(Short Story Criticism)

“A Rose for Emily” William Faulkner

The following entry presents criticism of Faulkner's short story “A Rose for Emily”(1931). See also "The Bear" Criticism.

“A Rose for Emily” is one of Faulkner's most anthologized stories. Drawing on the tradition of Gothic literature in America, particularly Southern Gothic, the story uses grotesque imagery and first-person-plural narration to explore a culture unable to cope with its own death and decay.

Plot and Major Characters

“A Rose for Emily” begins with the announcement of the death of Miss Emily Grierson, an alienated spinster living in the South in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The narrator, who speaks in the “we” voice and appears to represent the people of the town, recounts the story of Emily's life as a lonely and impoverished woman left penniless by her father, who drove away suitors from his overprotected daughter. Emily was left when her father died with a large, dilapidated house, into which the townspeople have never been invited, and there is an almost lurid interest among them when they are finally able to enter the house upon Emily's death. At that point they discover the truth about the extent of Emily's problems: she has kept the body of her lover, a Northerner named Homer Barron, locked in a bedroom since she killed him years before, and she has continued to sleep with him.

Major Themes

A variety of themes have been attributed to “A Rose for Emily.” Many critics have focused on Emily's attempts to stop time by confusing past and present and refusing to accept change; similarly, the muddled chronology of events in the story has been a subject of great debate. Both issues have been interpreted as symbolic of the American South's inability to move forward along with the industrialized North after the Civil War. Another analysis finds Emily to be a tragic figure because of her staunch individualism and the probing and judgmental speculations of the townspeople. Still other critics trace the story's significance to Gothic and horror literature going back to Edgar Allan Poe.

Critical Reception

Although “A Rose for Emily” is one of Faulkner's best-known stories, it has not generally been considered his greatest achievement in short fiction. In fact, some critics initially accused Faulkner of writing a shallow and exploitative horror story. More recently, however, some critics have questioned the traditionally accepted interpretations of the story, focusing in particular on the role of the unnamed narrator in the story and on the metaphoric rape of Emily through the posthumous invasion of her house.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

These Thirteen 1930

Salmagundi 1932

Doctor Martino, and Other Stories 1934

The Unvanquished 1938

The Wild Palms 1939

Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories 1942

Knight's Gambit 1949

Collected Stories of William Faulkner 1950

Big Woods 1955

New Orleans Sketches 1958

Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner 1979

The Marble Faun (poetry) 1924

Soldiers' Pay (novel) 1926

Mosquitoes (novel) 1927

Sartoris [Flags in the Dust] (novel) 1929

The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929

As I Lay Dying (novel) 1930

Sanctuary (novel) 1931

Light in August (novel) 1932

A Green Bough (poetry) 1933

Pylon (novel) 1935

Absalom, Absalom! (novel) 1936

The Hamlet (novel) 1940

Intruder in the Dust (novel) 1948

Requiem for a Nun (drama) 1951

A Fable (novel) 1954

The Town (novel) 1957

The Mansion (novel) 1959

The Reivers (novel) 1962

Edward Stone (essay date 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Usher, Poquelin, and Miss Emily: The Progress of Southern Gothic,” in The Georgia Review, Vol. 14, Winter, 1960, pp. 433–43.

[In the following essay, Stone considers “A Rose for Emily” in the tradition of Southern Gothic fiction.]

Some years ago Professors Brooks and Warren offered the suggestion in Understanding Fiction that we consider William Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily” as akin to Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” on the grounds that in both “we have a decaying mansion in which the protagonist, shut away from the world, grows into something monstrous. …” But to do so, as these critics more or less admit, is to point up as many differences as similarities. Granted that each is “a story of horror”: the gloomy corridors of Gothicism are too numerous for such a suggestion to prove more than initially instructive. Without losing sight of the possibilities it may offer, let us extend it and consider Faulkner's spirit-chilling little classic along the additional lines proposed more recently by Professor Randall Stewart—those of Faulkner's relationship to earlier characteristically Southern writers. In particular, let us compare “A Rose for Emily” with George Washington Cable's “Jean-ah Poquelin,” to which it is more closely akin, not only in horror, but in that far more important quality defined by Professor Stewart as “a common view of the human condition.” Although the situations of these two stories are curiously similar, they are productive of dissimilar results. In comparing them, along with Poe's, accordingly, we can arrive at some conclusion about the direction that Gothic fiction has taken during the past century in its concept of the human personality.

