A Rose for Emily Questions and Answers

William Faulkner

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting A Rose for Emily questions.

When was "A Rose for Emily" published?

William Faulkner's (1897-1962) short story "A Rose for Emily" was originally published in the April 30, 1930 edition of The Forum, a widely-read American magazine founded in 1885. It was the first story Faulkner published in a national magazine, and is set in Yoknapatawpha County, the fictional county featured in many of Faulkner's other novels and stories.

What is the order of events in "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner?

One of the things that makes William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” intriguing and memorable is its enigmatic plot. Events are not related in linear order; rather, the story travels back and forth in time. The reader is yanked in and out of spaces and across years, making Emily’s crime hard to immediately discern.

While the plot can be a fun puzzle, it can also be frustratingly difficult to follow at times. Here is a list of what occurs in the story in chronological order:

  1. Emily’s father dies
  2. Colonel Sartoris pays Emily’s taxes
  3. Colonel Sartoris dies
  4. Homer comes to town
  5. Emily purchases arsenic
  6. Homer goes missing
  7. A smell emerges and becomes stronger
  8. Aldermen try to collect taxes from Emily
  9. Emily dies and Homer's body is discovered

What are the conflicts in "A Rose for Emily"?

All literature involves conflict of some kind. Without conflict, there is not much of a story. There are four types of conflict. Most works will involve more than one. In “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner employs all four. The types of conflict are:

  1. Man* v. Man
  2. Man v. Nature
  3. Man v. Society
  4. Man v. Self.

*Note: “Man” refers to both men and women.

1. Man v. Man

There are two primary man v. man conflicts in the story. 

Emily v. Her Father

Emily’s father deliberately keep his daughter single by chasing away all her suitors:

None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door. So when she got to be thirty and was still single, we were not pleased exactly, but vindicated; even with insanity in the family she wouldn't have turned down all of her chances if they had really materialized (II.25).

Emily v. Homer

There are both class and social conflicts between Emily and Homer. Emily is of Southern aristocracy, while Homer is a day laborer. Emily is desperate for marriage, while Homer is not ready to settle down.

So the next day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would be the best thing. When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, “She will marry him.” Then we said, “She will persuade him yet,” because Homer himself had remarked—he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Club—that he was not a marrying man (IV.43).

2. Man v. Society

When an individual’s values and needs conflict with society’s values and needs, conflict results. There are three types of “man v. society” conflicts in “A Rose for Emily.”

Emily v. Aldermen

When Emily’s father was alive, he paid the property taxes on their home; he arranged for his friend, Colonel Sartoris, to continue paying the taxes after his passing on behalf of his daughter. After the colonel’s death, the younger generation was no longer interested in maintaining their “hereditary obligation.” For her part, Emily feels no sense of duty to pay the taxes herself.

When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen, this arrangement created some little dissatisfaction. On the first of the year they mailed her a tax notice. February came, and there was no reply. They wrote her a formal letter, asking her to call at the sheriff's office at her convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her himself, offering to call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice was also enclosed, without comment (I.4).

Emily vs. Public Acceptability

There are two areas of Emily’s private life encroaching on the public, and the public finds her choices unacceptable.

The first is her outings with Homer. The town views her suitor as beneath her:

At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the ladies all said, “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.” But there were still others, older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige—without calling it noblesse oblige. They just said, “Poor Emily. Her kinsfolk should come to her.” She had some kin in Alabama; but years ago her father had fallen out with them over the estate of old lady Wyatt, the crazy woman, and there was no communication between the two families. They had not even been represented at the funeral (III.31).

The second is the smell that begins wafting from her home and becomes increasingly intolerable:

The next day he received two more complaints, one from a man who came in diffident deprecation. “We really must do something about it, Judge. I'd be the last one in the world to bother Miss Emily, but we’ve got to do something.” That night the Board of Aldermen met--three graybeards and one younger man, a member of the rising generation.
“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her word to have her place cleaned up. Give her a certain time to do it in, and if she don’t . . .” 
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”  
So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily's lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder. They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings (II.21-24).

3. Man v. Nature 

At the turn of the twentieth century, an unmarried woman past the age of thirty had very few chances of ever finding a husband. Aging is not helping Emily's prospects, and whatever beauty she may have had is fading fast. Here is a description of her appearance when the aldermen pay her a visit: 

They rose when she entered—a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand (I.6).

4. Man v. Himself 

For Emily, the entire story is one large internal conflict. She has suitors and seems interested, but her father chases them away. She must experience some conflict when she dates Homer, a man well beneath her social station. The most obvious conflict she has is whether to let the man with whom she has fallen in love go or keep him with her. Forever.

The man himself lay in the bed.
For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.
Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.

Where is there symbolism in "A Rose for Emily"?

Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses a concrete object to represent an abstract idea. While not all writers use symbolism, Faulkner has chosen to employ symbolism in at least seven different ways in “A Rose for Emily.”

1. Dust: Dust can be symbolic of many things: neglect, aging, things that are overlooked, and/ or the biblical concept of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There are seven different mentions of dust throughout the story. Here is an example of those instances:

It smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was furnished in heavy, leather-covered furniture. When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray. On a tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait of Miss Emily’s father (I.5). 

2. Rat/ Snake: Both of these animals are associated with conniving and dishonesty. The druggist offers Emily “rat” poison.

“I want some poison,” she said to the druggist. She was over thirty then, still a slight woman, though thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples and about the eye-sockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face ought to look. “I want some poison,” she said.
"Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I'd recom—” (III.33-34)

Later, the townspeople begin looking for the source of the terrible smell emanating from Emily’s home:

It's probably just a snake or a rat that nigger of hers killed in the yard. I'll speak to him about it (II.20).

3. Iron: this metal is associated with being cold and inflexible. Emily’s hair is described as “iron gray.”

When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man (IV.48).

4. Black: The color black is associated with death and funerals, but it also has a more abstract meaning of being psychologically “dead.”

Emily is described as “a small, fat woman in black” and she has “cold, haughty black eyes” (I.6, III.34).

5. Closed houses or rooms: There is a psychological component to doors shutting and rooms being sealed off. Here are two examples of “closing” in the story:

The Negro man went in and out with the market basket, but the front door remained closed (IV.47).
From that time on her front door remained closed (IV.49).

6. Barron: Homer’s last name is “Barron.” If the vowel is changed to an “e,” his name can take on a new meaning. If something is “barren,” it cannot bear fruit. Therefore, the relationship was doomed before it began. His first name may also be a clue as to his nature; perhaps this Homer has something in common with the ancient Greek master in that they both spin stories.

7. Rose: There is no “rose” in “A Rose for Emily.” Using this symbolic flower in the title may conjure up some abstract meanings, including love but also, due to its strong scent, may hint at death. The tradition of bringing flowers to a funeral comes from the need to cover the smell of decay.

What is Faulkner's primary metaphor in "A Rose for Emily"?

A metaphor is a literary device in which a writer compares two things that seem to have nothing in common but actually do have some similarities. The metaphor Faulkner uses most often compares Emily to a “fallen monument.”

In "A Rose for Emily," the pre-Civil War aristocracy is fading. The old homes are falling into decay and repairs are being neglected. The old ways are being ignored and replaced with new values.

Likewise, Emily is aging. Her slight beauty is gone. No one in the new generation is interested in maintaining the “hereditary obligation with which they have been bestowed" to pay Emily's taxes on her behalf. While Faulkner only uses the words “fallen monument” once, the entire story revolves around this essential metaphor:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.
It was 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, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores. . .
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor—he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron—remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily's father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it.
When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen, this arrangement created some little dissatisfaction.

How does the idea of the "grotesque" impact the story?

In meeting Faulkner’s Emily Grierson of Jefferson, Mississippi, one is reminded of several inhabitants of another fictional town—Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the setting of his book by the same name. In Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson introduces the word “grotesque” to characterize the individuals in the town whose lives have been determined by cruel chance or circumstance, turning them into obsessed, twisted versions of humanity. In a literary essay, “Sherwood Anderson’s Idea of the Grotesque,” critic David D. Anderson alludes to the grotesques of Winesburg as “spiritual cripples, deformed by their inability to distinguish between appearance and reality.” They are “turned in upon themselves, isolated, and alone." The grotesques in Winesburg, Ohio are human beings, the essay points out, who are “worthy of love, of compassion, and of understanding.”

Each of these descriptors captures the character of Emily Grierson, and just as Sherwood Anderson felt compassion for his grotesques, Faulkner evinces sympathy for Miss Emily, robbed of her life by her heritage as a Grierson. Through no fault of her own and despite her early efforts to live a normal life, Emily is isolated in Jefferson. An overbearing father runs off her suitors, consigning her to spinsterhood, and the town, developed as a character in Faulkner’s story, does not relate to her as a fellow human being. Miss Emily’s family name and social status as one of the “high and mighty Griersons” separate her from the ebb and flow of daily life in Jefferson. When her father dies, she clings to his presence in the Grierson family home until she is forced to give up his body, foreshadowing her subsequent obsession with Homer Baron’s corpse. Emily’s having pursued a scandalous romantic relationship with the socially unacceptable Yankee illustrates a desperate need to end her isolation and loneliness, as does her eventual murder of him and continuing possession of his body.

In murdering Homer and sleeping for years beside his decaying corpse, Miss Emily crosses the line between being a grotesque and being a madwoman, but her behavior originates in circumstances that thwart her development as a healthy, fulfilled individual. Like Anderson’s grotesques, Miss Emily struggles to live within the confines of her sad life. She is a twisted spirit whose suffering serves as a subtle subtext in Faulkner’s story.

How is this story a Southern gothic tale?

“A Rose for Emily” is an iconic example of Southern Gothic literature, a subgenre of Gothic literature that developed in twentieth-century American fiction. Like Gothic literature in general, Faulkner’s story contains elements of mystery and horror, and the narrative is permeated with other Gothic elements, as well—ruin, decay, darkness, insanity, and hereditary curses. Gothic stock characters—the tyrant, the villain, and the madwoman—are found among the people in Jefferson, the small Mississippi town that serves as the setting. Faulkner weaves these Gothic elements seamlessly into an examination of Southern society and the post-Civil War culture of the South, the distinguishing characteristic of Southern Gothic fiction. 

Through Faulkner’s narrator, who knows personally the history of Jefferson and the events of Emily Grierson’s life and death, the town itself becomes a character in the story, a collection of citizens imprisoned by Southern heritage, Southern social dynamics, and a singular point of view. Through the town’s obsession with Emily Grierson and her behavior, the weight of the past is revealed. The citizens of Jefferson live the shadow of the past, their attitudes and actions controlled by what once was but is no more, except in memory. The nineteenth-century Grierson house, once grand, now stands in “stubborn and coquettish decay” among cotton wagons, garages, and gasoline pumps, “an eyesore among eyesores”; the names of Jefferson’s august families are found in the town’s cemetery, “among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.” The narrator’s description of Jefferson, its history, and its citizens establishes the culture and the atmosphere that make the events in the story and its macabre conclusion plausible.

The tyrant in Faulkner’s Southern Gothic is, of course, Emily’s selfish, domineering father, who destroys any possibility that she could marry and leave him. Homer Baron seems to be the villain of the piece, an itinerant Yankee who publicly pursues a romantic relationship with Miss Emily in a shocking disregard for her reputation and who apparently has no intentions of marrying her—or not. Homer’s intentions are never clarified, but Emily’s murdering him suggests that marriage was not a part of Homer's plans for the future. In the shocking conclusion of the story, Miss Emily is revealed as a woman driven mad, perhaps by the circumstances of her life or perhaps by inheriting the insanity that curses the Griersons. In any event, Emily Grierson is insane, the mystery of her behavior and the depth of her madness evident in the horror that lies behind the locked bedroom door in her house.

As the story unfolds, the mystery unfolds slowly, as Faulkner moves the reader backward and forward in time. In retrospect, clues throughout the story, when pieced together in chronological order, suggest Homer Baron’s fate, but the ultimate manifestation of Miss Emily’s insanity, revealed in the story’s final sentence, is not anticipated. Throughout the narrative Faulkner sustains the atmosphere of a Gothic mystery in scenes etched in darkness. Visitors to the Grierson house are admitted to “a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow.” One evening at dusk, Homer is observed entering Miss Emily’s house, never to be seen again. Men slink about in the shadows in Miss Emily’s yard late one night, spreading lime to eradicate a terrible smell, and a light suddenly appears in a solitary darkened window, illuminating her silent, motionless form. The mysterious room in the “region above stairs that no one had seen in forty years” is permeated with dust, “[a] thin acrid pall as of the tomb.” The story is dark, both literally and figuratively.

Beginning with Miss Emily’s funeral and ending with Homer Baron’s decayed corpse in her bed, “A Rose for Emily” develops the primary motif found in many Gothic tales: death. In Faulkner’s hands, the motif is inextricably related to the past that continued to inform the culture of the South as he knew it. “The past,” he once wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” The truth of his perception is evident throughout the story, making “A Rose for Emily” a classic Southern Gothic tale. 

Could the town be the antagonist of the story?

The town of Jefferson, which is personified in the form of the narrator, becomes one of the most important and active "characters" in the story: the town actively interferes in Miss Emily's life in such a way that it becomes, at times, the antagonist.

The town struggles to force Emily to pay her taxes, which Emily believes were permanently remitted by Colonel Sartoris. With her stubbornness, Emily "vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers before about the smell." In an earlier episode, when neighbors detect a foul smell coming from Emily's property, the town--this time, the older, pre-democratic town--takes care of the smell by secretly spreading lime around Emily's house. This conflict is solved silently because the town still respects the aristocratic social stratum that Emily represents. In yet another episode of conflict, however, the town acts overtly against Emily.

When it appears that Emily and Homer Barron are courting, the town is at first happy for her but then becomes outraged because people believe Emily's association with a working man and, worse, a Yankee, is a violation of her aristocratic obligations, her noblesse oblige. The town brings in the minister to convince her to give up Homer, and he fails so miserably that he can never talk about what happened. The town then calls in her cousins from Alabama, the town's last hope of influencing Emily, who also fail to change her mind. The town is glad the cousins failed because, as the narrator tells us, the cousins "were even more Grierson than Miss Emily had been." The town, then, is not happy about the fact that Miss Emily may still be able to find some happiness. Rather, the town is pleased with the result because it dislikes the cousins more than it dislikes Miss Emily's violation of her obligations as the last vestige of southern aristocracy. The town, as antagonist, attempts to make Emily into society's version of the southern aristocratic lady who behaves in accord with the town's collective idea of appropriate behavior.

In every episode in which the town and Emily interact, the town sets itself up as the arbiter of Emily's behavior and becomes not just an observer or judge of Emily's behavior but an active antagonist whose goal is to conform Emily's behavior to its view. In a sense, the town and Emily have been locked for decades in a power struggle over the rights of the many against the rights of the one. If we were to keep score, though, the rights of the one have prevailed.