How does symbolism work to develop theme in "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner?

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are several themes in this story; identifying them first can help to lead you to various symbols in the the tale that help to build those themes.  One of the major themes in the story is the fall of the old south, or the uselessness of the old south's ways in the modern world. Emily and her father symbolize the old south, and how they are not relevant anymore.  Emily's obstinance in the face of having to pay taxes represents a clash between the old south and the new south.  Her house itself, described as

"lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps-an eyesore among eyesores,"

was decrepit, falling apart, old, dusty, and not current.  This symbolizes Emily's wealth, family name, and significance in the town.

Another huge theme is the presence of death, and how it impacts Emily, and then is inflicted by Emily.  The house being in decay can symbolize that; Emily's appearance, described as "bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water," also symbolizes death, and how she has become the hand of death in other people's lives.

To go with the theme of insanity, mental instability, or craziness, you have the watch chain that contains no watch on it, the "crayon portrait" of Emily's father being displayed in the house, and her illogical refusal to pay taxes.

Throughout the entire story, if you look closely, Faulkner uses symbolism to enhance the various themes of the tale.  I hope that my examples have helped to get you started; good luck!

Read the study guide:
A Rose for Emily

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