“A Rose for Emily” is an iconic example of Southern Gothic literature, a subgenre of Gothic literature that developed in twentieth-century American fiction. Like Gothic literature in general, Faulkner’s story contains elements of mystery and horror, and the narrative is permeated with other Gothic elements, as well—ruin, decay, darkness, insanity, and hereditary curses. Gothic stock characters—the tyrant, the villain, and the madwoman—are found among the people in Jefferson, the small Mississippi town that serves as the setting. Faulkner weaves these Gothic elements seamlessly into an examination of Southern society and the post-Civil War culture of the South, the distinguishing characteristic of Southern Gothic fiction.
Through Faulkner’s narrator, who knows personally the history of Jefferson and the events of Emily Grierson’s life and death, the town itself becomes a character in the story, a collection of citizens imprisoned by Southern heritage, Southern social dynamics, and a singular point of view. Through the town’s obsession with Emily Grierson and her behavior, the weight of the past is revealed. The citizens of Jefferson live the shadow of the past, their attitudes and actions controlled by what once was but is no more, except in memory. The nineteenth-century Grierson house, once grand, now stands in “stubborn and coquettish decay” among cotton wagons, garages, and gasoline pumps, “an eyesore among eyesores”; the names of Jefferson’s august families are found in the town’s cemetery, “among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.” The narrator’s description of Jefferson, its history, and its citizens establishes the culture and the atmosphere that make the events in the story and its macabre conclusion plausible.
The tyrant in Faulkner’s Southern Gothic is, of course, Emily’s selfish, domineering father, who destroys any possibility that she could marry and leave him. Homer Baron seems to be the villain of the piece, an itinerant Yankee who publicly pursues a romantic relationship with Miss Emily in a shocking disregard for her reputation and who apparently has no intentions of marrying her—or not. Homer’s intentions are never clarified, but Emily’s murdering him suggests that marriage was not a part of Homer's plans for the future. In the shocking conclusion of the story, Miss Emily is revealed as a woman driven mad, perhaps by the circumstances of her life or perhaps by inheriting the insanity that curses the Griersons. In any event, Emily Grierson is insane, the mystery of her behavior and the depth of her madness evident in the horror that lies behind the locked bedroom door in her house.
As the story unfolds, the mystery unfolds slowly, as Faulkner moves the reader backward and forward in time. In retrospect, clues throughout the story, when pieced together in chronological order, suggest Homer Baron’s fate, but the ultimate manifestation of Miss Emily’s insanity, revealed in the story’s final sentence, is not anticipated. Throughout the narrative Faulkner sustains the atmosphere of a Gothic mystery in scenes etched in darkness. Visitors to the Grierson house are admitted to “a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow.” One evening at dusk, Homer is observed entering Miss Emily’s house, never to be seen again. Men slink about in the shadows in Miss Emily’s yard late one night, spreading lime to eradicate a terrible smell, and a light suddenly appears in a solitary darkened window, illuminating her silent, motionless form. The mysterious room in the “region above stairs that no one had seen in forty years” is permeated with dust, “[a] thin acrid pall as of the tomb.” The story is dark, both literally and figuratively.
Beginning with Miss Emily’s funeral and ending with Homer Baron’s decayed corpse in her bed, “A Rose for Emily” develops the primary motif found in many Gothic tales: death. In Faulkner’s hands, the motif is inextricably related to the past that continued to inform the culture of the South as he knew it. “The past,” he once wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” The truth of his perception is evident throughout the story, making “A Rose for Emily” a classic Southern Gothic tale.