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A Rose for Emily

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"A Rose for Emily"
Short story by William Faulkner
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Southern gothic
Publication typeMagazine
Publication dateApril 1930
SeriesEmilys Diary

"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 Jefferson, Mississippi, in the equally fictional 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 exact meaning of the word "rose" in the title in relation to the story, however, remains open to debate; no actual rose appears in the story.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

The story opens with a brief fourth-person account of the funeral of Emily Grierson, an elderly Southern woman whose funeral is the obligation of the 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 are the last two survivors of that branch of the family. Emily's father refuses to allow her to marry. Her father dies when Emily is on the cusp of her 30th birthday, which takes her by surprise. For several days, she refuses to give up his corpse, insisting he is not dead. The townspeople write it off as her grieving process. They pity Emily for losing her father but also for his not having allowed her to 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 the reclusive Emily does not have a strong relationship with the town, she opens her home to give art lessons to local children, doing so out of need for an income. She teaches until she is 40. With the acceptance of her father's death, Emily somewhat revives, even changing the style of her hair, and becomes friendly with Homer Barron, a laborer from the North 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, it is stated that Homer "liked men, and it was known that he drank with younger men at the Elks' Club — that he was not a marrying man", which draws attention to Homer's sexuality but it is unclear whether he is homosexual or simply has more interest in drinking and carousing than in marrying Emily. Emily buys arsenic from the town's druggist. When the druggist says the law requires him to ask customers why they want poisons Emily refuses to disclose it; the druggist chalks it up to a rat infestation in her home. Some 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 monogrammed 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 decides 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, a new generation has come to power in the county. Having no ties to Colonel Sartoris or Mr. Grierson, they approach Emily about being subject to taxation. Emily insists on maintaining this informal arrangement, flatly denying she owes any taxes, stating "I have no taxes in Jefferson."[4] After this, the council declines to press the issue due to her obduracy. 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 has 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 walks out of the house and is never seen again, giving the townspeople access to Miss Emily's home. The door to her upstairs bedroom is locked. 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.


First appearance in The Forum, April, 1930.

Emily Grierson - The main character of the story. Her 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 assumed to have married her. She poisons and kills Homer as she sees this as the only way to keep Homer with her permanently.[6] 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.[6]

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 unknown if Homer fully reciprocates the romantic feelings Emily has for him.[6] It is stated in the story that Homer likes men and is "not the marrying kind" and has commitment issues.

The Narrator - Unnamed. A presumed townsperson 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.[3]

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, to keep him with her permanently.[6]

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.[6]

Tobe - Emily's cook/gardener, who also acts as her family retainer. Tobe was loyal to Emily during her life and zealously respected her privacy. During the years of her isolation, he provided no details of her life to the townspeople. He promptly disappears directly following her death. He became old and stooped from all his work while Emily grew obese and immobile.[5]


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.[7]

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”,[8] 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.[9] The reader discovers the town was not dreading Emily's death. Some are sad but most relieved. Emily, after all, was just a "hereditary obligation" who was desperately trying to cling to old traditions and ways of life.


"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 controlled by her overbearing father for the first 30 years of her life and she had never questioned it. 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 decayed mental stability. The reader is only shown Emily from an external perspective, we can not ascertain whether she acts rationally. The death of Homer, if interpreted as 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 are a persistent theme throughout the story. Emily's father was an intimidating and manipulative figure, keeping her from experiencing life on her 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".[10] 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 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.[6] 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, 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 before surrendering his body for burial. 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.[11]

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. Insanity ran in her family and it is possible her father's motives for keeping her from marrying were to end this genetic blight. This is a more charitable interpretation of Mr. Grierson (and his actions) than is normally imputed to him. 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. No matter how those who clung to the glorious past soldiered on, it was a tarnished way of life that led to ruin to those who clung to it.[12]

Critical response[edit]

The story has been discussed and analyzed in a variety of academic publications.

