Literature / A Rose for Emily
A short story by William Faulkner
, published in the literary magazine The Forum
on 30 April, 1930. It concerns the life of a certain Emily Grierson, as seen through the eyes of her neighbors, in a sleepy Deep South
In a once-elegant, upscale neighborhood, her house is the last vestige of the grandeur of a lost era. Colonel Sartoris, the town’s previous mayor, had suspended Emily’s tax responsibilities to the town after her fathers death, justifying the action by claiming that Mr. Grierson had once lent the community a significant sum. As new town leaders take over, they make unsuccessful attempts to get Emily to resume payments. When members of the Board of Aldermen pay her a visit, in the dusty and antiquated parlor, Emily reasserts the fact that she is not required to pay taxes in Jefferson and that the officials should talk to Colonel Sartoris about the matter. However, at that point he has been dead for almost a decade. She asks her servant, Tobe, to show the men out.
In section II, the narrator describes a time thirty years earlier when Emily resists another official inquiry on behalf of the town leaders, when the townspeople detect a powerful odor emanating from her property. Since the death of her father, two years prior, Emily has been independent, but impoverished. Her lover has recently abandoned her, as well, when this odor begins. As complaints mount, Judge Stevens, the mayor at the time, decides to have lime sprinkled along the foundation of the Grierson home in the middle of the night. Within a couple of weeks, the odor subsides, but the townspeople begin to pity the increasingly reclusive woman, recalling that her great-aunt had succumbed to insanity. The townspeople have always believed that the Griersons thought too highly of themselves, with Emily's father driving off the many suitors deemed not good enough to marry his daughter. With no offer of marriage in sight, she is still single by the time she turns thirty. The day after Mr. Grierson's death, the women of the town call on Emily to offer their condolences. Meeting them at the door, Emily states that her father is not dead, a charade that she keeps up for three days. She finally turns her father's body over for burial.
In section III, the narrator describes a long illness that Emily suffers after this incident. The summer after her father's death, the town contracts workers to pave the sidewalks, and a construction company, under the direction of northerner Homer Barron, is awarded the job. Homer soon becomes a popular figure in town and is seen taking Emily on buggy rides on Sunday afternoons, which scandalizes the town. They feel she is becoming involved with a man beneath her station. As the affair continues and her reputation is further compromised, she goes to the drug store to purchase arsenic. She is required by law to reveal how she will use the arsenic. She offers no explanation, and the package arrives at her house labeled “For rats.”
In section IV, the narrator describes the fear that some of the townspeople have that Emily will use the poison to kill herself. Her potential marriage to Homer seems increasingly unlikely, as Homer admits that he is, in fact, gay, despite their continued Sunday ritual. The more outraged women of the town insist that the Baptist minister talk with her. After his visit, he never speaks of what happened and swears that he'll never go back. So the minister's wife writes to Emily's two cousins in Alabama, who arrive for an extended stay. Emily orders a silver toilet set monogrammed with Homer's initials and talk of the couple's marriage resumes. Homer, absent from town, is believed to be preparing for Emily's move or trying to avoid her intrusive relatives.
After the cousins' departure, Homer enters the Grierson home one evening and is never seen again. Holed up in the house, Emily grows plump and gray. Despite the occasional lesson she gives in china painting, her door remains closed to outsiders. In what becomes an annual ritual, Emily refuses to acknowledge the tax bill. She eventually closes up the top floor of the house. Except for the occasional glimpse of her in the window, nothing is heard from her until her death at age seventy-four. Only the servant is seen going in and out of the house.
In section V, the narrator describes what happens after Emily dies. Her body is laid out in the parlor, and the women, town elders, and two cousins attend the service. After some time has passed, the door to a sealed upstairs room that had not been opened in forty years is broken down. The room is frozen in time, with the items for an upcoming wedding and a man's suit laid out. Homer Barron's body is stretched on the bed in an advanced state of decay. The onlookers then notice the indentation of a head in the pillow beside Barron's body and a long strand of Emily's gray hair on the pillow.
