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Hello everyone, the short story we are going to talk about right now is ‘A Rose for Emily, written by William Faulkner. Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897. He was a writer of not only short stories and novels, but also of poetry, essays, screenplays and he has even written a play. He grew up in Mississippi, the state in which almost all of his stories take place. He is considered one of the most important authors of Southern literature and he has won a Nobel Prize for literature in …
Faulkner was born ‘Falkner’, without the ‘u’. Apparently this wrong surname was a mistake made by the publisher of his first novel. When he was asked whether he wanted to have the book reprinted with the right name on it, he said: “Either way suits me”, so from that moment on, William Falkner went through life as William Faulkner, until he died of a heart attack in 1962.
‘A Rose for Emily was written in 1930 and it takes place in the late 19th and the early 20th century. The author’s personal situation somewhat resembled that of Emily, for he also did not have a lot of money at that time. Faulkner’s lack of money was a consequence of the Wall street-crash, followed by the Great Depression. Emily’s lack of money was presumably due to the abolition of slavery. She lived in Jefferson, a fictional city in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, in the state Mississippi. It is located in the south of the United States and therefore its economy was mainly based on the products from the plantations, on which the slaves worked. The probability of Emily’s father having been a slave owner is great, because he was a wealthy man. When slavery was abolished, he did not have an income anymore, so his fortune did not increase anymore. When he died, the remainder of the money went to Emily, but seeing she was not very wealthy, she had not inherited all that much.
We will now discuss several ways in which the title – ‘A Rose for Emily’ – can be interpreted in relation to the story. One way is that Emily’s life resembles a rose constantly changing its colour. At first, Emily is a bright, hopeful young woman – a red rose. A red rose stands for love, passion and life. The bright and hopeful young woman gradually changes into a lonely, sad personality, especially when her father starts chasing away all her potential suitors. She starts becoming a black rose. A black rose stands for death, regret and loneliness. She becomes even lonelier when her father dies and she is still single. She has absolutely no one left, so she wants to keep him with her. The following quote shows that: “The day after his death, all ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and did, as is our custom. Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no sign of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body. Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly.” At this point, the rose of her life is as black as pitch but it slowly becomes redder when she meets Homer Barron and starts seeing him. Of course, all good things come to an end and so does Emily’s love-life. Her lover wants to go back to the north and Emily does not want to leave Jefferson. Her rose turns into a black one again and remains that colour for the rest of her life. It becomes even darker – if possible – when we find out about the murder on Homer Barron, at the end of the story.
Another way – a more positive one – can be the victory that she has gained. When Homer Barron comes to Jefferson, flaunting his Negro workers, it is like putting salt into not yet healed wounds: slavery has just been abolished, and Emily’s father, being both a stereotypical southerner and a slave-owner, does not like this in the least. Emily, wanting to please her father even in his death and not wanting to leave her hometown behind, murders Homer Barron in order to keep him close to her. In her opinion, she of course has not gained any victory. It was not her goal to do so but she actually has: she has killed a Yankee; a northerner. In the everlasting battle between north and south, the south for once has the last laugh.
The third way in which you can interpret the story is the fact that the title is ‘A Rose for Emily’ and not ‘A Rose for Miss Emily’. Throughout the story, Emily is referred to as ‘Miss Emily’. The question is: why would the author have left that word out of the title? On the first page of the story, the narrator describes Emily as “a tradition, a duty, a care”. In the rest of the story, we somehow gain respect for her, even though she is quite an odd person. She also lived in a house “set on what had once been our most select street”. All this makes us think that she is – or has once been – a woman of great wealth and status. The ‘miss’ may have been left out in order to make her more equal to the other people living in Jefferson. Especially when she has died and is buried: she joins the other people on the same cemetery, in the same earth. Faulkner was an author who thought that everyone was equal in death, and by leaving the ‘miss’ out of the title, he shows us his way of thinking.
