Emily Grierson

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Last Updated on December 18, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975

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Emily Grierson, an aged Southern belle, is the last surviving member of an aristocratic family living in the antebellum South. Emily’s father keeps her cloistered for much of her youth. After the death of her father, she is left penniless and alone, an outsider with no friends and no marriage prospects. Emily is alternately pitied and scorned by the people of Jefferson. She ultimately fails to overcome her isolated upbringing and becomes the town eccentric. Emily has a brief romance with a Northern day worker named Homer Barron. After their relationship ends in his apparent abandonment of her, she secludes herself entirely. At the end of the story, Emily dies, and her house is investigated. What appears to have been an open secret amongst the townspeople is revealed: Homer’s decaying body has been kept in a bed in Emily’s house for nearly forty years.

Emily Grierson is a remnant of the traditional Southern social stratification that was phased out in the wake of the Civil War. Much of Emily’s isolation can be blamed on her aristocratic status. Her status makes her an object of both reverence and resentment in the eyes of the people of Jefferson. Her father raised her in isolation and chased away potential suitors because he did not believe anyone was good enough for his daughter. The townspeople are also scandalized when Emily begins a courtship with Homer Barron. Homer is a lowly Northern laborer who would traditionally be considered well beneath Emily’s station. In order to thwart the match, the Baptist Minister’s wife contacts Emily’s relatives in Alabama. They arrive soon thereafter and seemingly drive Homer away.

However, Emily’s demands for special treatment also maintain the barriers between her and the people of Jefferson. By refusing to pay taxes and refusing to let the town put a mailbox on her house, Emily clings to the past and the traditional values it represents. The townspeople, many of whom are just as traditional as Emily, enable this behavior. Men of the Old South, like Colonel Sartoris and Judge Stevens, decline to chastise Emily for her obstinance out of respect for her station.

“A Rose for Emily” can also be read as an allegory in which Emily symbolizes the decay of the Old South and its traditions. Mr. Grierson and Emily represent the last of the aristocracy in Jefferson. However, post-Civil War, the South is forced to modernize and accommodate intrusions on its traditions. Emily, a fading Southern belle, is symbolically unable to integrate into the rapidly changing Jefferson. She instead withers in isolation. As the story progresses, she transforms from a slim, youthful figure into a “bloated,” corpse-like one. Emily’s changing physique provides a vivid metaphor for the fate of Southern traditions. Homer Barron, who is loud, robust, and youthful, represents the intrusion of the victorious North in the postwar years. By killing Homer, Emily symbolically rejects the intrusion of the North into the Old South. Her attachment to his decaying corpse symbolizes her desire to maintain the rapidly fading traditions of the Old South. She kills him in an effort to halt time and prevent the tides of change from sweeping away the ruined past to which she clings.

As a character, the question of whether to view Emily as a tragic figure or an unhinged murderer is up for interpretation. By the former reading, Emily is a product of her upbringing. She is an isolated, lonely figure whose social status prevents her from working or forming social bonds. When Homer Barron arrives from the North, Emily likely sees in him as a potential kindred spirit, a fellow outcast. However, Homer is charismatic and funny, better able to fit in than Emily, despite the initial prejudice he faces on account of being a Northerner. Furthermore, he describes himself as “not a marrying man.”

The narrator mentions that Emily’s great-aunt, old lady Wyatt, went “crazy.” This indicates that mental instability runs in the Grierson family. Emily’s cloistered childhood and inability to accept her father’s death indicate a stunting of her emotional development. This emotional stunting has left her unable to distinguish life from death. By this reading, Emily is desperate to keep the only man who was ever allowed to get close to her. So, she decides to poison Homer as a means of keeping him around when it becomes clear that he plans to leave. That she positions the body “in the attitude of an embrace” suggests a combination of loneliness, desperation, and a degree of disconnection from reality resulting from mental instability. Unable to discern between the living and the dead, Emily develops the same attachment to Homer’s corpse that she had with Homer when he was alive.

Yet, for all of the tragedy of Emily’s life, she is still a murderer. She deliberately seeks out the druggist and requests the “best” rat poison he has with the intention of using it to kill Homer. This indicates a degree of premeditation incompatible with true innocence. By this reading, Emily’s motive may have been revenge for Homer’s apparent rejection of her. Unable to accept being spurned, especially by a man beneath her in social class, she turns to murder.

The truth of Emily’s character is likely a blend of tragedy, anger, and mental instability. Rather than either absolving or condemning Emily, William Faulkner approaches her story neutrally. This neutrality suggests that Emily is too complex a character to cast a definitive judgement against. On an allegorical level, Emily’s complexity suggests the complexity of the Old South. Though Emily’s death comes as a relief to the town, it is also a tragedy. Similarly, though cultural progress demands that the South modernize, the loss of the old traditions is inevitably tinged with sadness.

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