"A Rose for Emily" opens with Miss Emily Grierson's funeral. It then goes back in time to show the reader Emily's childhood. As a girl, Emily is cut off from most social contact by her father. When he dies, she refuses to acknowledge his death for three days. After the townspeople intervene and bury her father, Emily is further isolated by a mysterious illness, possibly a mental breakdown.
Homer Barron’s crew comes to town to build sidewalks, and Emily is seen with him. He tells his drinking buddies that he is not the marrying kind. The townspeople consider their relationship improper because of differences in values, social class, and regional background. Emily buys arsenic and refuses to say why. The ladies in town convince the Baptist minister to confront Emily and attempt to persuade her to break off the relationship. When he refuses to discuss their conversation or to try again to persuade Miss Emily, his wife writes to Emily’s Alabama cousins. They come to Jefferson, but the townspeople find them even more haughty and disagreeable than Miss Emily. The cousins leave town.
Emily buys a men’s silver toiletry set, and the townspeople assume marriage is imminent. Homer is seen entering the house at dusk one day, but is never seen again. Shortly afterward, complaints about the odor emanating from her house lead Jefferson’s aldermen to surreptitiously spread lime around her yard, rather than confront Emily, but they discover her openly watching them from a window of her home.
Miss Emily’s servant, Tobe, seems the only one to enter and exit the house. No one sees Emily for approximately six months. By this time she is fat and her hair is short and graying. She refuses to set up a mailbox and is denied postal delivery. Few people see inside her house, though for six or seven years she gives china-painting lessons to young women whose parents send them to her out of a sense of duty.
The town mayor, Colonel Sartoris, tells Emily an implausible story when she receives her first tax notice: The city of Jefferson is indebted to her father, so Emily’s taxes are waived forever. However, a younger generation of aldermen later confronts Miss Emily about her taxes, and she tells them to see Colonel Sartoris (now long dead, though she refuses to acknowledge his death). Intimidated by Emily and her ticking watch, the aldermen leave, but they continue to send tax notices every year, all of which are returned without comment.
In her later years, it appears that Emily lives only on the bottom floor of her house. She is found dead there at the age of seventy-four. Her Alabama cousins return to Jefferson for the funeral, which is attended by the entire town out of duty and curiosity. Emily’s servant, Tobe, opens the front door for them, then disappears out the back. After the funeral, the townspeople break down a door in Emily’s house that, it turns out, had been locked for forty years. They find a skeleton on a bed, along with the remains of men’s clothes, a tarnished silver toiletry set, and a pillow with an indentation and one long iron-gray hair.
Although an unnamed citizen of the small town of Jefferson, in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, tells the story of the aristocratic Miss Emily Grierson in a complicated manner, shifting back and forth in time without trying to make clear transitions, the story line itself is quite simple. Miss Emily’s father dies when she is a little more than thirty, in about 1882. For three days she prevents his burial, refusing to accept his death. He had driven off all of her suitors; now she is alone, a spinster, in a large house.
In the summer after the death of her father, Miss Emily meets Homer Barron, the Yankee foreman of a crew contracted to pave the sidewalks of Jefferson. They appear on the streets in a fancy buggy, provoking gossip and resentment. Two female cousins come to town from Alabama to attempt to persuade Miss Emily to behave in a more respectable manner. Emily buys an outfit of man’s clothes and a silver toilet set. To avoid the cousins, Homer leaves town. Miss Emily buys rat poison from the druggist. The cousins leave. Homer returns; he is never seen again.
A foul odor emanates from Miss Emily’s house. After midnight, four citizens, responding to complaints made by neighbors to Judge Stevens, the mayor, stealthily spread lime around the house and in her cellar. In a week or so, the smell goes away.
In 1894, Colonel Sartoris, the mayor, remits Miss Emily’s taxes. For about six or seven years, while in her forties, she gives china-painting lessons to the young girls of the town. Then for many years she is seen only at her window. Townspeople watch her black servant Tobe going in and out on errands. A new generation comes to power; they insist that Miss Emily pay taxes on her property. When she fails to respond, a deputation calls on her, but she insists that she owes no taxes, as Colonel Sartoris will tell them (he has been dead ten years).
In about 1925, Miss Emily dies. On the day of her funeral, the townspeople, including some old Civil War veterans, invade the house. Tobe leaves by the back door and is never seen again. One group breaks into a locked room upstairs and discovers the corpse of Homer Barron, which has moldered in the bed for forty years. On a pillow beside him, they find “a long strand of iron-gray hair,” evidence that Miss Emily had lain down beside him years after she poisoned him.