The fourth and last way of interpreting the title we will talk about right now is by looking at Greek mythology. According to legend, the Greek god of silence, Harpocrates, saw Venus making love with a human male. Cupid, Venus’ son, bribed Harpocrates into not saying anything to Zeus, Venus’ husband. As compensation for Harpocrates keeping his mouth shut, Cupid gave him the first rose ever created, which made the rose the emblem of silence. Seeing Emily was not a very talkative woman, this myth can be an explanation of the title.
The next topics of discussion will be the storyline, the climax and the themes we think are most relevant to the story.
The story consists out of five sections and section one starts off with a fact: Miss Emily Grierson has just died. With an exception of the last section, the whole story is a recollection of Emily’s life, told to us by the townspeople.
Alive, Emily lived in a huge mansion, once the most beautiful house in the neighbourhood. Now the house is old, though, and it is described as “an eyesore among eyesores”. Emily herself is like her house: once she was slim; pretty; a feast for the eyes. Now, “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”. She, too, has become “an eyesore among eyesores”. The rest of the section describes a visit of the Board of Aldermen, which they pay her because she refuses to pay taxes. In the end, Emily has the last laugh because she shoos the men off as if the rules do not apply to her.
In section two, the main events are the smell that comes from Emily’s house and the death of her father. A lot of people complained about the smell, but Judge Stevens was very reluctant to do something about it, because: “will you accuse a lady in the face of smelling bad?” Two years before the smell, Emily’s father passed away. When everyone from town came to her house to pay their respects, she denied her father’s death even though ministers and doctors told her that yes, he really was dead. When she finally broke down and let go off him, “they buried her father quickly”.
Section three is the first section in which we get to know Homer Barron, the foreman of a construction company from the north. He had come to Jefferson in order to pave the sidewalks and “presently we began to see him and Miss Emily on Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched team of bays from the livery stable. The townspeople feel sorry for her, as she has to find her last chance at happiness and a normal life with a Yankee – and a gay one, for that matter. In the second half of the section, Emily buys rat poison, supposedly to kill herself.
In section four, Emily – still alive – gives us the impression that her life has taken the right turn for once. The townspeople say the following: “We learned that Miss Emily had been to the jeweller’s and ordered a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H.B. on each piece. Two days later we learned that she had bought a complete outfit of men’s clothing, including a nightshirt, and we said, ‘They are married’”. But as soon as the townspeople have come to this conclusion, Homer Barron had disappeared. Emily was never seen outside as well, but that was to be expected, according to Jefferson’s inhabitants. The only period of time Emily was seen outside was for six or seven years during which she gave china-painting lessons. After that period, the front door of Emily’s house remained closed. The last thirty or forty years of her life, Emily spent inside her house, with her servant, Tobe, being her only connection to the outside world. “She died in one of the downstairs bedrooms, in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her grey head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight”.
The fifth and last section of the story holds its climax. We are back at the point at which the story started: Emily’s funeral. The people attending it are curious as to what Emily’s house looked like on the inside and they have for that reason alone come to the funeral. When they break down the door of a room no one except Emily had seen in forty years, they have a surprise waiting for them. Even though the scene that unfolds before their eyes is horrible and sickening, they do not appear to be all that shocked. In the room they find the remainders of Homer Barron, lying on the bed. The climax has yet to come, though: when the people take in the scene in front of them carefully, they notice something peculiar: “Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair”.
We have chosen this to be the climax of the story because somehow, the story has been building up to this point. I am saying ‘somehow’, because even though we had not expected it, our reaction is just like the one of the townspeople: surprised, yet not very much so. “We did not say she was crazy then”, gets said by the townspeople only once in the story, but it is very important to keep this quote in mind as we read on. Apparently, Emily gives us reasons to think she might be mad, but because of the circumstances, we dismiss that suspicion. You are allowed to act a little… off, if your life is as sad as hers, right? Anyway, when the climax comes, we can either conclude Emily actually was crazy, or we can think of her action as one of a desperate woman. It is up to the reader to decide.
