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 refused to acknowledge that times had changed.
  • Death and control: After the deaths of her father and Homer Barron, Emily attempted to exert control over both of them by keeping their bodies in her home.

Themes

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901

Secrecy and Obsession

Emily Grierson was a pivotal figure in the town she lived in, despite not really having taken 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...

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Secrecy and Obsession

Emily Grierson was a pivotal figure in the town she lived in, despite not really having taken 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 existed on one side and Emily on the other; she was an object of fascination.

The story is written very much from the perspective of those who were 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 was really happening to her: had she truly taken a lover? They reader is intrigued by Homer Barron, not least because he was of a different social class than Emily and they are aware that Emily’s father would have disapproved of the match. They reader likely wants Barron to treat Emily well but at the same time may yearn for the dramatic alternative outcome. When he vanished, the townsfolk were eager to know what had happened to him but were aware that they had no means of approaching Emily, more “monument” than person, to find out.

The developments in Emily’s life were something of a soap opera for the inhabitants of the town. Everybody was wildly curious to know how she was and what she was doing, but absolutely nobody ventured to reach out and ask her, such that the final revelation in the story—that Homer Barron’s corpse had 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 behaved throughout her life as if nothing had changed. She kept a Black servant in her house, who was her only confidant. Her house, once “select” and “white,” had decayed over the years and become soiled, just as the pre-war aristocracy had fallen as a result of a changing society. At the time of her death, Emily’s home is the only one that remains of the “august” group who once held power in the town.

Emily, however, did not accept the shifts taking place, and the town indulged her to a considerable degree. They considered her to be a “tradition” and an “obligation.” When Emily declared to the committee that she had “no taxes in Jefferson,” she explicitly suggested that the current ruling authority was only an imagined authority and that perhaps the current sheriff indeed “consider[ed] himself” to be so. She told the men to refer to Colonel Sartoris, who had, by that time, been dead for almost a decade. She was willfully living in the past, but nobody dared to correct her. In many ways, it was as if the town had collectively decided to allow the Old South to live in Jefferson, in the form of Emily, until Emily passed away naturally and this part of their history died with her.

Death and Control

Emily Grierson’s relationship with death was not a healthy one; her relationships with the dead men in her life interacted 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 was dead represented an element of strong denial on her part that things were about to change for her, but it also represented an opportunity for her to exert some control over her father, who had always controlled her. In death, he was unable to oppose her.

In the same way, when Homer Barron was poised to jilt Emily and leave town, Emily exerted control over him in the only way she was able: she purchased poison, killed him, and then expressed her agency by keeping his body in her house for many decades. If Homer Barron would not choose of his own accord to spend his life with Emily, then Emily would make the decision for him, in the house that represented her unquestioned domain. Nobody in the town dared to question her, even when a horrifying smell began to emerge around the property. While they were fascinated by her, their understanding of her as a “tradition” meant that they honored her right to her own jurisdiction.

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