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In William Faulkner’s strange and startling short story ‘A Rose for Emily,’ the reader is introduced to one of literature’s most talked-about female characters: Emily Grierson. Learn about how her eccentric life highlighted tensions surrounding change in the South and how death and other Gothic elements tie this story together.

Introduction to the Author & the Story

William Faulkner was born in 1897 and died in 1962. He grew up in a small town in Mississippi, which is the setting for many of his novels and short stories. Faulkner’s family had lost power and money during the Civil War.

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His work is deeply rooted in the story of the South, tackling issues such as race, gender, and class, as you’ll notice in ‘A Rose for Emily,’ which was published in 1931. Also, this story is considered Gothic. Gothic literature includes elements that verge on horror and Romanticism. ‘A Rose for Emily,’ in other words, is a tad bit creepy.

Story Summary & Analysis

‘A Rose for Emily’ is divided into five parts. Part one opens at the time of protagonist Emily Grierson‘s death.

A protagonist is the main character in a story. The entire community attends Emily’s funeral, but as the narrator suggests, no one really knew Emily. The narrator is the person telling any given story. In this case, the narrator is unnamed and assumed to be one of the townspeople. As the narrator tells the reader, no one really knew Emily.

Emily rarely went out, had never been married, and died alone at age 74. Her entire existence was a puzzle for the townspeople to piece together.Part one also reveals part of the reason Emily died alone: Emily’s father had turned down most of Emily’s suitors. By the time he died, Emily had no more suitors. At this point in American history, women were generally defined by their role as a mother, wife, or daughter. Because of this, the town felt bad for Emily.

Also, out of respect for Emily’s deceased and well-regarded father, the county made Emily exempt from paying town taxes.In part two, the narrator further elaborates upon the collective pity the town felt for Emily once her father died. All her father had left behind was the house.

When people stopped by to express their condolences about her father’s death, Emily told them that her father was not dead. Eventually there was a strange odor that emanated from Emily’s house. Faulkner alludes to the possibility that Emily had kept her father’s corpse in her home. The narrator confides, ‘We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.’Part three describes how Emily had started to physically transform.

While she rarely left her house, the public did manage to see her now and then. The narrator describes an Emily sighting that occurred after her father’s death: ‘When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows – sort of tragic and serene.’ The narrator clearly still feels sympathy for Emily, viewing her as something to at once pity and worship.

A significant aspect to part three is that Emily meets Homer Barron, a single Northerner who is in town to oversee the construction crew making new sidewalks. Homer’s reputation is scandalous. The narrator describes him as a man never meant for marrying. It is still in question whether Faulkner’s reference suggests Homer is gay, or rather, just a man who isn’t meant for settling down.

When the town noticed Emily and Homer spending time together, the town frowned upon the union. Emily, in spite of her lack of money, was still revered with old-fashioned Southern expectations. Homer was a working class fellow, not good enough for Emily by most standards.Also, that Emily and Homer were dating without any talk of marriage was considered scandalous.

The narrator describes Emily as a fallen woman. A fallen woman is a woman who has been guilty of adultery or sex before marriage. It’s an outdated term. This is just an example of how society judged women at this point in history.The climax of the story takes place in part three, when Emily decides to buy arsenic from the local pharmacy. While she allows the pharmacist to assume it’s for killing rats, there’s definitely a red flag here for the reader.

In part four, the narrator describes how everyone believed Emily would kill herself with arsenic. Then, the narrator tells us that shortly after Emily’s trip to the pharmacy, the town stopped seeing Homer around. Some time passed, and Emily grew very overweight. Her hair had turned an ‘iron gray.

‘ Her door remained closed for six or seven years until she started giving china-painting lessons. The narrator describes how one day the townspeople just stopped seeing Emily, until they learned of her death.Part five puts all the pieces together.

Once Emily’s cousins come to take care of Emily’s estate, they discover Homer’s corpse in Emily’s bed. On the pillow next to the corpse, there was a strand of Emily’s iron gray hair, which suggests that the arsenic had been used to poison Homer. Also, Emily may have had a fetish for dead people.

Many readers consider Emily to be a necrophiliac. A necrophiliac refers to someone who likes to have sex with corpses. This creepy element offers a Gothic feel to this story.The metaphorical rose for Emily is the narrator’s way of honoring and paying tribute to a woman who had suffered years in silence.

Themes of the Story

Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ can be analyzed on multiple levels.

Some argue that the major tension in the story is Southern pride versus Northern influences. It was the North who had argued for the abolition of slavery, not the South. Emily’s relationship to Homer could be seen as an extension of this North-South tension.There is also a deep tension between change and resistance to change. Emily’s decay is metaphor for the death of Southern pride, the end of old-fashioned values.Another notable theme is the role of women. Faulkner’s treatment of Emily suggests that readers should ultimately feel sympathy for Emily.

Because she lived in a small town, everyone had known her suitors were all gone. Without a husband or children, Emily did not have many options for how to spend her time.Other critics argue that the story is intensely sexual. Emily’s relationship to corpses (both her father’s and Homer’s) suggests that Emily had a desire for the dead. Also, as mentioned earlier, Homer is often characterized as bisexual.

And death is an obvious theme. Faulkner opens with Emily’s funeral. The death of her father deeply influences her dark attachment to Homer. Perhaps the only way she could have kept him was by killing him.Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ is often noted for its suspense.

Faulkner cleverly arranges the story so that he begins at the end, and then his narrator goes back through time, telling Emily’s story. The delay in receiving important details increases the reader’s suspense. The arsenic is an example of suspense, since readers don’t learn until the end that the arsenic had been meant to poison Homer.

Lesson Summary

A Rose for Emily,’ a short story written by William Faulkner in 1931, unravels the mysterious and strange life of a recently deceased Southern woman named Emily Grierson. The story is known for its themes of death, sexuality, the roles of women, and the tensions between the changing, more modern North and the resistant, more old-fashioned South. It is Faulkner’s descriptive, detail-oriented writing, along with his skill at creating suspense, that makes his story ‘A Rose for Emily’ an enduring American classic.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Summarize ‘A Rose for Emily’
  • Analyze the important points in the story ‘A Rose for Emily’
  • Discuss the themes of the story

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