What does this quote from "A Rose for Emily" mean, and what is its significance to the story?
"Now and then we would see her in one of the downstairs windows--she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house--like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which. Thus she passed from generation to generation--dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse."
The primary significance of this quote from "A Rose for Emily" is the subtle foreshadowing that suggests the events to come in the climactic and surprise ending. Following Homer's disappearance, Emily is rarely seen outside her house, only visible through "one of the downstairs windows." Her reclusive behavior, lifeless appearance and refusal to leave the house is suggested by the descriptive, rhyming simile,
... like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which.
Homer's whereabouts is foreshadowed by the observation that
... she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house...,
in order to restrict "the smell" and, possibly, to prevent her manservant, Tobe, from entering the upstairs bedroom. The final line is meant to show the passing of time and how Emily, shut up in her house, is immune to the changing outside world that continues to pass her by. The final word, "perverse," foreshadows what the townspeople think of her when they discover what she had hidden for so long inside the upstairs bedroom.
This quotation is taken from the end of part IV of "A Rose for Emily." Its significance is that it is the last comment the narrator makes before Miss Emily's death occurs in the story. This passage links together two significant scenes in the story that readers will have to connect in order to make sense of the surprise ending that is just around the corner. Faulkner does much to confuse readers and lead them astray by jumbling up Miss Emily's timeline as he tells the story in a non-linear fashion, but here he drops a significant clue. The image of Miss Emily's torso framed in the window like an idol was described previously—in part II.
On the night the aldermen spread lime around Miss Emily's home to try to eliminate the smell on her property, Miss Emily was observed in the lower level of her home in a similar stance. The repeated image allows readers to connect the issue of the foul smell with the discovery the townspeople make in part V when they open up the upper level bedroom that has been closed off. The townspeople find the skeleton of Homer Barron in the bed and one of Miss Emily's long gray hairs on the pillow beside it. The mystery of the smell becomes clear: The night people saw Homer enter Miss Emily's home for the last time was the night she poisoned him with arsenic. His rotting corpse created the stench; that was probably the time Miss Emily closed up the upstairs room. However, since her hair didn't turn gray for some time after that incident, it is clear she slept with the corpse even after it decomposed.
The adjectives Faulkner chooses for Emily here summarize what readers already know and foreshadow what they are soon to find out. Miss Emily is dear in the sense that the town cherishes the memory of her family's former greatness. However, one might also think of dear in the sense of expensive—she has cost the town money over the years by not paying her taxes. She is inescapable in the sense that people can't stop wondering about her; her odd behavior and reclusive lifestyle pose a continuing conundrum in the town. She is impervious to the aldermen's demand for money and to anyone else's idea of what is acceptable. That she should be tranquil in her odd lifestyle increases her oddity.
These adjectives build up to the final descriptor: perverse. Miss Emily is obstinate in her odd behavior, and as the townspeople soon discover, she is twisted in her morality far beyond what anyone could consider normal. At this point in the story, readers don't know that Miss Emily has harmed anyone by her strangeness, and so they might wonder why the narrator would add that adjective to the mix. It serves as a warning that things are going to take a darker turn. Faulkner uses this passage to creatively link the earlier parts of the story with the dramatic and disturbing finale.