The main themes of the story are (dis)obedience, holding on to the past and isolation. In the word (dis)obedience, you have to place the ‘dis’ between brackets. This is, because Emily is an obeying woman, as well as a disobeying woman. We see the obeying part when talking about her father: she does everything she does to please him and she would not dare to do anything that might anger him. We find her being disobedient on several moments in the story. She is not disobeying a person, she is disobeying the law. The first time we see this is in section one: Emily has to pay taxes, but she does not want this. When a deputation of the Board of Aldermen comes to her house to confront her, she tells them: “See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson”, even though Colonel Sartoris has been dead for ten years by then. The second time we see this is in section three, when she buys the arsenic. Emily said: “’I want arsenic’ ‘Why, of course,’ the druggist said, ‘If that’s what you want. But the law requires you to tell what you are going to do with it’”. Emily does not answer the druggist’s question, though, so she again flouts the rules.
The third time we see this is in section four: the town got free postal delivery, but Emily refused to let numbers be placed next to her door and she also did not want a mail-box.
The fourth and last time Emily does not obey the law is on the very last page of the story. We find out that she has used the poison she had bought all those years ago to kill Homer Barron instead of herself. Murdering someone is one of the worst crimes one can possibly commit, even though it was necessary in Emily’s eyes. She knew Homer Barron would leave her and with him he would take her dreams and her last chance on a happily ever after. She did not want to lose all that, so she did what she thought was the only way to keep a male-figure in her life: she killed her lover and kept him hidden from the rest of society.
The second theme is ‘holding on to the past. Emily does this throughout the story and these are a few examples: - Emily wants to keep her father with her after his death, even though he did not grant her anything when he was alive. - Colonel Sartoris had been dead for a long time, but she still did not want to pay her taxes.
- In her living room before the fireplace, she has this crayon portrait of her father.
- When Homer Barron wants to go back to the north, she does not want to leave her hometown behind (because of her father’s roots there) so she kills him. These are a few examples of ways Emily uses to cling to the past.
The third theme is ‘isolation’. Most of the isolation is obvious: Emily shuts herself up in her house and she never comes out. Parts of that isolation are not so easy to discover though. For example: Emily actually still has family left, but because it is mentioned in only one sentence, you might not notice it. When her cousins then come to visit her in section four, you might think they just appeared out of nowhere. The fact that she has not kept in touch with her relatives in Alabama – they did not even attend her father’s funeral – confirms that she is isolated from her family; she has no one to rely on anymore. She is also isolated from the community, because, as I mentioned before, she shuts herself up in her house. What struck me, though, is that the people of Jefferson do nothing to get Emily out of her shell; they just watch passively on the sidelines. They keep saying how sorry they feel for her, but at the same time they do not take any action to help her.
We will now give you a short analysis of every individual character in the story.
First we have Miss Emily Grierson: She is the protagonist of the story. She has just passed away and the story is a recollection of certain events that took place during her life. Emily is a very secretive woman, as well as quite sad. Not once in her life has she found love, or happiness for that matter. As she gets older, she stops going outside and she has no contact with the rest of the town whatsoever. She is a mystery to the inhabitants of Jefferson and only when she has died do they discover the secret she has kept for about forty years.
Then we have Emily’s father: he is a man who is always in charge, no matter what someone says or does. Alive, he was the one in control of Emily’s life: “None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau; Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung door”. He chases away all her potential suitors and even from his grave, he rules over Emily’s life with an iron fist.
We also have the townspeople: they are the narrators of the story. Because of their gossiping, we know about Emily’s pursuits – or rather, her lack of. They seem to be very compassionate and caring, because they often say “Poor Emily”, and “We often felt sorry for her”. The truth is, though, that the townspeople have not taken any action to make Emily’s life happier or brighter. They just sat there and watched her life go from unhappy to pathetic, without doing anything about it.
