A Rose for Emily

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"A Rose for Emily"
AuthorWilliam Faulkner
CountryUnited States
SeriesEmilys Diary
Genre(s)Southern gothic
Publication typeMagazine
Publication dateApril, 1930

"A Rose for Emily" is a short story by American author William Faulkner, first published on April 30, 1930, in an issue of The Forum. The story takes place in Faulkner's fictional city Jefferson, Mississippi, in the southern county of Yoknapatawpha. It was Faulkner's first short story published in a national magazine.[1]


Faulkner described the title "A Rose For Emily" as an allegorical title: this woman had undergone a great tragedy, and for this Faulkner pitied her. As a salute, he handed her a rose.[2] The word "rose" in the title has multiple meanings to it. The rose may be seen as Homer, when interpreting the rose as a dried rose. Homer's body could be the dried rose, such as one that is pressed between the pages of a book, kept in perfect condition as Emily did with Homer's body.[3] The rose also represents secrecy. Roses have been portrayed in Greek legends as a gift of secrecy and of confidentiality, known as sub rosa, implying that the rose is a symbol of silence between the narrator and Miss Emily, whose secrets the narrator keeps until her death.[4]

Plot summary[edit]

The story opens with a brief first-person account of the funeral of Emily Grierson, an elderly Southern woman whose funeral is the obligation of their small town. It then proceeds in a non-linear fashion to the narrator's recollections of Emily's archaic and increasingly strange behavior throughout the years. Emily is a member of a family of the antebellum Southern aristocracy. After the Civil War, the family falls into hard times. She and her father, the last two of the clan, continue to live as if in the past; Emily's father refuses for her to marry. Her father dies when Emily is about the age of 30, which takes her by surprise. She refuses to give up his corpse, and the townspeople write it off as her grieving process. The townspeople pity Emily not only after her father's death but also during his life when he wouldn't let Emily marry. Emily depended heavily on her father, believing he would never leave her; he was all she had.

After her father's death, the only person seen moving about Emily's home is Tobe, a black man serving as Emily's butler. He is frequently seen entering and exiting the house for groceries. Although Emily did not have a strong relationship with her community, she did give art lessons to young children within her town at the age of forty. A prime reason why she gave art lessons was her financial problem since she was running out of money. The townspeople make cruel comments and nasty looks behind Miss Emily's back, as she wasn't respected in her town. With the acceptance of her father's death, Emily somewhat revives, even changing the style of her hair, and becomes friendly with Homer Barron. He is a Northern laborer who comes to town shortly after Mr. Grierson's death. The connection surprises some of the community while others are glad she is taking an interest; however, "Homer likes men and claims that he is not a marrying man."[5] This draws attention to Homer's questionable sexuality in the story. Emily shortly buys arsenic from a druggist in town, presumably to kill rats, however, the townspeople are convinced that she will use it to poison herself. Emily's distant cousins are called into town by the minister's wife to supervise Miss Emily and Homer Barron. Emily is seen in town buying wedding presents for Homer, including a monogramed toilet set. Homer leaves town for some time, reputedly to give Emily a chance to get rid of her cousins, and returns three days later after the cousins have left. After he is observed entering Miss Emily's home one evening, Homer is never seen again, leading the townsfolk to believe he ran off.

Despite these turnabouts in her social status, Emily continues to behave mysteriously, as she had before her father died. Her reputation is such that the city council finds itself unable to confront her about a strong smell that has begun to emanate from the house. They believed Tobe was unable to maintain the house and something was rotting. Instead, the council decide to send men to her house under the cover of darkness to sprinkle lime around the house, after which the smell dissipates. The mayor of the town, Colonel Sartoris, makes a gentleman's agreement to overlook her taxes as an act of charity, though it is done under a pretense of repayment towards her father, to assuage Emily's pride after her father's death. Years later, when the next generation has come to power, Emily insists on this informal arrangement, flatly refusing that she owes any taxes, stating "I have no taxes in Jefferson."[6] After this, the council declines to press the issue due to her stubbornness. Emily has become a recluse: she is never seen outside of the house, and only rarely accepts people into it. The community eventually comes to view her as a "hereditary obligation" on the town, who must be humored and tolerated.