This short story provides examples of:
- Affair Hair: The story ends with a strand of gray hair found next to a body that's been dead for decades.
- Ambiguously Brown: The brief description of Homer Barron mentions that he was a "dark...man". Some modern readers have suggested that the guy was a mulatto or simply black. Which gives another reading to why the locals feel this affair is scandalous, not only because he is a Northerner or of inferior social class.
- Ambiguously Gay: It's never made completely clear whether Homer Barron is actually homosexual, or if he simply prefers having a good time at the bar with the guys every evening to getting married and settling down. Or for that matter, if he's bisexual and enjoys women enough to date them but won't commit to a life-long relationship.
- The Casanova: One interpretation of Homer Barron's character is that he seduces a town's women and/or young men, and then abandons them, and moves to the next town. That is why he is not "a marrying man". It clearly backfired in Emily's case.
- Cigar Chomper: Homer Barron is described with a cigar in his teeth and a whip in his hands.
- Death by Woman Scorned: The relationship between Emily and Homer is ill-defined. If she first offered her heart to him and then she found about the "young men" he is seeing, this would be a textbook case.
- Death Glare: The pharmacist is at first reluctant to sell arsenic, and also reminds Emily that is legally required to state the reasons for doing so. Emily tilts her head back and silently stares into his eyes. He soon looks away and complies with her wishes. But notably avoids any further contact with her.
- Deep South: Set in ostensibly the more "enlightened" part of this fair land, with social classes firmly in place, black servants that keep their masters' secrets, and gorgeous, stately mansions... that are riddled with decay, and years out of date.
- Disease Bleach: Six months following the "departure" of Homer, Emily re-establishes contact with the locals. Her hair has turned grey while still in her early thirties. A stressful few months?
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: The "chivalrous acts" of the Stevens-led city council consist of targeting the residence of a single woman, trespassing there past midnight, and breaking and entering the cellar and various outbuildings. Sounds violating and is clearly illegal.
- Notice that the homeowner catches them in the act and never calls for help, as if the council is above the law.
- Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Never stated, but it's mentioned that Emily bristles every time she catches wind of the townsfolk referring to her as "Poor Emily."
- Dress Code: The locals remember Colonel Sartoris' term as Mayor because of an edict enforcing a dress code for "negro" women: "no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron".
- Expository Hairstyle Change: Emily's hair changes at important points in the story.
- Freudian Excuse: According to Word of God, all Emily wanted was to "love and be loved and have a family of her own," but her tyrannical father chased off all potential suitors because he selfishly wanted to keep her as his housemaid. By the time he died in her thirties, the town considered her too old and too rich for any of them to marry, and felt it would only be "proper" if she remained a spinster or committed suicide. No wonder she latched onto the first man to show her the slightest interest, then cracked when he rejected her.
- Game Between Heirs: Backstory element. When "old lady Wyatt, the crazy woman" died, Mr. Grierson and his kin from Alabama fought over her estate. The dispute led the inter-related families to sever relations for years.
- Genre Blindness: The people of Jefferson are in a Gothic Horror tale, but treat the "romance" of Emily and Homer as the stuff of a Romance Novel. The description of events is actually rather creepy.
- Emily has purchased arsenic.
- Homer returns to town, and enters the Grierson residence "at dusk", never to be seen again.
- Emily turns into a recluse for months.
- A foul odor of decomposition starts coming from the Grierson residence. They dismiss it as coming from the remains of an animal, and helpfully provide lime to deal with the smell.
- Go Mad from the Isolation: It's implied that a lifetime of isolation from the town by her father, followed by years of living alone in a decaying estate with only a sour black servant to keep her company, did not help Emily's sanity any.
- Gonk: Emily in her old age. She is mentioned as slender in her youth. Never leaving the house may have something to with the excess weight she gained. "She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough..."
- Gossipy Hens:
- Once Emily and Homer start spending time together, as the narrator puts it: "the whispering began".
- The unnamed narrator, representing the townspeople of Jefferson, and relaying what is essentially local gossip to the reader, counts as well.