Our first finding is that, unlike “Usher,” Cable's and Faulkner's are stories not only of horror, but everywhere of time and place. Cable sets this down in his first sentence and Faulkner devotes his entire long second paragraph to it. Our imaginations are thus fixed at once in both stories on an exact setting. Professor Stewart has pointed out that “a rampant industrialism was transforming the traditional social structure” of the South in the 1920's; similarly, in the years immediately following 1803, the somnolent French province of Louisiana was asked to adapt itself to the American ways of progress. “In the first decade of the present century,” Cable begins, with seeming casualness; yet upon reflection this detail becomes a most precise one: merely a decade or two later, during the flood of American immigration into New Orleans, Poquelin's interview with the Governor would have been pathetic, rather than dramatic; and even a decade earlier, there would have been no need for it (the purchase of Louisiana in 1803 being ultimately responsible for Poquelin's desperate situation). Similarly, the coming of garages and gasoline pumps mentioned in the beginning of Faulkner's story places us squarely in the Jefferson of the first decades of the 1900's—a seemingly casual fact that becomes indispensable: it was this change wrought on American life by technology that resulted in the paving of small town sidewalks and streets, which in turn brought the Yankee suitor to Jefferson. And thereby hangs Faulkner's tale. Into both settings of change the author introduces a hero who, fortifying himself in an anachronistic, essentially horrible, and yet majestic stronghold, ignores or defies the insistent encroachments of time and progress. It is the different and yet similar ways in which Poquelin and Miss Emily oppose these encroachments that their creators show their kinship and, after all, their basic difference.

Each curtain goes up on an isolated fortress from bygone days. Jean-ah's is seen as “an old colonial plantation-house” in New Orleans “half in ruin,” “aloof from civilization,” standing at considerable remove from the smaller, newer houses on the bank of the Mississippi. It is “grim, solid, and spiritless,” “its massive build” a reminder of an earlier, more hazardous period of American history. With its “dark” and “weather-beaten” roof and sides, it stands above a marsh in whose center grow two dead cypresses, “clotted with roosting vultures.” The Grierson home of Faulkner's story is similarly detached, superseded, and forbidding. It is a “big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies.” It too stands alone on the street as a human dwelling, “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores.”

In the first of these half-ruined homes lives a half-ruined old creole grandee, “once an opulent indigo planter, … now a hermit, alike shunned by and shunning all who had ever known him,” the last of a prominent Louisiana line. His only relative, a much younger half-brother named Jacques, has not been seen for seven years, two years after Poquelin and he left for the Guinea coast on a slave-capturing expedition and Jean Marie returned alone. (“He must have arrived at his house by night. No one saw him come. No one saw ‘his little brother’; rumor whispered that he, too, had returned, but he had never been seen again.”) This livelihood Poquelin had descended to after his indigo fields had had to be abandoned, and, after that, smuggling. From the first, there is suspicion of foul play, and with the passing of time “the name of Jean Marie Poquelin became a symbol of witchery, devilish crime, and hideous nursery fictions.” His society is avoided, and boys playing in the neighborhood jibe at the old man, who retaliates imperiously with violent but unheeded (and outdated) “French imprecation and invective.” All avoid the house after dark. So far as anyone knows, Poquelin lives only with an old African housekeeper, a mute.

Emily Grierson is a similarly sinister relic. The last of a proud line, she lives in her outmoded stronghold, alone but peremptory in her demand for “recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson.” Since her father's death she has lived all alone in the big house except for a brief period in her thirties when she went off with a Yankee construction foreman named Homer Barron, presumably to be married. Her lover has since disappeared. (“[W]ithin three days Homer Barron was back in town. A neighbor saw the Negro man admit him at the kitchen door at dusk one evening. And that was the last we saw of Homer Barron.”) For a period of six or seven years, at the age of forty, Miss Emily resorts to teaching china-painting as a source of income. Then, as years pass and the fashion with it, her pupils disappear and her front door “closed upon the last one and remained closed for good.” She lives on into old age in the house “filled with dust and shadows,” a place associated in her townsmen's eyes with an unspoken and mysterious horror. The only other inmate, we read, is an old Negro house servant, who does not utter a word during the course of the story.

