Discuss the physical descriptions of Emily Grierson at various points in the story. How do they help characterize her?

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sciftw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Emily Grierson’s physical description changes over the course of the story.  That is because the story itself narrates events that happen over the course of more than three decades.  When readers are first introduced to Emily, she is definitely not young or seen as attractive anymore. The sixth paragraph in section one gives a great description of Emily’s physical appearance.  We are told that she is “a small, fat woman” that is leaning on a cane.  If I’m honest, that’s about the nicest thing that paragraph has to say.  Other parts of the paragraph state that her frame is so small that her fatness more closely resembles obesity.  Her overall shape is actually compared to a bloated, dead body that has been found after a few days of being in the water.

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 have to be fairly dark in color because the text says that they look like “coal pressed into a lump of dough,” the dough being her face. The description of this paragraph paints the picture of a woman that you don’t want to be around.  There’s something monstrous and gross about her.  She’s definitely not pictured as the small, frail grandma that greets you with warm cookies.  Her physical description helps with her overall characterization at this point in the story because it’s at this point that a group of men have come to her house to try and collect taxes from her.  Emily, like the description of her appearance suggests, is not friendly or kind to these men. She looks like a mean old lady, and she acts like it too.

"See Colonel Sartoris." (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.) "I have no taxes in Jefferson. Tobe!" The Negro appeared. "Show these gentlemen out."

The fat, mean old lady image of Emily contrasts with what she looked like as a younger woman.  Not much specific detail is given about Emily’s appearance as a young woman, but we are told that she was thin.

Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background . . .

The previous quote describes Emily’s appearance while her father was still alive.  A reader could assume that she was a fairly attractive young woman as well.  Readers are told that multiple suitors were turned down by either Emily herself or her father.

None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such.  

If she’s being pursued by multiple men, it stands to reason that Emily was much prettier as a young woman and hasn’t aged well.  

After Emily’s father dies, she isn’t seen for a bit.  When she does make an appearance, the people notice that her hair has been cut quite short.  

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.

After this, Homer enters her life, and readers are told that even in her thirties, Emily is still skinny.  In fact, we are told that she is “thinner than usual.”  What’s key to her description at this point in the story is that readers are told her eyes are “haughty” and “black.”  In other words, Emily’s eyes are proud, yet cold and dead looking at the same time. This is important because this description comes right before she buys poison to kill Homer.

From that point forward, Emily’s hair becomes grayer and grayer, and she becomes fatter and fatter.  

When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man.

Throughout the story, readers see Emily become more reclusive and removed from society.  Her social life deteriorates around her, and she spends less time working at it.  Her physical appearance mirrors this in the fact that her body and appearance becomes unhealthier and uglier as well.  

mkcapen1 | Student

In the her story "A Rose for Emily" Miss Emily is described as a spinster.  However, she was slender and a dainty southern belle when she rode with her father in her years as a young woman.

"Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background,"

Later on, Miss Emily is described a small framed plump woman.  The author describes her as having a blob like appearance.  Yet, her face is filled with determination and intent.  Her eyes are like black goals tucked into dough.

"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;"

Years later when she is seen again, she is sickly looking.

After Homer left she had become fat and gray.

"Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray."

When they saw her next she had grown older and changed her hair style.

"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."

At the time of her death her hair was still strongly embedded in her hair and described iron gray in color.

"seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray"

Read the study guide:
A Rose for Emily

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