- Happiness in Slavery: Way subverted. Tobe appears to be the Southern gentleman's perfect servant (a black man, in the Deep South, still practically a slave) who starts work as a boy and works well into his old age, is ever obedient, silent, and dutiful... but after he tells the townsfolk that Emily has died, he leaves town at once and is never seen again.
- Horrible Judge of Character / Unreliable Narrator: The entire town towards Emily. They ignore key aspects of her personality and the narrator(s) typically misinterpret her actions.
- If I Can't Have You...: One explanation of why she killed the lover who would not marry her.
- I Just Want to Be Loved: According to Faulkner, Emily just wanted to "love and be loved and have a family of her own," but her father kept her isolated from the town until his death in her thirties. By then, the town considered her too much of an Old Maid and the Last of Her Kind.
- I Love the Dead: The title character murders the man she wishes to marry, then lies next to him (long ago enough in the past for dust to settle, but recent enough that the hair on the pillow is gray); the corpse is also said to have been in an embracing position.
- Important Haircut: Emily cuts her hair after her Overprotective Dad dies.
- Impoverished Patrician: Emily has inherited an "august name" connecting her to the local aristocracy and the family house, but little to no cash. The locals consider her a pauper.
- Incompatible Orientation: Homer eventually admitted that he liked men, but Emily was still in love with him.
- Inherent in the System: Emily could and would not have done the things she did had the town not expected her to strictly adhere to decayed social mores, and had not allowed her to dodge taxes and live alone in an impoverished and abandoned estate all her life just because they themselves wanted to uphold the last relic of the Antebellum South.
- Interrupted Suicide: Averted in a disturbing matter. While Emily buys arsenic, much of the town believes she is about to commit suicide. They decide not to interfere, as they agree it would be a proper solution to her situation as an Old Maid, and very likely a ruined one at that. She is still about 30 years old.
- It Runs in the Family: The locals of Jefferson believe this is the problem with Emily. They recall that "old lady Wyatt, her great-aunt, had gone completely crazy".
- I Was Quite a Looker: Toyed with. Emily goes from a young, slender woman, who might have had a few suitors were it not for her tyrannical father, to a reclusive, grotesque figure.
- Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: The story is comprised of five parts which are mostly out of order. For those who don't pick apart and reassemble the events, the fate of Homer Barron, and what Emily had to do with it, is a perplexing matter. The fact that the narrator (implied to be the townspeople) has a severely limited understanding of Emily's personal life and occasionally relies on conjecture to guess at her actions doesn't help much either.
- Karma Houdini: Emily both gets away with murder and is the most prominent tax evader in town. She never suffers any real consequence for her crimes.
- Large Ham: Homer Barron is described as a big man with a loud voice, a voice which can often be heard from afar, either cussing his workers or laughing with his companions. He is also a charismatic fellow who seeks to acquaint himself with as many people as possible.
- Last of Her Kind: The town considers Emily a "relic" of Antebellum aristocratic culture that once dominated the South. Since she's the only person of her social station left for miles around, the town feels that if she can't marry within her station then she shouldn't marry at all.
- Lean and Mean / Nothing but Skin and Bones: In the period leading to the murder, the already-slender Emily further loses weight. The pharmacist notes the changes in her face, "the flesh of which was strained across the temples and about the eyesockets". Starving herself before the kill?
- Love Makes You Crazy: Played with. The townsfolk regard high-born Emily running around with a workman to have lost her head in love. Her later actions prove she was definitely cracked, but she might have been cracked well before falling in love.
- Love Will Lead You Back: Subverted. It is strongly implied that Emily murdered her lover and spent her time in "mourning" sleeping next to his corpse.
- Mad Artist: Emily may exhibit traits of this trope. It is mentioned early in the story that she used to give "china-painting lessons".
- Meaningful Name: Noel Polk has argued that the name "Homer Barron" should be read with the two names in reverse order: "Barron Homer" = "barren home". Emily is the last person ever born in the Grierson home, her life is barren.
