A Rose for Emily Analysis

  • A Rose for Emily” displays many hallmarks of the Southern gothic subgenre of literature, including themes and motifs of isolation and decay.
  • The story is narrated in the first-person plural from the perspective of the town, emphasizing the divide between the townspeople and Emily. It utilizes the plural “we,” indicating that the narrator is a collective rather than an individual.
  • Faulkner tells his story using an intentionally complex chronology, moving backward and forward in time to build suspense as the narrator slowly reveals the details of Emily’s life and her murder of Homer Barron.

Analysis

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Last Updated on March 17, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

"A Rose for Emily '' is a classic and often anthologized short story by William Faulkner. It was written in 1930 but is set many decades earlier, in the aftermath of the Civil War, which looms large over the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Usually classified as an example of Southern Gothic literature, it touches on many themes and motifs characteristic of this subgenre, such as isolation and decay in a number of senses. The titular Emily is isolated in her home, first by her father and then through what appears to be her own choice later in life. However, little do the townspeople or the reader realize that, even as Emily's once-grand house decays on the outside, Homer Barron is decaying inside it, too; and his presence, to a certain extent, prevents Emily from ever allowing outsiders into her domain. Having killed Barron as an attempt to exert control over his decisions, as she was never able to with her father, she paradoxically traps herself in her home with his body, just as much as she succeeds in trapping Barron there.

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Faulkner's choice of narrative voice and perspective in "A Rose For Emily" shapes readers’ understanding of the story from the very first sentence, in which the narrator refers to "our whole town." The effect of this collective point of view is to firmly demarcate the line between the "we" of the community on one hand and Emily alone on the other. The perspective demonstrates that Miss Emily stood out as a peculiar individual against the backdrop of the more homogeneous community of Jefferson. When the narrator refers to the "whole town" and says things like "we believed," he is indicating that the people of Jefferson see themselves as a collective, all parts of a close-knit whole. Miss Emily's secrecy and reclusive nature seem to represent a conscious opting-out of this collective. The townspeople are never quite sure whether she belongs.

Because Emily does not participate in the life of the community, her "belonging" has to be based on other credentials, such as the historical import of her family in Jefferson before the Civil War. While things have changed in Jefferson, Emily, a "monument" to a bygone era, refuses to acknowledge this, stating that she has "no taxes in Jefferson" and suggesting that the sheriff probably "imagine[s]" himself to be in a position of importance, indicating that she disagrees. The townspeople are driven by a desperate "curiosity" about Emily's life, but there is a certain element of fondness, too, which means that no challenge is ever posed to Emily, nor any question asked. When a bad smell is detected coming from Emily's house, it is dealt with by the townspeople secretly, under cover of darkness, and without mentioning it to Emily. Unwittingly, pity has caused them to help further conceal Emily's crime.

An eccentric figure of a sort often found in Southern Gothic literature, Emily's decision to isolate herself is excused partly because her social class demands that she hold herself apart from common society, but mainly because she has had what the townspeople perceive to be a sad life. Her father was a cold, controlling man who refused to let Emily have friends or romantic interests, so she was never able to integrate with the people of Jefferson when she was young. Now she's an old maid, rather plain, and despite her social standing, she is no longer wealthy. A "bloated" old woman, she is described as corpse-like and pale: she is the last remaining element of a world which is now dead. She is a pitiable figure in the community, and the townspeople allow her her peculiarities because they—like the reader—have no idea of the reality of the situation.

Faulkner allows us some degree of understanding on this subject when he describes how, after the death of Emily's father, Emily refused for several days to accept what had happened, insisting that her father was not dead. Only when "law and order" were about to be called did Emily break down and allow her father's body to be disposed of. The narrator observes that "we did not say she was crazy then" and that the community believed that Emily was simply doing what she had to do in order to cling to her sanity. Knowing how cruel Emily's father had been in isolating his daughter from the world, the narrator suggests that she had clung to her father as "the thing which had robbed her." This episode in the story, however, becomes still more macabre once the reader recognizes that it foreshadows the situation that will later occur with Homer Barron. Evidently the narrator, too, is looking back upon this episode with an understanding that, if the true depths of Emily's peculiarity had been understood at this point, Homer Barron's gruesome death and its aftermath might have been avoided.

The deliberately complex and shifting chronology of the story is a tool which both explains the behavior of the townspeople and heightens the intrigue for the reader. The townspeople knew nothing about Emily except what they could gather in the short glimpses they caught of her life. The reader is forced into the same position, intrigued by the mystery of Emily and drawn along by Faulkner's slow revelations, which conjure an incomplete portrait of a strange, lonely woman. Only at the very end of the story do “we,” together, discover that Emily, far from being a harmless old woman deserving of pity, was actually capable not only of murder, but of sleeping alongside a dead body every night for decades.

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