A Rose for Emily is a story written by an American writer William Faulkner, initially published in the “Forum” magazine dating April 30, 1930. The events of the story take place in Jefferson City (Mississippi state), in an imaginary county of Yoknapatawpha that the author came up with himself. This was the first Faulkner’s story published in a reputable national journal.
But that is not a correct introduction for this story. William Faulkner is not just “an American writer” — he is a legendary persona in the world literature, who contributed immensely to describing social breakdown after the Civil War. In his works, the writer explored such themes as violence, human decay, terror, dark minds and the unwillingness of society to understand or even notice all these concepts. This eventually brought him a Nobel Prize in literature.
Despite its pinky and optimistic title, “A Rose for Emily” is a gloom text full of the above mentioned themes: dilapidated estate of “once great aristocratic Grierson family”, a dead corpse of Homer Barron lying in the bed being “loved” for decades and a mentally disturbed woman Emily Grierson “loved by her father” into loneliness and necrophilia.
From the first point of view, this is a pretty simple story. It’s short and has only a handful of characters who each have very limited and specific roles: Mr. Grierson and his daughter Emily — their job is to be noble and important; Emily’s beloved low-class Homer Barron, who she kills to keep around her forever; Colonel Sartoris that exempts them from paying city taxes; the unbearable cousins that arrive for Emily’s rescue when she falls in love with a “nobody Homer” and, finally, the town — that is shocked when they find out after the funeral what atrocities were going on in Emily’s house for decades.
And then there is the narrator that introduces Mr. Faulkner’s story to the readers. The narrator is a compilation of different men and women of Jefferson town who each has a story to tell about Emily. The plot goes back and forward all the time, operating on memories, stereotypes, bits and pieces of information that is not easy to put together until the very end. The events wind up in a gothic whirl of a dark and scary story whose main topic can be described as a resistance to changes and habit of generations to think “as we used to think it” and do “as our parents used to do it.”
Faulkner is famous for the writing techniques that make his suspenseful stories even more mystique and gripping. One of such techniques employed in this particular book is a complete lack of chronology in how the events unfold from chapter to chapter and a constant shift of author’s focus from one phenomenon or character to the other. To understand the story better, read the chronological order of the events below. Hopefully, it will help you unwind the plot threads and place all the ducks (events in the story) in a row.
But for now let’s focus on the core meaning of this story. Who are its main actors? The protagonist Emily Grierson is a lonely, reserved and stubborn old lady who lives in the past. She is a textbook example of social injustice and unwillingness to change. Her father, Mr. Grierson, was once a successful Southern man, who is now desperately gripping to whatever was left of his wealth and status after the war. He treats the whole town as if they belonged to him and doesn’t want anybody to come near his daughter. In his example, the reader sees that even after slavery was renounced, previous slave owners were still respected by default and enjoyed a number of undeserved benefits. The author says in Chapter 4:
“Miss Emily’s people were Episcopal”,
as if the whole town belonged to Emily, she was their symbol and their pain at the same time.
The town is a character on its own — its thoughts and ideas, attitudes and fears towards Emily and her family constitute a large portion of story’s events and maybe even serve as the main reason for a crooked behavior exhibited by the Grierson family they worshipped. The narration starts with memories of different men and women who lived in Jefferson and attended the funeral of legendary Emily Grierson. At the beginning of Chapter 1 Faulkner presents his narrators’ intentions to be at this funeral:
“…The men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house.”
Their memories about Emily are confusing, they are broken, not complete, come from different people and have different levels of details.
The title of the story gives a small hint that despite all the atrocities described in the text, the author doesn’t despise his character. Instead of blaming, he actually wants to give her tribute, like a man does when he gives a flower to his lady. Inhabitants of Jefferson also desperately resisted thinking badly of her. In chapter 2 we read:
“When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to her; and in a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily.”
The town considered her weird, they judged her when she fell in love with the construction worker Homer, but couldn’t even imagine that she could have murdered him when her house started to smell badly.
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Through this book Faulkner demonstrates that in the world there are people who do unpleasant things to change history, and those who would do everything to avoid things that are unpleasant. Faulkner’s characters are divided into two categories: those who want to avoid dealing with Emily at all costs (Colonel Sartoris who exempts the weird lady from taxes, the pharmacist who doesn’t ask Emily what she will use the arsenic for, or the new mayor Judge Stevens who sends four men to quietly sprinkle lime around her cellar and yard to eradicate the smell) and those who want to find excuses to worship her.
Reading the story is like reading the minds of Jefferson inhabitants. And it’s not clear whether the darkness was all about Emily — or maybe it were the small pieces of everybody’s flaws that covered this story with horror. After all, there is a little piece of weirdness in all of us.
“A Rose for Emily” in Chronological Order
Sometimes around Civil War: Emily Grierson is born, her father (who is never named in the text), is a controlling and invasive man who thinks too high of his origins. He isolates her from social interaction — but this only makes the town inhabitants even more interested in her. They think of her as an idol and a symbol of their settlement.
Despite slowly losing their wealth and status, Grierson family is seen riding in a fancy carriage and is still perceived as a trophy and pride of Jefferson.
Around the year 1894: Emily’s father died, but she kept it a secret for three whole days. We know this date because in 1894, shortly after her father dies, Emily is exempt from paying city taxes by mayor Colonel Sartoris. The chief of the town makes up a story that Miss Emily’s father loaned money to the city council, but nobody seems to believe it. Despite giving some music lessons to a few kids, Emily becomes more and more estranged, encapsulating herself in her estate and not socializing with other citizens.
Summer after her father’s death and when Emily was in her 30s: Homer Barron comes from North seeking construction work in the town and starts a relationship with Emily. Townspeople disapprove of such inappropriate liaison of a noblewoman and a low-class nobody. They call on her two female cousins to come from Alabama to talk some sense into Emily.
Homer leaves town, then cousins leave town.
1 year after Emily and Barron relationship began: Emily is seen buying rat poison. They think she wants to kill herself, and nobody seems to care much about it. But later Emily also buys a bunch of male things: clothes, engraved shaving kit. People think Emily and Barron might get married after all.
Three days after Emily’s cousins leave town (the town population seems to think that their character is even more difficult than Emily’s), Barron comes back into town but disappears immediately after it.
2 years after father’s death: Emily’s house starts to smell really bad. Everybody in the town notices it, but nobody dares to confront her. They spray lime around her house in the middle of the night and after a week or so the smell disappears. Seems like everybody forgot about the lady afterward — since there is no recollection or memories of her since that time.
“The only sign of life about the place was the Negro man-a young man then-going in and out with a market basket.” (Chapter 2)
30 years later: New chiefs of town (Board of Alderman) come to Emily’s house (being one of the few people who ever came up to that mansion) to renounce a previous deal and make her pay the city taxes. She declares that she would do no such thing.
Emily dies around age 74. Entire town comes to her funeral and recalls their memories and impressions about the old lady. After the funeral people enter her house for the first time in ten years. Her servant lets them in and disappears. Upstairs in the bedroom, people find a corpse of Homer Barron and gray female hair on the pillow next to him.