A Rose for Emily Summary

"A Rose for Emily" is a short story by William Faulkner that exemplifies the Southern gothic genre.
  • Miss Emily Grierson's funeral is attended by everyone in town. She was a relic of the Southern gentry and spent her life isolated from the community.
  • Emily's father prevented her from socializing when she was young. After his death, Emily became the frequent companion of a lower-class Northerner, Homer Barron. It was rumored that they were engaged.
  • Homer vanished. For the rest of Emily's life—over thirty years—she remained in her house.
  • Exploring Emily's house after her funeral, the townspeople find a man's skeleton in her bed. It is strongly implied to be Homer Barron's.

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Last Updated on November 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043

Introduction

William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” was published in the April 30, 1930 edition of Forum magazine. It was Faulkner’s first short story to be published in a notable magazine. Though it received minimal attention after its first publication, “A Rose For Emily” has gone on to be one of Faulkner’s most popular works. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, and is now hailed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His works deal primarily with the cultural shifts that occurred in the post-Civil War South. “A Rose For Emily” is one of many of Faulkner’s works, such as Sartoris, to be set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.

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“A Rose For Emily” uses a non-chronological structure to tell the story of Emily Grierson. Emily, a faded Southern Bell, dies at the age of 74 after leading an isolated life. The curious townsfolk come together for her funeral and reflect on her history in Jefferson, Mississippi. Their recollections include the details of Emily’s scandalous relationship with a Northern laborer named Homer Barron. The narrator uses the collective pronoun “we” in order to give the sense that the entire town is reflecting on Emily’s life. The story is sometimes read as an allegory for the resistance of the Old South, as represented by Emily, to modernization, as represented by both Homer and the younger generations of Jefferson.

Plot Summary

William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is set in the antebellum South, as the entire population of the city of Jefferson attends Emily Grierson’s funeral. Emily, the last member of the aristocratic Grierson family, led an isolated life. The people of Jefferson viewed her as a “hereditary obligation upon the town” ever since a previous mayor remitted her taxes. Now that she has passed away, people are curious to see the inside of her house, which has been sealed for ten years.

The story then shifts into the past and tells the story of Emily’s life. Section one reveals that Emily was raised by a controlling father who drove away all of her suitors, believing that none of them were good enough for his daughter. After her father died, Emily was left a destitute spinster. As a show of respect for her aristocratic status, Colonel Sartoris, the mayor of Jefferson at the time, remitted Emily's taxes. He did so by fabricating a story about Emily’s father having given a large amount of money to the town. Years later, when the younger generation of politicians began attempting to get Emily to pay her taxes, she refused, telling them to “see Colonel Sartoris.” However, Colonel Sartoris had been dead for ten years by that point.

Section two details an incident from two years after Emily’s father’s death. Shortly after Emily’s sweetheart abandoned her, a smell began emanating from her house. The neighbors asked old Judge Stevens to talk to her about it. However, Judge Stevens scolded them for even considering confronting a woman of Emily’s status about smelling bad. So, late one night, a group of men snuck onto Emily’s estate and sprinkled lime around the house to combat the smell. Around that time, the townspeople began to speculate that Emily was “crazy,” citing her reaction to her father’s death as additional evidence. After he died, Emily refused to acknowledge his death for three days, preventing the townspeople from removing the body from the house.

Section three goes further back in time. Shortly after the death of her father, Emily began courting a Northern day laborer named Homer Barron. Homer was “big” and “loud,” and he was well below Emily’s social station. He also claimed to be disinterested in marriage. At first, the people of Jefferson were amused by the courtship. However, some of the older residents were offended by the match between an aristocratic Southern woman and a “Yankee.” Despite the pitying whispers from the townsfolk, Emily remained aloof and proud. The narrator then recalls an incident a little over a year into their courtship. Emily went to the druggist, bought rat poison, and refused to specify what it was for. Most of the town assumed that she was going to take her own life, but she did not.

Section four continues the story of Emily’s courtship with Homer. As the courtship went on, the townsfolk decided to take action to prevent it, believing it to be improper. They petitioned the Baptist Minister to go talk to Emily. When that failed, the Minister’s wife contacted Emily’s relatives in Alabama, who sent two of Emily’s distant cousins to stay with her. Word soon spread that Emily had bought a man’s toilet seat and a set of men’s clothing. People assumed that the she and Homer were married. Homer then left town, and the townspeople assumed he was waiting for the cousins to leave. Once the cousins departed, Homer returned. However, after being admitted to Emily’s house late one night, he was never seen in Jefferson again. Emily herself was not seen again for six months. When she emerged, she had put on weight and her hair had turned iron-gray.

After Homer’s disappearance, Emily grew even more reclusive. She hosted china-painting classes in her home for a short while, but as the town modernized, people grew less interested in such antiquated skills. The only time the townspeople saw her was when she would sit by the window in her house. Her servant, Tobe, did all of her cooking, shopping, and housekeeping. However, it is clear to the townspeople that Tobe and Emily did not talk to each other, since Tobe’s voice went rusty, “as if from disuse.”

Section five returns to the present. After Emily’s death, Tobe leaves Jefferson and never returns. After Emily is “decently in the ground,” the townspeople explore her house, which none of them had seen in decades. In an upstairs room, they find the remains of Homer Barron in a bridal suite. The room is covered in dust and appears to have remained untouched for decades. On the pillow beside Homer’s corpse, they find a strand of Emily’s iron-gray hair.

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