin shaft of sunlight entering the room. A house is a place of stagnation, where remorses and memories remain undisturbed. In a way, the dust is a shielding presence; the councilors cannot fathom Emily's dark relationship with reality. The layers of dust also present a cloud of darkness that hides Emily's true nature and the secrets her house holds. In the final scene, the dust is an overpowering presence that seems to originate from Homer's dead body. Dust, which is everywhere, seems even more frightening here.
Emily's house - like Emily herself, is a monument, the only remaining symbol of the dying world of Southern aristocracy. The exterior of the large house with a square frame is grandly decorated. Domes, towers, and curved balconies are hallmarks of the rich style of architecture that became popular in the 1870s. When the story takes place, almost everything has changed. The street and neighborhood, once rich, untouched, and privileged, have lost their status as the realm of the elite. In a way, the house is an extension of Emily: she reveals her "persistent and flirtatious decay" to the townspeople. It is a testament to the diligence and protection of tradition, but now it seems out of place among cotton wagons and gas stations.
Emily's house also represents mental illness, alienation, and death. It's a sanctum to the living past, and the sealed bedroom upstairs is her bizarre trophy room. Like when a group of men spreads lime along the foundation to prevent the stench of decaying flesh, the townspeople creep along the edges of Emily's life and possessions. Just like the owner, the house also fascinates them. They project their gruesome fiction and interpretations onto the devastated building and the mysterious figure within. Emily's death is an opportunity for them to get access to this forbidden realm and confirm their wildest ideas and most sensationalist beliefs about what happens inside.
A strand of hair - a symbol of a strand of hair is a reminder of lost love and the often perverse thing people do in search of happiness. A strand of hair also shows the inner life of a woman who, despite her quirks, was committed to living life on her own terms and not subjecting her behavior to others. Emily adheres to her own moral code and lives in a world of her own invention, where even murder is allowed. The narrator indicates the discovery of a long lock of hair on the pillow when he describes the physical transformation Emily undergoes as she ages. Her hair is getting grayer until it becomes "strong iron gray". A lock of hair stands at the end as the last trace of life left to deteriorate and decay, much like the body of Emily's former lover.