- Men Can't Keep House: Following her father's death, Emily entrusts the care of the house to a young Tobe. The local women scoff at the notion of a male servant doing housework: "'Just as if a man—any man—could keep a kitchen properly,' the ladies said; so they were not surprised when the smell developed."
- Possibly justified in that poor Tobe doesn't seem to dust that often. Much later, in a visit of city representatives to the house, it is mentioned that the hall is dusty.
- Mummies at the Dinner Table: Mummies in bed, even.
- My Beloved Smother: Gender-flipped. Mr. Grierson is controlling and domineering, drives away suitors for his daughter as if threatened by them, and prevents Emily from leaving the house even when that defies social conventions. A few passages imply that he exerts this influence even beyond his death, thwarting her chances at happiness.
- Narrator: The narrator represents the town of Jefferson itself but remains unnamed. He/she may be a singular narrator or a collective voice.
- No Communities Were Harmed: There is a theory that Faulkner used "Jefferson" as an alias for his native Oxford, Mississippi. There is even mention of an American Civil War battle in its vicinity, and of a cemetery filled with Union and Confederate casualties. There was a Battle of Holly Springs in the vicinity of Oxford.
- Noodle Incident: A clergyman is persuaded to call on the reclusive title character. "He would never divulge what happened during that interview, but he refused to go back again." Considering Emily's unsettling disconnect with reality, this is not surprising.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: The town authorities want Emily to start paying her taxes, and send representatives to convince her. She acts out-of-touch with reality in the meeting and constantly mentions long-dead Colonel Sartoris as if he's still alive. The representatives retreat in defeat. Yet the supposedly eccentric, crazy lady gets exactly what she wants from the meeting. The narrator itself points out that "SHE vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before". Judith Fetterley has argued that this is intentional and that Emily plays dumb to keep them out of balance. In other words, she is crazy like a fox.
- Oedipus Complex / Parental Incest: The locals believe that Mr. Grierson turned down all possible suitors for his daughter because he felt that nobody was good enough or rich enough for her, and view her refusal to part with his corpse as a sign of excess grief. Analysis of the story suggests otherwise. Much has been written about more Freudian interpretations of their relationship, such as Emily showing signs of an Electra complex (desire for her father) and her father probably wanting to keep her for himself.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome / Offstage Villainy: Deciding that her relationship with Homer is "a disgrace to the town", the local women convince the local Baptist minister to visit Emily and set her straight. They overlook that Emily is Episcopalian and probably don't know how intimidating Emily can be. What happened in this meeting is not explained, but the minister never re-enters the Grierson residence, and refuses to share any details of what happened between them. What Emily said or did to him is left to the reader's imagination.
- Old Maid: Emily's father kept her from marrying as long as he lived, and when he died she was considered a spinster in the making. After Homer vanishes without a trace, the townspeople refer to her and treat her as an old maid. And it's clear that Emily despises the condescension of the phrase "Poor Emily."
- Old Retainer: Tobe "the Negro" (!). He works well into his own old age as servant, cook, and gardener to the old woman.
- Overprotective Dad: The story paints the image of Emily in the background, and her father at the door with his back to her, bullwhip in hand. It is implied this is why she never got engaged.
- Perfect Poison: Subverted. Emily doesn't really care if the poison is traceable or not. She picks arsenic as the poison because she has heard that it is effective in killing. That is enough for her.
- Personal Effects Reveal: The inhabitants find Homer Barron's possessions—bought for him by Emily, as an intended wedding gift—after Emily's death. The long-deceased owner is still present...
- Please Wake Up: When her father dies, Emily insists that he yet lives and refuses to part with the body. It takes three days of pressure by the local priests and doctors to convince Emily to be parted from the corpse. This seems to be only the first time she gets clingy with a corpse.
- The locals find fault with the excessive pride of the Griersons, who reportedly "held themselves a little too high for what they really were".
