Understanding the Importance of Setting: The settings in “A Rose for Emily”—the Grierson home; the town of Jefferson, Mississippi—play critical roles in developing the themes in the text. The decaying house acts as a complex symbol, reflecting Emily Grierson’s own stunted development as well as the social and moral decay associated with the destruction of the ideals that had elevated the pre–Civil War South. The shifting attitudes the townspeople hold toward the Grierson home reflect changes in Southern culture: While her taxes were once remitted out of a sense of chivalry, as generations pass, Emily’s house is just one more property with taxes due.
- For discussion: What was the Grierson home like when it was first built? How has it changed over the course of Emily’s life?
- For discussion: How does the town of Jefferson change over the course of the story? How do the townspeople’s attitudes toward Emily and her home change?
- For discussion: (How) Does the Grierson house affect the mood of the story? (How) Does the narrator’s description of the house develop tone?
- For discussion: What abstract ideas could the Grierson house symbolize? What textual evidence can be cited to support these readings?
Analyzing Indirect Characterization: Emily is a sheltered woman unable to adapt to the modern world. She’s also a woman who kills her beloved with rat poison and, presumably, sleeps beside his corpse. As an upper-class white woman in Mississippi at the turn of the twentieth century—over thirty and unmarried—Emily’s behavior is subject to close scrutiny by her neighbors. However, their understanding of Emily is limited by their strict expectations of her and the chivalrous code that prevents them from interacting with her directly. Thus, the story neither condemns nor excuses Emily’s behavior.
- For discussion: How does Emily’s character develop over the course of the story? What dialogue and behaviors are most important for understanding her character?
- For discussion: Describe Emily’s relationship with her father. How does this relationship affect the course of her life?
- For discussion: What expectations and social norms are Emily confronted with in her life? In what ways does she adhere to those norms, and in what ways does she defy them? Does her defiance alter her circumstances at all? Why or why not?
- For discussion: As the story progresses, are your opinions of Emily similar to or different from the townspeople’s? How so? Why? What is your final impression of Emily?
Describing Narrative Voice: Though “A Rose for Emily” is predominantly a story about Emily Grierson’s life, it’s told from the perspective of the townspeople, who observe Emily from a distance. Alternately critical and sympathetic, and with questionable reliability and motives, the first-personal plural narrator offers a gossipy, curious glimpse into the life of Emily Grierson.
- For discussion: What seems to be the townspeople’s attitude toward Emily? Toward women in general? Do these attitudes develop over the course of the story? How so? Why?
- For discussion: What are the townspeople’s attitudes toward Homer Barron and toward Tobe? Do these attitudes shift over the course of the story? How so? Why?
- For discussion: When does the narrative eye focus on specific demographics within the collective of the townspeople, such as the mayor or the church ladies? How do these social delineations develop themes in the story?
- For discussion: What is added to Emily’s story by telling it from an outside perspective? How might the story have differed if it was told from Emily’s perspective?
Isolation and Loneliness as Themes: Themes of isolation and loneliness reverberate throughout “A Rose for Emily.” Frequently, Emily is compared to an idol: she is an entity...
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that is seen and marveled at, yet she stands apart from those around her. But Emily is not alone: Tobe, Homer Barron, and even the antiquated small-town lifestyle of Jefferson as a whole are all removed from larger social networks in the story.
- For discussion: How do Emily’s relationships with her father, Tobe, Homer Barron, and the townspeople develop over the course of the story?
- For discussion: What social dynamics isolate Emily over the course of the story? Is she ostracized by the townspeople, or does she choose to seclude herself?
- For discussion: How does the placement of the townsfolk in the role of narrator contribute to themes of isolation and loneliness?
- For discussion: What does the story suggest about the effects of isolation on an individual or a group?
Time and Memory as Motifs: One of the more challenging aspects of “A Rose for Emily” is that the narrative spans seventy years but doesn’t describe events in chronological order. Mimicking the effect of memory itself, the narrative juxtaposes past with present, trying to make sense of how the past led to the present and how the present reckons with the past.
- For discussion: To what extent is Emily trapped in the past? What prevents her from evolving with the times?
- For discussion:When do attitudes and events from different time periods conflict with each other? What aspects of Jefferson and its inhabitants stay the same throughout the story?
- For discussion:How does the nonlinear narrative develop themes in the story? How would the story be different if events were told chronologically?
- For discussion: Consider this passage: “[A]ll the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.” Is this an accurate description of memory? Why or why not?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Which objects in the story function as symbols? What abstract ideas could Emily’s pocket watch, hair, taxes, and stationary represent?
- Focus on the physical descriptions of Emily throughout the text. In her youth, she is a “slender figure in white” and in her old age, she wears black and becomes “bloated” and “pallid.” How do these descriptions characterize Emily and her relationship with death?
- Describe the relationship between Tobe and Emily in the story. How is Tobe characterized? How does his characterization relate to that of Emily? What are the narrative implications of his apparent loyalty to Emily? What about his departure upon her death?
- How would you describe the overall mood of the story? What elements of the story contribute to this mood?
- How does the mechanism of inheritance function in the text? What is inherited by Emily individually, and what is inherited by the town as a whole?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Story Has a Complex Narrator and Structure: The nonlinear presentation of the story’s events, combined with the first-personal plural narration, could make “A Rose for Emily” a difficult short story for students to access.
- What to do: Review the story together as a class. As you go, make a timeline on the board and track events chronologically so students can understand both the events of Emily’s life and the effects of the nonlinear structure.
- What to do: As you read the story, pause when you reach first-person plural pronouns such as “we” or “us.” Discuss with students exactly to whom the pronoun is referring, and consider how the passage of time may impact the townspeople’s ability to understand or empathize with Emily, who remains a relic of a bygone era.
- What to do: Remind students that Faulkner intentionally refrained from either pardoning or condemning Emily’s actions within the narrative. How might the lack of chronology support this goal? How might Faulkner’s neutral portrayal of Emily reflect his views of the postwar South?
Content Notice: “A Rose for Emily” contains racial slurs.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching “A Rose for Emily”
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the story.
Focus onuntangling the mystery of Homer Barron’s death. Invite students to play detective. Who knew about Homer Barron’s death? To what extent are the pharmacist or the townspeople complicit in his murder? What were Emily’s motives? Given her life experience, were her motives justified?
Focus onthe features of Southern gothic literature. Introduce students to the various features of Southern gothic literature. When does the story utilize these features? How does the genre develop themes that alternately criticize and celebrate complicated aspects of American culture?
Focus on“A Rose for Emily” as an allegory for the postwar United States. Familiarize students with the historical context in which the story is set, with a specific focus on the evolving culture of the postwar South. How is Emily Grierson representative of the Old South? How might Homer Barron be considered a symbol of Northern influence? What does Emily’s decision to murder Homer suggest about the relationship between the victorious North and the Old South? How do the generational differences reflected by the townspeople support this interpretation of the story?