The funeral is a large affair: Emily had become an institution, so her death sparks a great deal of curiosity about her reclusive nature and what remains of her house. After she is buried, a group of townsfolk enters her house to see what remains of her life there. Tobe walked out of the house and was never seen again, giving the townspeople access to Miss Emily's home. The door to her upstairs bedroom is locked, and some of the townsfolk break down the door to see what has been hidden for so long. Inside, among the gifts that Emily had bought for Homer, lies the decomposed corpse of Homer Barron on the bed. On the pillow beside him is the indentation of a head and a single strand of gray hair, indicating that Emily had slept with Homer's corpse. The house is an indicator revealing how Emily struggled to keep everything the same, in a frozen time period, avoiding change.


Emily Grierson - The main character of the story. Emily's father kept her from seeing suitors and controlled her social life, keeping her in isolation until his death, when she is 30 years old.[5] Her struggle with loss and attachment is the impetus for the plot, driving her to kill Homer Barron, the man that is assumed to have married her. Emily presumably poisons and kills Homer, as she sees murder as the only way to keep Homer with her permanently.[7] She treats him as her living husband even after his death, which is shown by her keeping his clothes in the room, keeping his engraved wedding items on the dresser, and the strand of her hair found beside his corpse at the end of the story that indicated she even slept beside him.[5] Emily's murderous act also displays her obstinate nature. This is evident in Emily's refusal to pay her taxes, her denial of her father's death, and the fact that she kills Homer to ensure that he will never leave her.[7]

Homer Barron - Emily's romantic interest. He is later found dead and decomposed in Emily's bedroom after her funeral.[5] He initially enters the story as a foreman for a road construction project occurring in the town. He is soon seen to be with Emily in her Sunday carriage rides, and it is expected for them to be married.[5] Homer differs from the rest of the town because he is a Northerner. The story takes place in the South shortly after the Civil War, and while Homer is not necessarily unwelcome to the town, he does stand out. This, along with the fact that he is seemingly courting Emily, sets him apart from all of the other characters in the story. It is because he is an outlier that Emily becomes attracted to him. It is generally unknown if Homer reciprocates the romantic feelings Emily has for him.[7] It is stated in the story that Homer likes men and is "not the marrying kind;" he has commitment issues. Furthermore, this brings into light Homer's homosexuality.

The Narrator - An unnamed member(s) of the town who watches the events of Emily's life unfold in its entirety. The story is presented to the reader in a non-chronological order; this suggests that the story may have been patched together by multiple tellers. Some parts of the story are repeated, such as Homer's disappearance, the idea that Emily and Homer will get married, and Emily's refusal to pay taxes, also indicating that the narrator is a voice for the town.[8] Though the townspeople disapprove of most of Emily's actions, such as refusing to pay her taxes and purchasing poison, nobody intervenes.

Colonel Sartoris - The former mayor who remitted Emily's taxes. While he is in the story very little, his decision to remit Emily's taxes leads to her refusal to pay them ever again, contributing to her stubborn personality. The reason for Sartoris remitting her taxes is never given, only that he told Emily it was because her father loaned the money to the town.[5]

Mr. Grierson - Emily's father, the patriarchal head of the Grierson family. His control over Emily's personal life prohibited her from romantic involvement. The reason for his refusal to let Emily court men is not explained in the story.[5] Whatever the reason, Mr. Grierson shapes the person that Emily becomes. His decision to ban all men from her life drives her to kill the first man she is attracted to and can be with, Homer Barron, in order to keep him with her permanently.[7]

