The central character of this story is Miss Emily Grierson, a woman raised near the end of the nineteenth century in a very traditional, antebellum, Old Southern kind of way. Her father, while he was alive, seemed to have chased away all of the men who came courting. "None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such." Then, when he died, Miss Emily refused to accept the fact and would not let people "dispose of the body" for three days. The narrator says,
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.
This quotation draws attention to the narrator, who speaks from a plural, first-person point of view. The narrator seems to represent the entire town of Jefferson. In the opening lines of the story, the narrator claims that "our whole town went to [Miss Emily's] funeral" out of "a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument." No one really has a relationship with Miss Emily, with the exception of Homer Barron, and everyone assumes he's left her— because "he was not a marrying man"—until she dies and they find his body in her bed.
The story is told out of chronological order; were it told more traditionally and chronologically, we might put all of the clues about Homer's murder together, and this would have prevented us from developing any sympathy for Emily. As it is, we are kept in the dark, just as the townspeople are. First, Miss Emily's father dies, and then she begins to see Homer about two years later. She purchases some arsenic from the local druggist—for rats, she says. Some of her family members come to dissuade her from continuing the relationship with Homer, and when he is not seen again, the town assumes that he has left her (as they expected he one day would). The narrator says, "[...] we were not surprised when Homer Barron—the streets [on which he worked] had been finished some time since—was gone." Not long after the apparent termination of their relationship, a horrible smell begins to emanate from the Grierson home, and men actually sneak onto the property one night to sprinkle lime to eliminate the awful odor. Miss Emily becomes more and more reclusive, with the exception of one six- or seven-year period, living to the ripe old age of seventy-four, and developing very distinctive "iron-gray" hair. When she dies, the town opens up her bedroom, only to find the long-decayed body of Homer (he has been lying there for at least thirty years) as well as one long strand of Miss Emily's unique hair on the pillow next to him.
The tone of the story does seem sympathetic to Emily; Faulkner doesn't make her a total monster. In fact, telling the story out of order—making it harder for us to connect the dots that lead to Homer's murder—actually allows us to develop more pity for Emily. She was forced to be alone, and then abandoned (in death) by the very person who robbed her of companionship: her father. Her pride seems to have prevented her from really reaching out to anyone in the town—it seems like there is Miss Emily and then everyone else—but she also couldn't bear to be alone forever, evidently. Her fear of abandonment compels her to commit a terrible crime, and her apparent delusion convinces her that a dead companion is better than none at all. Such a position is, of course, ironic, and difficult to defend, but many readers find that they cannot condemn her completely either.