- One interpretation as to why the locals essentially allowed Emily to live off the grid and do whatever she wanted is because she was a link of sorts to the glory days of the pre-Civil War South. No matter how her old plantation manor decayed, they preferred it to the ramshackle shops that came up all over the town after the War.
- The Quiet One /The Voiceless: Over the course of many years, Tobe grew into one of these. "He talked to no one, probably not even to her, for his voice had grown harsh and rusty, as if from disuse." This frustrates the curious people who attempt to pry information from him.
- Rose Tinted Narrative: Deconstruction of this trope applied to the antebellum southern US.
- Rule of Symbolism: The decay of Emily's looks and estate and sanity mirror the decay of the antebellum southern culture.
- Secret Keeper: Tobe is the one confidant of Emily and probably well-aware of what she kept in the locked room. His hasty retreat and disappearance hints at fearing repercussions following the discovery of the corpse. In any case, what would this Deep South town do to a "Negro" involved in the murder of a white man, however peripheral this involvement is?
- Small Town Boredom: One explanation with the town's preoccupation and near obsession with Emily. For a woman who spend most of her life as a recluse, whenever Emily acts in any way the locals are there to discuss about it. As scholar Judith Fetterley observed, the people of Jefferson are in turns "curious, jealous, spiteful, pitying, partisan, proud, disapproving, and admiring" of Emily. Soon after her death, her house is invaded by visitors who search for her secrets with a voyeur-like attitude. Perhaps they are that bored that they obsess over the little drama of her life?
- Society Marches On: In-story example. By her description, Emily seems to be the last member of the local aristocracy, the so-called "august names" of the town. The rest of these aristocrats are mentioned currently residing in an old cemetery and their residences have long since been demolished. Garages and gasoline-pumps are mentioned surrounding the 19th-century residence of the Griersons.
- Notice also that Emily still relies more on the unwritten word of a gentleman, Colonel Sartoris, rather than the paperwork which the "modern" authorities cite to have her pay taxes. They are mentioned as being of a different generation and of a much different mentality than Sartoris.
- Southern Gentleman: Judge Stevens, one of the Mayors of Jefferson, insists on good manners towards the ladies. When the city council receives complains of a foul odor coming from the Grierson house, the youngest alderman suggests simply notifying the owner of the problem. The Judge shoots him down by pointing "Dammit, sir, will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?"
- Gentleman towards women, racist towards black men. The narrator uses the term "negro" for Tobe, while the Judge calls him "nigger".
- Southern Gothic: Could well be the poster child of this trope. Emily Grierson's mansion, a symbol of better days long since past, is described in the most wretched terms of rot and decay—and the house hides terrible secrets.
- Straight Gay: Homer Barron is a manly construction foreman. He also likes men, particularly "the younger men in the Elks' Club".
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: In-story example. There are two domineering masculine figures in the story, both depicted with horsewhip at hands. Both die and the female protagonist gets clingy with their corpses. Many scholars and readers have pointed that Homer Barron is suspiciously similar to Mr. Grierson, and some have argued that Emily viewed him as a substitute for her father.
- Wham Line: "The man himself lay in the bed."
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Tobe has spend most of his life in the Grierson house and is as socially isolated as his employer. When she dies, he opens the front door to visitors and then flees from the back door. His fate is never explained. Where is the old man heading?
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: Faulkner does not clarify the location of the town called Jefferson. It is mentioned that there are Confederate veterans in town, pointing to one of the 11 states of the Confederacy, and Alabama is clearly named as a different state to the one the locals live in.
- At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner's native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.
- Windows of the Soul: Subtle. When Emily buys arsenic, the pharmacist takes note of her "cold black eyes". He considers it another sign of her haughtiness. She is actually contemplating a murder at the time, and the look in her eyes more likely reflects her cold calculations.
- Yandere: Of the possessive variety. The eponymous Emily Grierson fell in love with Homer Barron, a workman far below her (perceived) class. One day, he went into Emily's house and was never seen leaving. When Emily eventually passes away, her house is searched, and it turns out that she killed Homer with arsenic, dressed him in a suit, and kept the corpse on her bed.