The cousins - Emily's extended relatives from Alabama. They come to town during Emily's courting of Homer Barron to check on Emily's well-being. They are thought of as even more uptight and stuffy than Emily by the townspeople.[5] They are called in to prevent Emily and Homer from marrying; however, they are later sent back home so that the two can be wed. It is speculated that there may be some type of dispute between Emily and the cousins, indicated by them living far away from Emily and the fact that they did not attend Emily's father's funeral.[7]

Tobe - Emily's cook/gardener, who also acts as her secret keeper. Tobe is a loyal individual to Emily. During the years of Emily's isolation, he provides no details of her life to the townspeople and promptly disappears directly following her death. He became old and stooped from all of his work while Emily grew large and immobile.[5] This could suggest that he resented Emily, or at the very least disliked working for her, as he does not mourn her or stay for her funeral.


Faulkner tells the story using two different methods: a series of flashbacks in which the events are told with subjectivity and detail, and from an objective perspective in which the narrator fades into a plural pronoun "we" to demonstrate a linear causality of events. Had the story been told in a linear fashion, this understanding would, perhaps, have been lost, something Faulkner knew and incorporated into the story. By presenting the story in terms of present and past events, he could examine how they influence each other. In terms of mathematical precision, time moves on and what exists is only the present. In terms of the more subjective time, time moves on but memories can exist no matter how much time changes. Those memories stay unhindered.[9] It starts with the announcement of Emily's death, an event that has the entire town talking. This leads the reader to assume that she was an important figure in the town. As Fassler says in his article “The Key,” “Clearly, this lady who died unmarried was of importance to everyone. And yet the town itself is eventually divided,”[10] by upsetting the linear flow of the chronology of the narration, the short story focuses on the minute details that lead to different conclusions towards the end of the story. If Faulkner presented the story in a linear fashion, the chances of the reader sympathizing with Emily would be far less. By telling the story out of order, the reader sees Emily as a tragic product of her environment rather than a twisted necrophiliac.[11] Based on the townspeople's thoughts of Emily displayed in this section, the reader discovers that the town was not dreading Emily's death. On the other hand, it was somewhat welcomed. Emily was just a "hereditary obligation" who was desperately trying to cling to old traditions and ways of life. With her passing on, the town can finally be free of this remnant, being wholly set in the present.[citation needed] Through this Faulkner could analyze the depth at which Miss Emily could change as a character.


"A Rose for Emily" discusses many dark themes that characterized the Old South and Southern Gothic fiction.

The story explores themes of death and resistance to change. Also, it reflects the decaying of the societal tenets of the South in the 1930s. Emily Grierson had been oppressed by her father for most of her life and hadn't questioned it because that was her way of living. Likewise, the antiquated traditions of the south (often harmful, such as in the treatment of black people) had remained acceptable, as that was their way of living. Once her father had passed, Emily, in denial, refused to give his corpse up for burial—this shows her inability to functionally adapt to change. When the present mayor and aldermen insist Miss Emily pay the taxes which she had been exempted from, she refuses and continues to live in her house. Miss Emily's stubborn insistence that she "pays no taxes in Jefferson" and her mistaking the new mayor for Colonel Sartoris brings into question whether her acts of resistance are a conscious act of defiance or a result of a decayed mental stability. The reader is only shown Emily from an external perspective, we can not ascertain whether she acts in a rational manner or not. The death of Homer, if interpreted as having been a murder, can be seen in the context of the north–south clash. Homer, notably a northerner, is not one for the tradition of marriage. In the framework that his death was not an accident, but a murder on the part of Emily, Homer's rejection of the marriage can be seen as the North's rejection of Southern tradition. The South ends its relations with the North in retaliation. Emily continuing to sleep next to Homer's body can be seen as the south holding on to an ideal that is no longer feasible.