The last character we will talk about is Emily’s male-servant, The Negro, Tobe. Tobe is Emily’s black servant and he is her only connection to the outside world. He always goes out with a market-basket, presumably to buy whatever Emily and he need. He stays with her for all his life, and after she has died, he “walks right through the house and out the back door and was not seen again.” When I read about Tobe for the first time, I thought of him as a very mysterious character. How come he stayed with Emily for all of his life? He had probably once been a slave, yes, but now he is allowed to go wherever he wants to go. He stays with Emily, though. Why? The only reason we have come up with for him to stay is the money: when Emily’s father died, someone was going to inherit the money, but it would not be Emily since she is a woman. Tobe is the man closest to her – since she does not have a husband or any relatives – so he is the one who inherited the money for Emily. This theory may be a little far-fetched, but it is the only one we could come up with.
The story is set in Jefferson, a city in the state Mississippi. The city and county are based on Faulkner’s actual childhood city and county, Oxford in Lafayette County. The story takes place from around 1864 until 1936. The story does not say this literally, but we can calculate it. In the third paragraph of section one, the narrators say that Emily’s taxes were remitted in 1894, after her father’s death. When her father died, she was about thirty, so she must have been born somewhere around 1864. Two years after her father’s death, her lover, Homer Barron, disappears and she shuts herself up in her house for somewhere between thirty and forty years. That means she must have died between 1926 and 1936. We now can conclude Emily was between 62 and 72 years old when she passed away.
We will now tell you about the tone and mood of the story.
The tone is very gossipy and confessional. The fact that there is not just one narrator, but a unity of them, confirms this. The townspeople tell the story, but not in a detached way: their emotions play a role in it as well. We can see that when they say: “Poor Emily” and “We often felt sorry for her”. This is the confessional part: they feel sorry for her and they get the message she needs help but still they do not do anything. We can see the gossiping of the inhabitants of Jefferson in every part of the story. An example is: “‘Just as if a man – any man – could keep a kitchen properly,’ the ladies said”. Another example: “So the next day we all said, ‘She will kill herself’; and we said it would be the best thing”. The story is one big bunch of gossip put together to give us an impression of Emily’s life.
The mood is very inquisitive, curious and at certain points: angry.
The inquisitive and curious part is present throughout the story. The author describes Emily in such a way that it seems to be in great detail, but we actually do not know that much about her at all. We also wonder why she acts the way she does and how the townspeople never seem to think of her actions as odd.
I also said that the mood was angry at certain points. By saying this, I do not mean that Emily or the townspeople get angry, but I mean that we, as readers of the story get angry with the townspeople. Once again, it all comes down to their lack of action to get Emily to enjoy life again.
We have searched for literary terms in the story and here are some of the terms we have found:
We have found irony in the title. The title is ‘A Rose for Emily’ even though Emily is not handed roses in her life at all. Quite the opposite, actually: her life is very sad, so all she gets is thorns and no roses.
We have found an allegorical sentence on the second page of section two, the fourth paragraph: “‘Dammit, sir,’ Judge Stevens said, ‘will you accuse a lady in the face of smelling bad?’” In the third paragraph of section two, we read that the judge is eighty years old. In the third paragraph of the second page, we read that a young man tells Judge Stevens to do something about the smell. When the old judge responds to the young man, it seems to be a way of him to avoid having to tell Emily to clean up her house, but there is a deeper meaning to it: in this sentence, we can clearly see that there is a difference in the way the younger generation thinks. The judge has other ideas about what is appropriate than the young man. Besides that, telling a lady her house smells bad is the ultimate insult of southern women.
Another allegory can be found when Emily buys the poison and it says on the box: “For rats”. This means that Homer Barron is a rat. He is not only a rat for being a northerner, but also for wanting to – unintentionally – crush Emily’s dreams and for being gay – a thing to be frowned upon back in those days.
We have found an allusion in the title: in 1913, Gertrude Stein wrote a poem called ‘Sacred Emily’. Her most famous quotation is from that poem: “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. It means that things are the way they are and nothing can be done about it. In the story, the townspeople think nothing can be done about Emily’s situation so they just leave it be. We do not know whether it was Faulkner’s intention to refer to this poem, but we thought it was relevant.
We will conclude our presentation by giving our opinion about the story.
We think the story is very interesting because it is not just a superficial story. It has all kinds of hidden meanings in it and we like the way it makes you think harder about the author’s intentions.


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