In "A Rose for Emily," what is the main idea?

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William Faulkner's celebrated short story "A Rose for Emily" is much more than a tragic tale of a mentally ill southern woman who kills her love interest and refuses to acknowledge the passage of time. Faulkner's story is an allegory for traditional southern culture which focuses particularly the fall of the Old South following the Civil War. Emily Grierson and her old, decaying home symbolically represent the antebellum era in the South, which was a time when affluent, slave-owning families like the Griersons were revered throughout communities like Jefferson. Miss Emily's character is associated with the Old South when she is described as a "fallen monument" as well as a "tradition, a duty, and a care." In the story, Miss Emily experiences several traumatic incidents over the course of her life, which include the death of her overbearing father and the unrequited love of Homer Barron.

Other characters like Homer Barron also contribute to the allegorical interpretation of the story. His character symbolically represents northern business interests in the South following the Civil War. Despite the negative opinions from older members of Jefferson's community, Miss Emily dates Homer Barron but ends up killing him in order to prevent Homer from leaving her. For decades, Miss Emily refuses to leave her decaying home as a newer generation of aldermen assume authority in the town. The members of the New South do not share the same culture as Miss Emily and demand that she pay her taxes. However, Miss Emily refuses to acknowledge the passage of time and does not obey their orders. Upon her death, the citizens enter her attic, where they discover Homer Barron's corpse and a strand of Miss Emily's gray hair.

Given Miss Emily's symbolic representation, the townspeople's grotesque discovery is Faulkner's way of illustrating the Old South's tainted past, which includes the horrors of institutionalized slavery and the Civil War. Miss Emily's refusal to acknowledge the passage of time corresponds to the older generation of southerners who struggled to adapt to life following the Civil War. Similarly, the newer generation of southerners also find it difficult to accept their culture's troubled past. Miss Emily's character is both sympathetic yet appalling, which reveals Faulkner's complex feelings towards his southern culture.

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The main idea in a story or any other literary piece is the central thought or most important concept that the author conveys throughout. All the details of the written work therefore relate to the main idea and can be seen as accessories or contingencies that either extrapolate, develop, or provide emphasis in support of the central idea. 

In "A Rose for Emily," the main idea is, most obviously, the inability or refusal of the protagonist, Emily Grierson, to accept and adapt to change. The fact that the narrator refers to her as a "fallen monument" symbolizes precisely what she represents—a stubborn memorial to the past.

Miss Emily's actions throughout the story provide ample proof of this. Firstly, there is her unwillingness to pay taxes. She focuses on a privilege given to her father by one who has been dead for a long time. Even though Colonel Sartoris had extended the non-paying tax privilege to her father in perpetuity, it is obvious that such a ruling could not be permanently sustained. Miss Emily, though, refuses to budge.

Another example of her stubborn adherence to the past is the fact that she cannot not accept her father's death. She tells people that he is not dead and holds on to his body for three days before releasing it for burial.

In addition to that, it becomes apparent that Miss Emily hardly ever buys anything new or cleans her house. Her fear of change probably stops her from desiring her place to look brand new or, at least, clean and well cared for. The following extract most adequately declares this fact:

...only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores.

The most profound example of Miss Emily's refusal to let go of the past lies in the treatment of her supposed sweetheart, Homer Barron. It is common knowledge in the town that he is not the marrying kind and prefers the company of men. When he disappears, everyone believes that he has left her. The shocking discovery in an upstairs room of her house, however, proves otherwise. They find Homer's extensively decomposed body in the bed and discover, on a pillow next to his, a long strand of Miss Emily's hair.

It is pertinently obvious that Miss Emily murdered Homer with arsenic that she bought from the shop about thirty years before. She has been keeping his body for company through all the years. It also seems that she has either occasionally or constantly been sleeping next to it.

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"A Rose for Emily" is certainly one of those stories that is hard to forget. The shocking conclusion, when the decaying body of Homer is found, is horrible indeed, making the story an American gothic tale. In this respect, the main idea of the story would be that Emily Grierson was quite mad.

In Faulkner's hands, however, the story becomes much more complex. It becomes an examination of Emily's Southern culture, as well as her sad life. Through the voice of the narrator, "the town" itself becomes a character in the story. The people of Jefferson, acting collectively, are "the town." As the narrator relates how "the town" thinks and what "the town" does, the reader comes to understand the terrible weight of social convention and Southern tradition that has directed and controlled Emily's entire life. The idea that comes from Faulkner's portrait of life in Jefferson is that Southerners are held prisoners of the past, particularly those like Emily Grierson who bear the name of old, genteel families.

Considered in its entirety, Faulkner's story develops the idea that individuals live complex, hidden interior lives, with the truth masked by appearances.


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