Progress, in the form of municipal expansion, becomes old Poquelin's adversary. Surveyors give signs of running a new street close to his house and of draining the morass beside it. This is, we note, a Poquelin reverse that the townspeople relish; they too oppose new streets, and will welcome engineering difficulties, but their fearful scorn for Poquelin causes them to look upon his forcible return to the community with pleasure. Poquelin goes directly to the Governor, pleads with him in broken English (after the Governor understandably declines to speak in the French tongue). He pleads on the old, man-to-man basis of the past when informality and the importance of the Poquelin name would have made this kind of interview expectable; does not take kindly to the Governor's suggestion that he deal with the city authorities; and even proposes that the Governor personally intercede with the President on his behalf. To the Governor's innocent query about the stories associated with his house, Poquelin haughtily refuses to answer, and then departs. The city official to whom the Governor has referred him also knows no French and deals with Poquelin through an interpreter. Unsuccessful here too, Poquelin swears abusively and leaves. The new street is cut through, and houses go up near Poquelin's, but still the ugly old ruin remains, to the growing exasperation of the townspeople. Now the newer arrivals plot to persuade, then coerce, the old man to build a new home. Their efforts are rebuffed firmly by Poquelin, who refuses to permit conversation about it with the president of a local Board recently organized. The townspeople renew their pressure on Poquelin and even threaten mob action (a charivari, they say); but on the fateful night they are thwarted, both by the efforts of one of their group (who, on a secret visit to the house, becomes suspicious of a revolting odor about the place, among other things) and by the death of Poquelin himself. His body is brought out of the house by the old African mute, followed by the long-missing Jacques, a leper whose existence he has successfully concealed from all for seven years. Hoisting the coffin on his shoulders, the Negro starts out toward leper soil, Jacques with him. (“[T]hey stepped into the jungle, disappeared, and were never seen again.”)

Equally impervious to community pressure, Miss Emily is also menaced in the shabby majesty of her seclusion by the passing of time and by progress. She refuses for days to let the neighbors in when her father dies, and two years later scandalizes them by consorting openly with the crude Yankee, Homer Barron. The neighbors try to thwart the relationship out of mixed feelings, both of resentment at Emily's haughtiness (she is insufferably Grierson, even when fallen on evil days) and of actual sympathy with her (after all, she is one of them, as Homer is not, and the relatives whom they send for turn out to be “even more Grierson” than Emily). She defies society by refusing to identify to the druggist the purposes for which she is buying the arsenic. Shortly afterwards, when Homer apparently deserts her on the eve of their presumed wedding, and an offensive smell develops in her house, there is angry complaining to authority. But the old major intercedes in Emily's behalf, and the only community action that results is the sprinkling of lime around her house (secretly, almost fearfully, at night). She refuses to accept free postal delivery. Finally, thirty years later, when her continued refusals to pay her taxes cause the major himself to write a kind letter to her proposing payment, he “received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in fading ink” airily rebuffing his proposal. This imperiousness finally causes a deputation of townspeople (mostly younger) to call on her in her dusty, sinister-smelling domain. She turns them away haughtily, claiming an immunity to taxes based on a life-long remission by a mayor long since dead, to whom she refers the deputation. When death finally comes to the old woman herself, the ancient Negro admits the first visitors to the house, then disappears (“He walked right through the house and out the back...

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Ruth Sullivan (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Narrator in ‘A Rose for Emily,’” in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 1, No. 3, September, 1971, pp. 159–78.

[In the following essay, Sullivan argues that the narrator of “A Rose for Emily” is more important to the meaning of the story than most critics believe.]


Faulkner's well-read “A Rose for Emily” has been variously interpreted as a mere horror story about necrophilia and madness, as a story about the Old South contending with the New Order of the Post-Civil War era, as a tragic tale of a woman's noble but doomed effort to resist the forces of time, change, and death, and as a tale of the catastrophe...

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Terry Heller (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Telltale Hair: A Critical Study of William Faulkner's ‘A Rose for Emily,’” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1972, pp. 301–18.

[In the following essay, Heller provides a critical overview of “A Rose for Emily.”]

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—
Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing
At her low Gate—
Unmoved—an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat—
I've known her—from an ample nation—
Choose One—
Then—close the valves of her attention—
Like Stone—

—Emily Dickinson

During the more than four decades since the...

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Dennis W. Allen (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Horror and Perverse Delight: Faulkner's ‘A Rose for Emily,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 685–97.

[In the following essay, Allen contends that rather than simply horrifying the reader, the grotesque elements in “A Rose for Emily” are designed to fascinate and delight.]