Control and its repercussions is a persistent theme throughout the story. Emily's father was an intimidating and manipulative figure, keeping her from experiencing life in her own terms. She was never able to grow, learn, live her life, start a family, and marry the one she truly loved. Even after Emily's father died, his presence and impact on his daughter were still apparent. Discussing Emily and her father, the townspeople said "We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door.".[12] Emily is portrayed as small and powerless, placed behind the overbearing frame of her father. She wears white, a symbol of innocence and purity. Emily falls victim to the ruling hand of her father and to her place in the society: she has to uphold the noblesse oblige into which she was born. In this way, her father's influence remains after he has passed. This control leads to Emily's isolation, both externally and internally imposed. Emily is alone, yet always being watched by the townspeople; she is both apart from and a part of the community.[7] Her position prevents her from ever finding happiness.

The power of death is a consistent theme throughout the story. Emily herself is portrayed as a "skeleton" that is both "small and spare" which is representative of the fact that she emanates death. When it comes to death itself, Emily is in denial and most of that feeling has to do with her loneliness. After her father dies, she keeps his corpse for three days and refuses to admit that he is dead. The reader also sees this with the corpse of Homer Barron, except she is the one who inflicts death upon him. She poisons him and keeps him locked away in her room; she did not want to lose the only other person she had ever loved, so she made his stay permanent. These examples show that the power of death triumphs over everything, including "poor Emily", herself.[13]

Due to this inevitability in the portrayal of death, A Rose for Emily is seen as a tale based on determinism, making the short story part of the naturalism literary movement. Here, a character's fate is already determined no matter how much the individual struggles to change it. There are impersonal forces of nature that prevent him or her from taking control. As the very universe itself appears indifferent, this character descends into an inevitable death and decay. The case of Emily is the same. She had a mental illness, an unavoidable fate, which her father must have sought to finally end by refusing to let Emily marry, which would have continued his line. No matter what she did, there was the implication that she would ultimately go mad. There was also the depiction of a cursed land due to slavery and the class structure based upon it and that no matter how the people clung to the glorious past and soldier on, there was a tarnished way of life that leads to an impending ruin.[14]

Critical response[edit]

Floyd C. Watkins wrote about the structure of "A Rose for Emily" in "Modern Language Notes". Watkins claims that this is Faulkner's best story and that he is among the best American writers of this time period. Faulkner had to carefully dissect his sections, bringing importance to every aspect of Miss Emily's life, but Watkins sees this as a "structural problem" but later goes on to rave about the symmetry of this short story. Watkins enjoys this story in its entirety, and is impressed by Faulkner's ordering, as building suspense was an important aspect in the response.[15]

The critical response by John Skinner explores the interpretations of Faulkner's short story in detail while reviewing the importance of over-analyzing a piece of literary work. William Faulkner published this story in the 1930s, Skinner had published his critical response in 1985. More than 40 years have passed and people are still ignoring his claim. The characters and theme of this tale have been scrutinized by many. There have been numerous interpretations of what Miss Emily stands for; Skinner gives examples of scholars including S.W. M. Johnson “Emily represented a refusal to submit to, or even concede, to the inevitability of change”. Whereas, William Going pictures Emily as a rose, “the treasured memory of the Confederate veterans”. The point of view according to Skinner is of immediate relevance to the story as the chief character, the narrator tells the chronology of the story. This narrator gives approximately “round figures” for the important events of the accounts. Yet the exact chronology is of little relevance to the overall importance of the story itself. John Skinner states that Faulkner should be taken literally, appreciate his formal subtlety in his works.[16] Jack Scherting also discusses the point of view and points out that the story is "related by an anonymous narrator in the first person plural." [17]

Alice Petry introduces a different type of critical response that is not focused on the usual subjects. Rather, she focuses on the complex and provocative language. For example, Hall discusses how the sentence, "Thus she passed from generation to generation-dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil and perverse" has been considered misleading, but is in fact strategically placed to provide foreshadowing and unification of plot. The five descriptive words used in the sentence each correspond to one of the five parts in the order they are seen. For example, the adjective "inescapable" corresponds to Part II, to the incident of the strange smell coming from Miss Emily's home. Faulkner's placement of these adjectives at the end of Part IV serves as an important unifying sentence that connects all five parts to each other.[18]