Floyd C. Watkins wrote about the structure of "A Rose for Emily" in Modern Language Notes. Faulkner had to carefully dissect his sections, bringing importance to every aspect of Emily's life. Watkins sees this as a "structural problem" but later praises 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.[13]

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. Faulkner published this story in the 1930s. Skinner had published his critical response in 1985. The characters and theme of this tale have been scrutinized by many. Some scholars, including S.W. M. Johnson, posit that “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.[14] Jack Scherting, in Studies in Short Fiction, discusses that point of view and points out that the story is "related by an anonymous narrator in the first person plural."[15]

Alice Petry introduces a different type of critical response that is not focused on the usual subjects. Rather, she focuses on 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.[16]

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. 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.”[17]

The psychology of Emily Grierson has been analyzed countless times, with many people concluding 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.”[18]

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.”[19] Jack Sherting believes Emily suffers from an Oedipus complex. He claims that Emily and her father had an incestuous relationship and she was never able to move past it. Sherting believes Emily used Homer as a replacement for her father and never truly loved him, only used him for her own benefit. [20]



  1. ^ "WFotW ~ 'A Rose for Emily': COMMENTARY & RESOURCES". www.mcsr.olemiss.edu. Archived from the original on 2017-04-20. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
  2. ^ Outón, Cristina Blanco (1999). Introducción a la narrative breve de William Faulkner (in Spanish). Univ Santiago de Compostela. ISBN 9788481217469.
  3. ^ a b Getty, Laura (Summer 2005). "Faulkner's A ROSE FOR EMILY" (PDF). The Explicator. 63 (4): 230–234. doi:10.1080/00144940509596951. S2CID 161235766.
  4. ^ Faulkner, William (2012). A Rose for Emily and Other Stories. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-307-79969-2. OCLC 1002098944.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Faulkner, William. "A Rose for Emily". University of Virginia. Archived from the original on 26 March 2013. Retrieved 29 October 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "A Rose for Emily Themes - eNotes.com". eNotes. Retrieved 2016-10-28.
  7. ^ "A Rose for Emily: Time and Temporal Shifts | SparkNotes". www.sparknotes.com. Retrieved 2020-08-30.
  8. ^ Fassler, Joe (February 7, 2017). "The Key to Writing a Mystery: Ask the Perfect Question". The Atlantic.
  9. ^ "Structuralism and a Rose for Emily" (PDF).
  10. ^ Kennedy, X.J. (2016). Literature An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. p. 32.
  11. ^ Kim, Ji-won (2011). "Narrator as Collective 'We':The Narrative Structure of "A Rose for Emily"". English Language and Literature Teaching.
  12. ^ Wilder, Laura (2012). Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies: Teaching and Writing in the Disciplines. SIU Press. p. 146. ISBN 9780809330942.
  13. ^ Watkins, Floyd C. "Structure of "A Rose for Emily". Modern Language Notes 7th ser. 69 (1954): 508-10. JSTOR.org, April 5, 2017.
  14. ^ Skinner, John (Winter 1985). ""A Rose for Emily": Against Interpretation."". The Journal of Narrative Technique. 15 (1): 42–51.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Petry, Alice (Spring 1986). "Faulkner's A ROSE FOR EMILY". Explicator. 44 (3): 52–54. doi:10.1080/00144940.1986.11483940.
  17. ^ "A Rose for Emily - Southeast Missouri State University". semo.edu.
  18. ^ Smith, Nicole (December 6, 2011). "Psychological Character Analysis of Miss Emily in "A Rose for Emily" by Faulkner". www.articlemyriad.com. Retrieved 2021-05-02.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Sherting, Jack (1980). ""Emily Grierson's Oedipus Complex: Motif, Motive, and Meaning in Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily'"". Studies in Short Fiction. 17 (4): 397-405.
  21. ^ Petridis, Alexis (17 April 2017). "The story behind A Rose for Emily – and why it's perfect for S-Town". The Guardian.


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