How did the townspeople treat Miss Emily?
In "A Rose for Emily," the townspeople show her great respect. She has become a fixture that everyone is accustomed to, even in her eccentricities. She has been around during the changing times and through several generations. In the "old days," she used to give china-painting lessons to the young ladies when it was fashionable, though those days have long since passed when the narrator tells us his story.
Years before, when Emily refused to pay taxes, she insisted that she was granted exemption by a long-dead dignitary (Colonel Sartoris) in town. This is one instance where her separation from the changing times is evident. She is unaware that life outside the house has changed so dramatically over the years, and so she refuses, year after year, to pay the taxes. Whereas anyone else would probably have been forced to "pay up," Miss Emily is not.
When representatives from the town visit to plead their case for payment of her taxes, she puts them in their place, and they back off. Perhaps they do this out of respect, but also, perhaps, from a sense of fear, in that she is so adamant.
Their regard for her place within society is a carry-over from the "glory days" of the South, when a particularly prominent family would be granted special favors or dispensations simply based upon their elevated social standing.
When the smell starts to creep out from the house, the townspeople have no clue how to proceed. 'You don't just walk up to a lady and tell her to her face that she smells.' Out of respect, some of the men in town secretly get together one night and spread lime around the foundations of the house. Eventually, the smell does disappear.
For many years, Miss Emily's privacy is respected: people do not call. No one bothers her, and we sense that this is the way she wants it. When she dies, the narrator describes her funeral: the men come from a sense of that old-fashioned obligation described earlier, and the women out of a morbid curiosity to see her house, a place where no one but her servant Tobe has "trespassed" for so many years.
Perhaps her desire to be removed from general society is now understandable. It is only when she dies that her secret is discovered, one that answers questions long left hanging...for those old enough to remember the disappearance of Homer Baron, the dashing young man Emily had been seen about town with on several occasions. It is only then that they see not only the "mummified" body of her old beau; if that is not enough, on the pillow next to his head is a long grey hair, indicating that this woman--perceived by the townspeople as a pillar of the community--has been...sleeping next to a dead body...and recently, based on the color of the hair...
Miss Emily had few, if any, friends, and she seemed indifferent to making any new companions (aside from Homer Barron). As Faulkner reveals in the opening paragraph,
the whole town went to her 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...
Emily Grierson was just that: a curiosity, the subject of gossip and interest by the townspeople of Jefferson. A recluse who was rarely seen, she was nonetheless never forgotten by those who remembered her early years, her scandalous affair with the mysteriously departed Barron, and the "smell." The people of Jefferson had long thought of the Griersons as "a little too hight for what they really were." Yet, they felt "really sorry" for her for a time, remembering how her father had kept a tight rein on her before his death. They believed they could pity her now that she had become "humanized." Still single at 30, her neighbors "were not pleased exactly, but vindicated." They were "glad" when Homer took an interest in her, and they seemed even happier to spread the new gossip that materialized concerning her long overdue romance. After Homer disappeared, Miss Emily did the same, and with no new gossip to spread, the townspeople seemed to allow Emily to fade into the darkness of her home. They willingly accepted her seclusion--no one paid her visits--and they only became interested in her again after her death. She was a mystery to them, and a woman whose physical presence was of little concern. It was only her secrets that really interested them.
Another aspect of the story to consider is the difference between the older generation of people like Colonol Sartoris and Judge Stevens, and the younger generation of aldermen who are in charge of the town in the later part of Emily's life. The older generation show a more respectful attitude for Miss Emily. Her taxes were remitted and the men spread the lime around her house, rather than confront her about the smell. The older generation treats her like a "duty and a care" and a "heriditary obligation." The younger generation show little sympathy for her and her odd ways.
The younger generation feels no such nostaglia for the old ways and the people like Miss Emily that represent the faded glory of the gentry in the late 1800's. It is a lone member of the younger generation that wants to insist that Miss Emily be told she has a certain amount of time to clean up the house, but he is overruled by the majority (at that time) of the older generation. It is the younger generation that ignore the previous decision (25 years earlier) to remit the taxes. They send her a notice and eventually confront her in her home. The older generation sent their girls to her home for china painting lessons, but the younger generation don't.