Jim Barloon of the University of St. Thomas wrote about an idea introduced to him by his students, that Homer was homosexual, possibly providing another reason for his murder. He proposes that Emily did not kill Homer because of her own insecurities, but also because he did not reciprocate her romantic feelings. Thus, she could have murdered him out of affection as well as spite. Whether or not this theory is correct, it proves that the story is still being closely analyzed decades after it was written. As Barloon states in his article, “Positing that Homer Barron is gay not only raises a new set of questions but transforms [the story], or at least our perspective of it.”[19]

The psychology of Emily Grierson has been analyzed countless times, with many people reaching the conclusion that she was mentally ill, and from that point, the reasons why. Though many different diagnoses have been made, the most common can be summarized as follows by Nicole Smith in her psychological analysis of the character: “It is reasonable to propose that Miss Emily developed [schizophrenia] as a response to the demanding conditions in which she was living as a Southern woman from an aristocratic family.”[20] This has been thought to represent just how unbearable life in the old South could be, not only for a person similar to Emily but to the people around them as well. A contributing factor to this point would change. The story is an allegory for the change that the South dealt with after the Civil War, with Emily representing the resistance of that change. This is shown in the story through Emily's conflicts with the town and her refusal of cooperation. Tuncay Tezcan in his analysis of the story states, “It represents the numerous conflicts in the main character's life, illustrating the effect of social change on the individual.”[21]

There has been much discussion over the title of the story. Why have a rose for Emily? At that time, giving a rose to a woman was common if they had been through a great tragedy. Emily's tragedy is her environment, changing quickly and with volatility, causing her to cling to the past in hopes of stopping the change from occurring. This has a deep impact on her mental state, driving her to extreme acts such as murdering Homer and then sleeping with his corpse for years. The town does nothing to stop these events, merely entertain the idea. Terry Heller writes in his analysis of the story that the town, “[chose] to deal with an idea of Emily, rather than with Emily herself; they are different in that they have different ideas of her and, therefore, approach her… differently.”[22] Emily died a broken person, and for that Faulkner gave her a rose, in sympathy of her ending.



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  14. ^ Wilder, Laura (2012). Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies: Teaching and Writing in the Disciplines. SIU Press. p. 146. ISBN 9780809330942.
  15. ^ Watkins, Floyd C. "Structure of "A Rose for Emily"." Modern Language Notes 7th ser. 69 (1954): 508-10. JSTOR. Web. 5 Apr. 2017.
  16. ^ Skinner, John (Winter 1985). ""A Rose for Emily": Against Interpretation."". The Journal of Narrative Technique. 15 (1): 42–51.
  17. ^ Scherting, Jack (1980). ""Emily Grierson's Oedipus Complex: Motif, Motive, and Meaning in Faulkner's" A Rose for Emily"."". Studies in Short Fiction. 17 (4): 397.
  18. ^ Petry, Alice (Spring 1986). "Faulkner's A ROSE FOR EMILY". Explicator. 44 (3): 52–54. doi:10.1080/00144940.1986.11483940.
  19. ^ http://www.semo.edu/cfs/teaching/10186.html
  20. ^ http://www.articlemyriad.com/psychological-character-analysis-rose-emily/[full citation needed]
  21. ^ Tezcan, Tuncay (2014). "A Stylistic Analysis of a Rose for Emily by William Faulkner and its Turkish Translation". Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 158: 364–9. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.12.101.
  22. ^ http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/essays/rose.html[full citation needed][permanent dead link]
  23. ^ Petridis, Alexis (17 April 2017). "The story behind A Rose for Emily – and why it's perfect for S-Town". The Guardian.


  • Morton, Clay (2005). "'A Rose for Emily': Oral Plot, Typographic Story", Storytelling: A Critical Journal of Popular Narrative 5.1.