A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner

A Rose for Emily is a short story by William Faulkner, published in 1930.

The story opens with: WHEN MISS EMILY GRIERSON DIED. This story is a tragic tale of this lady who died at the age of 74; the narrative technique follows a non-linear approach to reveal her life through the last four decades in a fictional town.

The narrator describes Emily as, ‘…a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt….her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her’.

Emily is a lonely woman as her father had driven away all her suitors and died when she was 30; leaving nothing for her but the house. This house like her is representative of a dying world of Southern aristocracy. The outside of her large, square frame house is lavishly decorated; the cupolas, spires, and scrolled balconies are the hallmarks of a decadent style of architecture that became popular in the 1870s. But now garages and cotton gins have encroached. The house is in some ways an extension of Emily: it bares its “stubborn and coquettish decay” to the town’s residents.

After the death of her father, Emily refuses to let the body be taken away for the next three days as she believes that he is still there. The people of the town find this behavior acceptable as part of the grieving process.

We did not say she was crazy then.”

This line comes almost at the halfway mark. And, as such, it confirms a notion on the readers to either accept the justification or question Emily’s behavior.

None of her extended family comes to visit her or take care of her. She is alone in her house, ailing and aging with seldom public appearances. In the midst, she started giving classes on china painting to young children but it closed down in the gradual process. A lot of writing is about how the people and the town were in earlier times and modern times – ‘the next generation, with its more modern ideas.’

The modern times further alienated individual well-being and restricted the state’s responsibility to stringent tax collections. The earlier times, the people were actually concerned when a foul smell started emanating from Emily’s house. Town people and administration had taken the decision to sprinkle lime in the building secretively. So actually nobody knows about Emily or has been to her house, except an old servant – Tobe.

In the next two years of her withering, we are introduced to Homer Barron who is a foreman from a construction company contracted with some work in the town. He is a ‘Yankee-a big, dark, ready man with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face.’ The man is quite popular with the people of the town. Yet, the rumours spread on how Emily could deem a day labourer socially fit to be her companion and then about a possible marriage. To save the town from disgrace, Minister’s wife calls Emily’s two cousins from Alabama to perhaps finalise on the marriage.

Next, we read about Emily buying jewelry, a man’s toilet in silver with H B etched on it, men’s clothing, etc. Homer leaves for a few days and comes back when the two cousins have left. A neighbor had seen Homer enter the kitchen door one evening and he was not there. The people of the town had expected him to leave, for such was the fate of “Poor Emily”.  

Emily had purchased poison from the druggist around the time that the town people suspected of foul smell from the house. She had refused to reveal the purpose of the poison and the druggist handed over rat poison thinking she wishes to commit suicide. But she had appeared happy the next day, accompanied by Homer Barron. It is after Emily’s death that decades later the door of the sealed room is finally opened. There lay the remains of Homer Barron on the bed, alongside another pillow with ‘indentation of a head’.

‘A Rose for Emily’ is an allegorical title. It is this last rose on her cemetery that finally reveals the truth of Homer and her own life. It is also about how town people engage in talking but does nothing substantial for people in need of emotional support. Emily’s house is symbolic of alienation, mental illness, and death. It is a shrine to the living past, and the sealed upstairs bedroom is her macabre trophy room where she preserves the man she would not allow to leave her. 

The ‘iron-grey hair’ plays a metaphor – “Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man.”

In the end, it is the same iron-gray hair strand found on the pillow next to where Homer Barron’s body laid, conclusions left for the readers to think of.

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