Enigmatic and inescapable, Emily Grierson dominates William Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily,” and her protean, mysterious nature is nowhere more apparent than in her physical appearance. If her psychology is difficult to fathom, her body is equally rich in ambiguity. Her first direct appearance in the narrative, a flashback to her meeting with the...

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John L. Skinner (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Rose for Emily’: Against Interpretation,” in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 42–51.

[In the following essay, Skinner contends that much critical analysis of “A Rose for Emily” is “ingenious, but misguided.”]

“A Rose for Emily,” the story of a woman who has killed her lover and has lain for years beside his decaying corpse, is essentially trivial in its horror because it has no implications, because it is pure event without implication: …1

At a distance of more than fifty years, Lionel Trilling's comments seem almost dismissive, but...

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John F. Birk (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tryst Beyond Time: Faulkner's Emily and Keats,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 203–13.

[In the following essay, Birk finds similarities between “A Rose for Emily” and John Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”]

Over the last two decades, critics have shown Keats's influence on the work of William Faulkner. In 1968 Cleanth Brooks pointed out that Faulkner commenced his career in letters by considering himself a poet and later even went so far as to label himself a “failed poet.” According to Brooks, Faulkner's poetry bears the influence of Keats, Verlaine, and T. S. Eliot (5–6). In 1972 J. F. Kobler showed...

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Gene M. Moore (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Of Time and Its Mathematical Progression: Problems of Chronology in Faulkner's ‘A Rose for Emily,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, 1992, pp. 195–204.

[In the following essay, Moore proposes a chronology of events in “A Rose for Emily.”]

Over the past 30 years, no fewer than eight different chronologies have been proposed to account for the events occurring in William Faulkner's celebrated short story “A Rose for Emily.”1 These chronologies cover a span of 14 years (Miss Emily was born between 1850 and 1864, and died between 1924 and 1938), and they make use of many different kinds of evidence: not only internal...

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Isaac Rodman (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Irony and Isolation: Narrative Distance in Faulkner's ‘A Rose for Emily,’” in The Faulkner Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 3–12.

[In the following essay, Rodman argues that, rather than representing the community, the narrator of “A Rose for Emily” is just as isolated and alienated as Emily.]

The critical consensus remains that the narrator of “A Rose for Emily” speaks for his community.1 The narrator has been seen as “community representative” (Allen 187); “[t]he narrating character in ‘A Rose for Emily’ plays no active role, but his opinions of Emily Grierson directly reflect his community's attitude”...

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Renée R. Curry (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gender and Authorial Limitation in Faulkner's ‘A Rose for Emily,’” in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2, 1994, pp. 391–402.

[In the following essay, Curry uses Faulkner's personal thoughts on patriarchal society and feminism to analyze “A Rose for Emily.”]

Faulkner's extensive authorial power in “A Rose for Emily” looms evident in the design of a large Southern gothic house, in the outline of three complex generations of a Southern community, and in the development of a plot that dutifully weaves and unweaves a mystery through a limited omniscient point of view. However, Faulkner also reveals and revels in an authorial lack of knowledge...

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Jean O'Bryan-Knight (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “From Spinster to Eunuch: William Faulkner's ‘A Rose for Emily’ and Mario Vargas ‘Llosa's Los cachorros,’” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1997, pp. 328–47.

[In the following essay, O'Bryan-Knight finds similarities between Emily and Cuéllar in Mario Vargas Llosa's Los cachorros.]

At first glance the protagonists of William Faulkner's short story “A Rose for Emily” and Mario Vargas Llosa's novella Los cachorros appear to be exact opposites. The former is a mature woman from the semi-rural town of Jefferson, Mississippi, while the latter is a young man from a semi-urban environment, the Miraflores district of Lima. A...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bourdieu, Pierre. “A Reflecting Story.” In Rediscovering History: Culture, Politics, and the Psyche, pp. 370–77. Edited by Michael S. Roth. Stanford University Press, 1994.

Discusses temporality in “A Rose for Emily.”

Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. “A Rose for Emily.” In Understanding Fiction, pp. 350–54. Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1959.

Interprets “A Rose for Emily” as a tragic struggle between an individual and the society that attempts to restrict her.

Hagopian, John V., W. Gordon Cunliffe, and Martin Dolch. “A Rose for Emily.” In A Rose for...

(The entire section is 189 words.)