In “A Rose For Emily,” William Faulkner imitates associative Southern storytelling style as an unnamed first-person narrator speaks for the entire town of Jefferson, relating what all the townspeople know or believe. Unlike typical Faulkner stories that employ multiple individual narrators, “A Rose for Emily” achieves the effect of multiple narrators by combining them into a single narrative voice, an unnamed (and not always consistent) narrator. First-person plural pronouns emphasize that this narrator represents the consciousness of the town. This style is similar to that used in Greek tragedy, wherein chorus and chorus leader provide the reader/audience with information, interpret the characters’ actions, and express public opinion; thus, the narrator in “A Rose for Emily,” whose age and gender are never identified, can be designated a choric character.
The narrative sequence in this story is not chronological; the reader learns Miss Emily’s history in much the same way a newcomer to Jefferson might hear about her history. As the story opens, Miss Emily apparently has just died, and the townspeople are discussing her strange and sad life. Faulkner relates various incidents in her life, but these incidents are related thematically, not chronologically. Faulkner builds suspense by imitating the southern storyteller’s style of describing people and events through situation-triggered memories; hence, the plot is associative rather than chronological.
The story’s primary theme—the destructive effects of time, most notably change and decay—is familiar to readers of Faulkner. Change is Miss Emily’s enemy, so she refuses to acknowledge it, whether that change is the death of her father, the arrival of tax bills, the decay of her house, or even the beginning of residential mail delivery. Furthermore, her attitude toward the death of her father (and later the death of Colonel Sartoris) foreshadows her attitude toward the death of Homer Barron. Because Miss Emily is associated with the passage of time (her ticking watch is concealed in her bosom—heard but never seen), one might consider her to be living outside the normal limitations of time or, perhaps, simply not existing. Thus, she appears to combine life and death in her own person.
A minor theme in the story is the social structure of the early twentieth century American South, as it is being eroded by the industrialized New South. To avoid embarrassing Miss Emily, Colonel Sartoris devises a convoluted explanation of Jefferson’s pre-Civil War debt to the Griersons, but this same man, also, had authored an edict that any African American woman appearing on Jefferson’s streets without an apron could be beaten. Likewise, to avoid appearing to give Miss Emily charity, the families of Jefferson send their young daughters to Miss Emily’s house for china-painting lessons. Most significant, though, is the change in Jefferson’s attitude toward the relationship between Miss Emily (a descendant of Southern gentility) and Homer (a working man, and a Northerner). Initially, the townspeople are horrified by their coupling, but gradually they come to accept Homer as a good choice for Miss Emily, perhaps as a matter of necessity.
Like most Faulkner stories, “A Rose for Emily” is highly symbolic. Miss Emily is described as a fallen monument to the chivalric American South. Reenforcing the themes of change and decay, her house, once an elegant mansion, has become a decaying eyesore in the middle of a neighborhood that has changed from residential to industrial. Another prominent symbol is the crayon portrait of Miss Emily’s father, associated with the oppressive hold of the past on the present. Although less elegant than an oil portrait, the crayon portrait is important to Miss Emily, and it is seen by the rare visitor who enters her house.
The pseudo-chivalry of the townspeople comes out in several symbolic actions, such as when parents send their daughters to Miss Emily for china-painting lessons, when civic leaders spread lime around her yard to deal with the foul odor emanating from her house, and when Colonel Sartoris decrees that she will never have to pay local taxes. In contrast, Homer’s carriage—considered gaudy by the townspeople—symbolizes the difference between the town’s old-fashioned attitudes (reflective of the Old South) and Homer’s more modern one (reflective of the emerging New South).
In this gothic story, though, perhaps the most vivid symbols are the locked room in Miss Emily’s house and the long iron-gray hair found on a pillow inside. The room symbolizes the secrecy and mystery associated with Miss Emily’s house and her relationship with Homer. The location of the hair as well as its color and length suggest a continuing interaction between Miss Emily and the corpse of Homer, again indicating her refusal to acknowledge the finality of death.
In Faulkner’s youth, a popular literary genre was the reconciliation story, in which a Southern lady and a Northern man fall in love, thus helping to resolve the sectional conflict remaining after the Civil War. Faulkner’s story can be read as a reaction against this sentimentality. Faulkner never describes the actual relationship between Miss Emily and Homer; thus, readers must decide whether “A Rose for Emily” is a gothic psychological tale or a tragic story of unrequited love.
In various stories and novels, Faulkner focuses on both individuals and their cultural milieu, and he repeatedly uses Jefferson as a microcosm for the early twentieth century South. In “A Rose for Emily,” Jefferson also is a microcosm for the United States after World War I and its transition from an agrarian society to the beginnings of an urban-industrial society. The cotton gin near Miss Emily’s house bridges this transition, as it combines the cotton culture of the antebellum South with the emerging industrialism of the increasingly urban New South. The tension arising from the collision of these cultures has given rise to a creative outburst of which Faulkner and “A Rose for Emily” are significant parts.