By William Faulkner (1897-1962)
A Study Guide
Notes and Plot Summary by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Rose for Emily" is a short story of Gothic horror
and tragedy. It presents
a portrait of a lonely Mississippi woman who
succumbs to mental illness
while living reclusively according to the outmoded
traditions of Old South
.......The story was first published in the April 30, 1930, issue of Forum magazine and was published again in 1931 in These Thirteen, a collection of Faulkner stories.
.......The title character is a tragic figure. Manipulated by her father and unable to function in the modern world, she lives as a recluse most of the time and eventually goes insane. In an attempt to hold on to a man who becomes her companion but later decides to abandon her, she murders him and keeps his corpse in an upper room of her house. In a lecture at Nagano, Japan, author William Faulkner said of Emily: "Here here was a woman who had had a tragedy, an irrevocable tragedy and nothing could be done about it, and I pitied her and this [the story] was a salute . . . to a woman you would hand a rose" (Jeliffe 70-71).
.......William Faulkner set a “A Rose for Emily” in the fictional Mississippi town of Jefferson, modeled after the real Mississippi town of Oxford, where the author spent most of his life. Events in the story take place in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
character, who is dead. Her story unfolds in
flashbacks. Emily was born
during the Civil War as an only child and died in
the 1930s. When her father
reared her with Old South values, he prevented young
men from courting
her, apparently in the belief that they were not
good enough for her (or
possibly because he had an unnatural relationship
.......The townspeople tell the story in first-person point of view. Here is an example of the narrator's first-person commentary:
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.Structure and Story Overview
.......Faulkner divides the story into five short sections. The first section reports the funeral and burial of Emily and provides background on her house, her servant, and her tax status. The second section focuses on a foul smell coming from her house, the use of lime by city officials to neutralize it, the insanity that runs in Emily's family, her father's refusal to allow young men to call on her, and the death and burial of her father. The third section introduces a Northerner, Homer Barron, who comes to town with a construction crew and takes Emily for buggy rides. It also reports that Emily buys arsenic at the local drugstore. The fourth section tells of the townspeople's belief that Emily is setting a bad example by regularly keeping company with Homer Barron. It also tells of the disappearance of Barron, the years when Emily teaches china painting, and the death of Emily. The fifth section reports the happenings at Emily's funeral and a grotesque discovery in an upper room of the house.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
time is the 1930s. The place is Jefferson,
Mississippi. After a reclusive
resident, Emily Grierson, dies at the age of
turn out in great numbers for the funeral—the men to
pay homage to a "fallen
monument," the narrator says, and the women mainly
to view the inside of
her house. The only one who had seen the interior
over the decade or so
before her death was her servant, Tobe, an old black
man who did the cooking,
gardening, and marketing.
first hint of the story's spooky patina is Emily's
house. It is a decaying
mansion that no outsider had entered in the decade
before her death. Years
before, when representatives of the Board of
Aldermen gained entry to the
house, Emily's servant "led them into a dim hall
from which a staircase
mounted into still more shadow," the narrator says.
"[The house] smelled
of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell. The Negro
led them into the parlor.
It was furnished in heavy, leather-covered
furniture. When the Negro opened
the blinds of one window, they could see that the
leather was cracked;
and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly
about their thighs,
spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray."
climax of a short story or another literary work
can be defined as (1)
the turning point at which the conflict begins to
resolve itself for better
or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events.
The climax of "A Rose for Emily" occurs, according
to the first definition,
when Emily buys poison to kill Homer Barron. In
the year before making
the purchase, she had emerged from her seclusion
to date Barron. His low
social status indicated that she may have been
ready to break free of Old
South constraints. When Homer decided to leave
her, she could have chosen
to remain in the modern world and perhaps begin a
new relationship and
even seek psychological counseling. But, no, she
decided to poison Barron
and return to seclusion. After this turning point,
she remained in her
home and descended further into madness. According
to the second definition,
the climax occurs when the townspeople break into
the upstairs room and
discover Barron's rotting corpse and the pillow
beside it with a gray hair
from Emily's head.
.......When Emily was a child, her father apparently indoctrinated her with the proud ways of the Old South. When she was old enough to socialize with young men and consider marriage, he banished all her would-be beaus. Her upbringing thus isolated her from the New South residents of the town; she had become totally dependent on, and totally attached to, her father. It is no wonder, then, that when her father died she refused to give up his body for burial. It took townspeople three days to persuade her to surrender the corpse. Afterward, he reached from beyond the grave to continue to oppress her, as the following passage indicates:
Now and then we would see her at a window for a moment, as the men did that night when they sprinkled the lime, but for almost six months she did not appear on the streets. Then we knew that this was to be expected too; as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman's life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die........Emily had become, in effect, a hapless slave to the will of her father. Her one attempt to free herself of psychological bondage to him occurred when she dated a newcomer to town, a Northerner of low social standing whom she knew her father would not like. But the Northerner, Homer Barron, informed her that he was not the marrying kind. So she lapsed back into the seclusion of her house and into the comfortable past of the Old South. Time had stopped for her, and she decided that it would also stop for Barron.
