At a Glance

  • "A Rose for Emily" is narrated in the first-person plural from the perspective of the town. It utilizes the plural "we," indicating that the narrator is a collective rather than an individual.

  • Faulkner uses foreshadowing to prepare the reader for the big reveal at the end of the story. Some examples of foreshadowing include Emily buying the arsenic and Emily refusing to acknowledge anyone's death.

  • There are many motifs in "A Rose for Emily," including the repeated references to Emily's funeral, the cemetery, the law, taxes, corpses, doors, and hair.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The extraordinary degree to which the young Faulkner managed to compress into this, his first published story, many of the elements that came to be characteristic of his fiction is the effect of his unusual use of the first-person point of view and his control of the motifs that flow from it.

By confining himself to the pronoun “we,” the narrator gives the reader the impression that the whole town is bearing witness to the behavior of a heroine, about whom they have ambivalent attitudes, ambiguously expressed. The ambiguity derives in part from the community’s lack of access to facts, stimulating the narrator to draw on his own and the communal imagination to fill out the picture, creating a collage of images. The narration gives the impression of coming out of a communal consciousness, creating the effect of a peculiar omniscience. An entire novel could be developed from the material compressed into this short story.

Is the narrator telling the story in the southern oral tradition or is he or she writing it? To ask basic questions about this unusual collective mode of narration—who, what, where, when, and why—is to stir up many possibilities. The oral mode seems most appropriate, but the style, consisting of such phrases as “diffident deprecation,” suggests the written mode.

A pattern of motifs that interact, contrasting with or paralleling one another, sometimes symbolically, sometimes ironically, flows naturally from the reservoir of communal elements in the narrator’s saturated consciousness as he tells the story: the funeral, the cemetery, the garages, cars, cotton gins, taxes, the law, the market basket and other elements of black existence, the house, its front and back doors, its cellar and upper rooms, the window where Emily sits, the idol image that becomes a fallen monument, images that evoke the Civil War, images of gold, of decay, the color yellow, dust, shadows, corpses and bodies like corpses, the smells, the breaking down of doors, the poison, and the images of hair.

To lend greater impact to the surprise ending and to achieve greater artistic unity and intensity of effect, Faulkner uses other devices: foreshadowing, reversal, and repetition. Most of the motifs, spaced effectively throughout, are repeated at least three times, enabling the reader to respond at any given point to all the elements simultaneously.

Imitators of the surprise-ending device, made famous in modern times by O. Henry, have given that device a bad name by using it mechanically to provoke a superficial thrill. In raising the surprise-ending device to the level of complex art, Faulkner achieves a double impact: “The man himself lay on the bed” is shock enough, justified by what has gone before, but “the long strand of iron-gray hair,” the charged image that ends the story, shocks the reader into a sudden, intuitive reexperiencing and reappraisal of the stream of images, bringing order and meaning to the pattern of motifs.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The South after the Civil War
The Reconstruction after the Civil War had a profound and humbling effect on Southern...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

A Rose for Emily

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Miss Emily met Homer Baron, a foreman with a construction company, when her hometown was first getting paved streets. Her father had already died but, not before driving away her eligible suitors. As rumors circulate about her possible marriage to a Yankee, Homer leaves town abruptly. During his absence, Miss Emily buys rat poison.

When Homer returns, the townspeople see him enter Miss Emily’s house but not leave. Only when she dies do the townspeople discover his corpse on a bed in her house and, next to it, a strand of Miss Emily’s hair.

This Gothic plot makes serious points about woman’s place in society. Throughout the story, the reader is aware that these events are taking place during a time of transition: The town is finally getting sidewalks and mailboxes. More important, values are changing. The older magistrates, for example, looked on Miss Emily paternally and refused to collect taxes from her; the newer ones try, unsuccessfully, to do so.

Caught in these changing times, Miss Emily is trapped in her role as genteel spinster. Without a husband, her life will have no meaning. She tries to give lessons in painting china but cannot find pupils for this out-of-date hobby and finally discontinues them. If Homer is thinking of abandoning her, as his departure implies, one can understand her desire to clutch at any sort of union, even a marriage in death.

The theme is developed through an exceptionally well-crafted story. Told from a third-person plural point of view, it reveals the reactions of the town to Miss Emily. As this “we” narrator shifts allegiance--now criticizing Miss Emily, now sympathizing with her--the reader sees the trap in which she is caught, and the extensive but unobtrusive foreshadowing prepares the reader for the story’s final revelation without detracting from its force.

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Flashback and Foreshadowing
Flashback and foreshadowing are two often used literary devices that utilize time in order...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

  • 1930s: The 1929 collapse of the stock market in the U.S. leads to the Great Depression. Unemployment grows...

(The entire section is 240 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Except for the title, roses are never mentioned in the story. Why do you think Faulkner chose this title? Do you think the rose symbolizes...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

  • “A Rose for Emily” was adapted for film by Chubbuck Cinema Co. It was produced and directed by Lyndon Chubbuck and written by H. Kaye...

(The entire section is 34 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Collected Stories (1950) by William Faulkner is an exhaustive collection of his short...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Birk, John F. ‘‘Tryst Beyond Time: Faulkner’s Emily and Keats.’’ In Studies in Short...

(The entire section is 397 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. This venerable classic of Faulkner criticism is one of the best introductions, treating Faulkner’s characteristic themes and historical and social background and offering detailed readings of the major novels and stories. Includes carefully prepared notes, appendixes, and a character index.

Kirk, Robert W., and Marvin Klotz. “A Rose for Emily.” In Faulkner’s People: A Complete Guide and Index to the Characters in the Fiction of William Faulkner. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. Identifies all the named characters in “A Rose for Emily” and describes the role of each character in terms of the plot.

Porter, Carolyn. William Faulkner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. A concise and informative biographical work that spans Faulkner’s entire life but focuses primarily on his most prolific period, from 1929 to 1940. Offers insightful analysis of his major works.

Skei, Hans H. “A Rose for Emily.” In Reading Faulkner’s Best Short Stories. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Skei addresses critical questions about apparent inconsistencies in the narrator’s voice and the appropriate genre designation for this story.

Towner, Theresa M. The Cambridge Introduction to William Faulkner. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. An accessible resource, aimed at students and general readers. Provides detailed analyses of Faulkner’s works and information about the critical reception for his fiction.

Towner, Theresa M., and James Carothers. “A Rose for Emily.” In Reading Faulkner’s Collected Stories. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Towner and Carothers survey criticism about the story, including criticism of Miss Emily’s personality. Also explains key phrases used in the story.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. William Faulkner: Six Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002. A collection of critical essays interpreting Faulkner’s work from perspectives such as language theory, feminism, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis.