A Rose for Emily Significant Motifs
by William Faulkner

A Rose for Emily book cover
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Significant Motifs

Idols: Repeatedly throughout “A Rose for Emily,” Emily is described as a monument or idol that the townspeople alternately revere, pity, resent, or simply tolerate. This characterizes Emily as a character who is frozen in time, and is not an active participant in either the town or her own life.

  • “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.” 
  • “Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.”
  • “As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.”
  • “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 . . . the two of them framed by the back-flung front door.”
  • “Now and then we would see her in one of the downstairs windows . . . like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which.”

Hair: The story includes specific details about changes to Emily’s hair and the hair of her servant, Tobe. Despite Emily’s refusal—or inability—to acknowledge the passage of time, her changing hair signifies the inevitability of time’s effect.

  • “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.”
  • “When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows—sort of tragic and serene.”
  • “Daily, monthly, yearly we watched the Negro grow grayer and more stooped, going in and out with the market basket.”
  • “She died in one of the downstairs rooms . . . her gray head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight.”
  • “Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward . . . we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.”