Living in the Past
Mr. Grierson reared Emily, he instilled in her his
Old South values, manners,
and customs. He also drove off all her New South
suitors, presumably because
they could not measure up to his Old South
standards. Townspeople generally
regarded Emily as haughty, a true daughter of
Southern aristocracy. Paradoxically,
however, many people—in
particular the older
to admire and respect
her for daring to live according to bygone
dictums. She was, as the first
paragraph says, something of a "monument."
Emily was exploited by a Northerner, Homer Barron, just as Old South residents were exploited by Northern carpetbaggers in the postwar Reconstruction period (1865-1877). Barron was foreman of a crew that “reconstructed” the Old South—that is, his workers installed new sidewalks. After his fling with Emily, he decided to leave her. Then Emily bought the arsenic, murdered him, and returned to the past.
Death of the Old South
.......Emily is a symbol of the Old South. When she dies, the lingering remnants of the Old South die with her—or at least, like the old men in their Confederate uniforms—are about to die. An exception here is the racism in the town, as indicated by the narrator's use of the highly offensive term "nigger."
likes a good mystery, such as Poe's The Murders
in the Rue Morgue,
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon,
Agatha Christie's Murder
on the Orient Express, or Arthur Conan Doyle's
The Hound of the
Baskervilles. But some of the best mysteries
present themselves in
the house down the street in an ordinary city. Such
is the case in "A Rose
for Emily." The residents of Jefferson closely
follow the often perplexing
developments at the Grierson house and wonder at the
significance of this
or that activity. What was the cause of the foul
smell? Will Miss Emily
marry Homer Barron? Why did she buy the arsenic?
There was a time when
they would try to get information from her black
servant, Tobe. But he
would have nothing to say, mainly because his voice
"had grown harsh and
rusty, as if from disuse." Folks speculated that he
probably didn't even
talk with Emily. After she died, "the whole town
went to the funeral,"
the narrator says, the women mainly because they
wanted to see the inside
of the house. After the funeral, people broke into
an upstairs room that
had been closed for forty years. There, they found
out what happened to
Homer Barron, but Miss Emily's motives murdering
him, her reclusiveness,
and the state of her mind when she died all remaned
Mr. Grierson guilty of incest with his daughter?
Evidence in the story
hints at this possibility, although the evidence is
far from foolproof.
This evidence includes the following information
provided by the narrator,
who may not be entirely reliable:
For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.One may fairly ask whether this passage indicates that Emily also wanted to sleep with the corpse of her father.
.......Fourth, insanity ran in the Grierson family. Old Lady Wyatt was insane, and it becomes obvious that Emily was insane. If her father suffered from the same family scourge, it could have predisposed his mind to the commission of an unnatural act.
.......Of course, it is also possible that Grierson realized his daughter suffered from a mental debility. This realization would explain why he kept suitors away. However, if he had such knowledge, it seems likely that he would have made provisions for her care after his death. But there is no evidence that he did so.
.......The main conflicts in the story are (1) Emily vs her father, (2) Emily vs the modern world, and Emily vs her emotional and psychological debilities.
a Northerner who traveled to Jefferson to install
new sidewalks, dated
Emily for about a year and then severed his
relationship with her. He symbolizes
post-Civil War carpetbaggers and, in a larger sense,
Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in "A Rose for Emily."
It smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell.Metaphor
Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument. . . .Implied Metaphor
In the following passage, blackness is an implied metaphor for aging and debility:
They rose when she entered—a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand.Onomatopoeia
Word that imitates a sound
the thin, swift clop-clop-clop of the matched team passedOxymoron
Combining contradictory words to reveal a truth.
heavily lightsome (heavily: slow and clumsy; lightsome: lively, nimble, graceful)Paradox
Contradictory statement that is actually true
Emily is both weak and strong. For example, her father manipulated her in her youth, but she manipulates city officials in gaining tax forgiveness.Simile
Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water. . . .
the first paragraph of the fourth section, the
narrator says, "[Homer]
liked men, and it was known that he drank with the
younger men in the Elks'
Club . . . [and] was not a
Study Questions and Essay Topics