“A Rose for Emily” is a story about the decline of Southern aristocracy during the early 20th century. The titular character, Emily, declines alongside her house, eventually becoming mentally ill, murdering her lover and sleeping alongside his decaying body. However, while she may have been predisposed to such a state due to her birth and upbringing, Emily alone cannot be blamed for the events of the story. She makes the effort to escape her circumstances, giving art lessons to children, making changes in her appearance, and falling in love with Homer Barron. However, she ultimately fails to achieve her objective and recedes further, living out the rest of her life without leaving her house. The reason for this failure is pressure from the town’s community, which may be considered the true protagonist of the story, due to its dominant values.
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The narrative of “A Rose for Emily” is told from an external perspective, one that is presumably that of a town resident. The narrator identifies the town as “our” and speaks of it, and the events in it, with familiarity, showing knowledge of what took place during the visit by the Board of Aldermen (Faulkner 628-29). As such, the story is framed around the town’s reactions to Emily’s life and actions rather than the actions themselves, and some, such as the minister’s visit to her, remain a mystery. It can be seen that Jefferson’s residents disapprove of her affair with Homer: “of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer” (Faulkner 631). When it becomes apparent that she is going to try to marry Homer, gossip about the two intensifies, with information such as his apparent homosexuality surfacing. The minister’s wife ultimately writes to Emily’s cousins, which deter Homer from visiting Emily’s house until they are gone. The town interferes in Emily’s life, both passively and actively, because she is doing something that contradicts its values. Per Dilworth, Emily is seen as “a representative of idealized Southern womanhood,” an example that the other women in the town look up to but are unable to follow. She is expected to uphold the perceived values of the formerly-influential Grierson family, and the prospective husband is seen as both beneath her in social standing and unsuitable for marriage as a Northerner. To marry him would be a betrayal and a loss of the perceived moral compass for the residents of the town. With the paragon of female virtue abandoning the values of the Old South, the townspeople are afraid that further changes will follow.
Change in Jefferson
The people in the story appear to disapprove of change, in general, likely as a result of their desire to adhere to old Southern values. The older generation considers Emily to be untouchable, refusing to challenge her on her refusal to pay taxes and ignoring the smell that comes from her house following the murder. The reason for the second decision is particularly notable and exemplified by the statement: “’Dammit, sir,’ Judge Stevens said, ‘will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?’” (Faulkner 630). It is considered improper by the older generation to challenge the status quo, even if one has some concerns regarding it. As Emily embodies this principle, she receives a large amount of leniency, which is further compounded by the pity the townspeople express for her circumstances. The younger generation, “with its more modern ideas,” disagree with this idea somewhat, but even they are cowed by Emily’s status and conviction (Faulkner 628-29). They have some ideas for change, but ultimately, the town’s culture still has a powerful hold on them, and they find it challenging to confront Emily because of their internal beliefs and the pressure by others. With that said, ultimately, the residents of Jefferson are unable to stop the progress of time, and the town evolves despite them. The racial slur used to refer to black people at chronologically earlier points in the story is replaced by Negro when the narrator shifts to the present, and what was formerly the town’s main street becomes filled with garages and cotton gins. The inner beliefs of the residents undergo a substantial evolution, as well, though the process is more implicit.
The Town and the Murder
In the context of these beliefs, the murder of Homer Barron, which was previously mostly absent from this paper, becomes essential. It demonstrates the decay in the values of the town that accompanies the decline of Emily and her house. As a representative of the town’s values, Emily is forgiven increasingly large transgressions, up to and including murder. As Yang notes, rather than arouse resent for Emily’s actions, the descriptions evoke pity for her condition and her continued decline that drove her to do it (1853). This reaction seems to be unnatural, as her actions are grotesque, and the scene described in the story is likely to evoke strong negative emotions. However, with the longstanding town-wide pity Emily has received ever since she turned 30 and became a spinster in its eyes, the following transition appears natural. Faulkner shifts his focus to the other pillow on the bed, on which a strand of gray hair is found (634). The implication is that Emily has slept next to Homer’s body for thirty years, presumably because of a twisted form of love. The reader then becomes absorbed in the short story’s Gothic theme, wondering about the insanity that drove her to her acts. The mentions of the madness running in the family help reinforce the idea in the mind of the reader, convincing them that she had issues from the beginning. After the continued oppression by her father and the abandonment by her lover, she went mad and chose to kill the latter to preserve a twisted version of her life. However, this version takes attention away from other critical clues that are spread throughout the story.
The townspeople had numerous clues that Emily had murdered Homer, such as his disappearance, her purchase of poison for an unspecified reason, and the smell that developed shortly after the murder. However, they refused to act on these hints, choosing to ignore the issue until it went away. This behavior is atypical for the town that was so keen on gossip regarding Emily and Homer several weeks prior. The townspeople likely knew about the murder but chose not to speak of it or investigate it. The reason for this behavior may be a perversion of the latitude given to Emily on other matters in the town. However, Dilworth suggests a different reason why the residents of Jefferson ignored Emily’s crime despite knowing about it, painting the community as the driving force behind the murder (251). Her affair with Homer contradicted the Southern values of the town, which, in turn, exerted social pressure on Emily to break off the engagement. She did so to regain her position in the community, and the people were satisfied. In this context, the murder takes a new connotation, as it was unnecessary if Emily merely wanted to placate the community. Bai et al. claim that it was an act of rebellion by a woman who was starved of love her entire life due to the various restraints and wanted to preserve the attachment she formed (614). As such, the town of Jefferson is collectively responsible for the murder and Emily’s insanity because of its suffocating culture and refusing to accept the changes that took place.
“A Rose for Emily” is a story about Southern society in the early 1920s and the traditions that governed it. However, without a deeper reading, it can be challenging to comprehend the full implications of the work. Emily is not an outlier that comes from a family line with insanity in it, as the narrator would have the reader believe. Rather, she is a product of the society at the time, with its deeply rooted values and social pressure to conform to them. As a result of having a controlling father, she was never allowed to develop emotionally. Her attempts to do so after his death and break the informal convention of Jefferson’s society were met with social pressure that ultimately drove her mad through her isolation. The twisted Southern culture that would tolerate murder for the sake of preserving its identity, a task at which it failed regardless, is the central topic of the story and the subject of Faulkner’s criticism.
Bai, Xiaojun, et al. “An Analysis of Emily’s Characters in A Rose for Emily from the Perspective of Narration.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research, vol. 11, no. 4, 2020, pp. 611-615.
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Dilworth, Thomas. “A Romance to Kill for: Homicidal Complicity in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 36, 1999, pp. 251-62.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. 12th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. 628-34. Print.
Yang, Pingping. “A Road to Destruction and Self-destruction: The Same Fate of Emily and Elly.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 3, no. 10, 2013, pp. 1850-54.