A Rose for Emily Themes

The main themes in “A Rose for Emily” are secrecy and obsession, the Old South, and death and control.

  • Secrecy and obsession: The secretive Emily Grierson is a source of fascination in the town of Jefferson, and the townspeople regard her with obsessive curiosity.
  • The Old South: Emily represents the Old South and the aristocracy who held power in Jefferson prior to the Civil War; she refuses to acknowledge that times have changed.
  • Death and control: After the deaths of her father and Homer Barron, Emily attempts to exert control over both of them by keeping their bodies in her home.

Themes

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Last Updated on March 17, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

Secrecy and Obsession

Emily Grierson is a pivotal figure in the town she lives in, despite not really taking any significant part in the activities of the community. She represents a "fallen monument," a woman whose life was lived almost entirely behind closed doors and known only to the black servant who lived with her. As a result of this secrecy, the "whole town" is driven by enormous "curiosity" to see the reality of Emily's life. The narrative frame of the story, which is written in the collective third person, underlines this idea that the town exists on one side and Emily on the other, an object of fascination.

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The story is written very much from the perspective of those who are on the outside of Emily's life, desperate to understand the realities of it. Hints are dropped: the narrator mentions "the smell" whose source was never established, because it was vanquished by night, in secret, by men who did not speak to Emily about it for fear of offending her. The truth of Emily's life is revealed to the reader slowly, through suggestion. Like the townspeople, the reader's concern and pity for "poor Emily" is overtaken by a fascination to uncover what is really happening to her: has she truly taken a lover? They are intrigued by Homer Barron, not least because he is of a different social class to Emily and they are aware that Emily's father would have disapproved of the match. They want Barron to treat Emily well but at the same time seem to yearn for the dramatic outcome should he fail to do so. When he vanishes, they are eager to know what has happened to him but are aware that they have no means of approaching Emily, more "monument" than person, to find out.

The "developments" in Emily's life are presented as something of a soap opera for the inhabitants of the town she lives in. Everybody is wildly curious to know how she is and what she is doing, but absolutely nobody ventures to reach out and ask her, such that the final revelation in the story—that Homer Barron's corpse has been kept in her house for decades—simply comes as the last dramatic incident in a series of scandals.

The Old South

The Old South as it was in the antebellum era looms large in this story through the person of Emily, who represents a "monument" to the way things used to be. In many ways, Emily behaves as if nothing has changed. She keeps a black servant in her house who is her only confidant. Her house, once "select" and "white," has decayed over the years and become soiled, just as the pre-war aristocracy have fallen as a result of a changing society. Emily's home is the only one which remains of the "august" group who once held power in the town. Emily, however, does not accept this shift, and the town indulges her to a considerable degree. They consider her to be a "tradition" and an "obligation." When Emily declares to the committee that she has "no taxes in Jefferson," she explicitly suggests that the current ruling authority is only an imagined authority, stating that perhaps the current sheriff indeed "considers himself" to be so. She tells the men to refer to Colonel Sartoris, who has, by this time, been dead for almost a decade. She is wilfully living in the past, but nobody dares to correct her. In many ways, it is as if the town has collectively decided to allow the Old South to live in Jefferson, in the form of Emily, until such time as Emily passes away naturally and this part of their history dies with her.

Death and Control

Emily Grierson's relationship with death is not a healthy one; her relationships with the dead men in her life interact uneasily with the relationships she had with them when they were living. Early in the story, it is revealed that Emily tried to keep the body of her father in the house with her for several days after his death. Emily's father was a controlling, overbearing man who believed nobody was good enough for his daughter and rarely let her out into society; Emily's desire to keep his body after he is dead represents an element of strong denial on her part that things are about to change for her, but it also represents an opportunity for her to exert some control over her father, who had always controlled her. In death, he is unable to oppose her. In the same way, when Homer Barron is poised to jilt Emily and leave town, Emily exerts control over him in the only way she is able: she purchases poison, kills him, and then expresses her agency by keeping his body in her house for many decades. If Homer Barron will not choose of his own accord to spend his life with Emily, then Emily will make the decision for him, in the house that represents her unquestioned domain. Nobody in the town dares to question her, even when a horrifying smell begins to emerge around the property. While they are fascinated by her, their understanding of her as a "tradition" means that they honor her right to her own jurisdiction, and as such, Emily and the dead are permitted to remain together in the house, at Emily's will.

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