Literature

A Summary and Analysis of William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’

‘A Rose for Emily’ is a short story by William Faulkner, originally published in Forum in 1930 before being collected in Faulkner’s collection, These Thirteen, the following year. The story concerns an unmarried woman living in the American South who attracts the concern and suspicion of the townspeople after her father dies and she becomes romantically involved with a Yankee man from the North.

‘A Rose for Emily’ is a story that invites a number of different critical interpretations and has attracted a great deal of commentary and analysis. Before we analyse the meaning of Faulkner’s classic story, it might be worth recapping the plot.

‘A Rose for Emily’: plot summary

The story begins with the news that Miss Emily Grierson, a recluse living alone with a black servant in a large house in town, has died. The narrator, a kind of collective voice of the townspeople, tells us that everyone in the town attended the funeral, with many of the women being curious to see inside the woman’s house that nobody had been allowed inside for years.

We are told that ten years earlier, the aldermen of the town had gained access to her house in order to question her about failure to pay her taxes. She simply tells them that she does not owe any taxes to the town, and calls for her servant to show the men out. Thirty years before that, another group of men from the town had visited Emily Grierson’s home to sprinkle lime in the cellar and the outbuildings, in order to get rid of the smell coming from the house.

That was two years after the death of her father, a crayon portrait of whom stands on an easel in front of the fireplace. After her father’s death, Emily’s sweetheart had deserted her and Emily left the house only on very rare occasions. When the house had begun to smell a short while after, neighbours had complained to the mayor, but the mayor had been reluctant to confront Emily about such a delicate matter, hence the party of men sprinkling lime under and around the house.

The narrator tells us that the townspeople had always thought the Griersons held themselves in high regard, as if none of the men would be good enough for Emily. When her father died, the women turned up at her house to pay their condolences, but she denied that he had died. The doctors had to persuade Emily to bury the body. Despite this odd behaviour, the townspeople didn’t consider Emily to be mad. They attributed her actions to her father’s controlling presence, and the way he had sent away all her potential suitors, forcing her to rely on him, even after his death.

After her father’s death, Emily was sick for a long while, and when she was seen again, she had cut her hair short to make her look like a girl. The following summer, a construction company arrived to pave the paths of the town, and the foreman, a Yankee from New York named Homer Barron, is seen out riding on Sundays with Emily. The townsfolk start to say, ‘Poor Emily’, believing that she cannot be seriously interested in a Northerner like Barron.

Emily purchases some arsenic from the local druggist, who assumes she will use it to kill rats. However, the rumour in the town is that Emily is planning to take her own life. People start to grow suspicious of the length of Emily’s courtship with Barron, with the minister intervening and the minister’s wife writing a concerned letter to Emily’s relatives in Alabama, and her cousins come to stay with her. Soon after this, the townsfolk became certain that Emily and Barron had married.

But then Homer Barron vanished, and nobody saw him again. Emily is barely seen either, and when she does reappear from the house, her hair has turned grey and she has put on weight. For a short while, Emily would give lessons in china-painting from her doorstep, but even this she eventually gave up. The townspeople grow up and move on and she becomes even more of a recluse. Her African-American servant loyally remains in her service, but nobody else goes into the house.

When Emily dies and her body is buried, the townsfolk finally venture into the upstairs bedroom in the house, where they discover the dead body of a man lying on the bed, surrounded by dust – presumably, the man is Homer Barron (though this is not stated). Next to the dead body is the indentation of a head and a long strand of Emily’s hair, suggesting that she was in the habit of lying next to the man’s body in the bed.

‘A Rose for Emily’: analysis

‘A Rose for Emily’ is a subtle story which blends first- and third-person narration, Gothic literature and realism, past memories and present events, to unsettle us as readers. The whole town appears to be the story’s narrator, a kind of collective ‘we’ which speaks together about – and against – Emily’s strange behaviour until we reach the chilling finale and Homer Barron’s body is discovered. This means that Emily remains distant from us as readers, and we never learn about her inner life: we only ever see her from the outside, through the eyes of the townspeople. This is obviously fitting because Emily is an outsider in the town, but it also lends an air of mystery to the events recounted, because so little is understood of Emily’s motivations and emotions.

Because of this unnerving denouement, ‘A Rose for Emily’ is often regarded as an example of Southern Gothic: a literary mode, practised by writers of the American South (like Faulkner) whose stories and novels are characterised by macabre, horrific, or grotesque elements. Such fiction often also contains an accumulation of realist detail, and Faulkner allows the mood of uncanniness which pervades Emily’s house and her life to emerge gradually.

Her reluctance to give up her father’s body for burial, for example, foreshadows her (presumed) murder of her lover and concealment of his body in the upper bedroom, whom she killed when she realised that was the only way of holding onto him and ensuring he remained hers for good. The crumbling Gothic castle has become a house in the Southern United States, in which everything is ‘tarnished’ (note how often that word recurs), spoiled, fading (like Emily’s iron-grey hair), and falling to ruin.

This offers a new, more domestic take on a traditional trope in Gothic fiction: the dark secret threatening to destroy a ‘house’ or family (see Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ for one notable example from the nineteenth century), and (in many Gothic stories) the dead body that is only discovered at the end of the narrative. But at least Poe’s protagonists managed to bury their bodies (although sometimes, as in the story just mentioned, before they were actually dead), or concealed them beneath the floorboards. Faulkner’s story instead hints at an altogether more morbid and unwholesome notion: that Emily has continued to ‘sleep’ with Homer even after he was dead (indeed, perhaps that was the only way she could sleep with him at all).

Another reason that the Southern Gothic tag is important for ‘A Rose for Emily’ is that Emily, a Southern lady, falls for a ‘Yankee’: a man from the North of the United States. Although the American Civil War ended in 1865, decades before Faulkner was writing, the sense of North-South divide, in terms of culture, class, and identity, proved long-lasting (and arguably persists to this day). The townsfolk are appalled by the idea that Miss Emily, an aristocratic Southern lady, might seriously be considering marriage to a Northerner, whom they consider to be beneath her on the social scale (hence the reference to noblesse oblige: Emily should entertain Homer and be courteous to him, but the idea that she could marry such a man horrifies the Southern townspeople’s sensibilities).

Faulkner leaves many specific details of Emily’s relationship with Homer as mere hints and speculations, in keeping with the narrative mode of the story: the townspeople, shut out from her house and, in many ways, from her life, can only conjecture as to what happened. We are in a similar position, though it seems sensible enough to surmise that Emily fell in love with Homer – who, it is strongly suggested, had no intention of settling down with her.

Like Emily, he is a perpetual singleton, but whereas Emily is single because of the controlling influence of her father (an influence which persists, in its psychological hold on her, even after her father’s death), Homer is single by choice: a stark reminder of the gender differences between men and women in Southern society at this time. Women like Emily attract concern and rumour if they remain unmarried, while the bachelor Homer Barron – whose name summons Greek heroism and nobility, while also hinting at the ‘barren’ nature of Emily’s would-be relationship with him – charms the townsfolk and becomes popular, despite being, like Emily, an outsider set apart from them.

Why does Faulkner title his story ‘A Rose for Emily’? In an interview he gave at the University of Virginia, he suggested that Emily deserved to be given a rose because of all of the torment she had endured: at the hands of her father, perhaps at the hands of Homer as well, and as a result of the townsfolk treating her like an outsider.

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