Literary Analysis on “A Rose For Emily”

The story “A Rose for Emily” is a piece that is short in length, but one that is filled with many important aspects of writing. The characters in the story are all different and very important to the telling of the piece throughout. We get to know many of the outsiders looking in, but never really get to know the main character until the very end when her dark secrets are revealed through the drawn out plot. The story revolves around the curiosity about one woman who has always been tight lipped and introverted and the town’s desire to find out what she truly is hiding in the closed up, musty house that she has resided in all her life. The reader is able to get the story from a first person plural perspective because it is told from an objective point of view. While the narrator has lived through the timeline as an onlooker and a prospective character, they are only there to narrate the story, thus allowing for the reader to draw their own conclusions and their own opinions of the characters without any dialogue being present directly from one of the characters own thoughts.

The setting plays an important role in tying all the other aspects together because of the small town “everyone knows everyone” kind of mentality that the story possesses. People are involved in everyone’s business, often curious when information isn’t lent out, causing the small town to delve deeper into the gossip to try and conclude some sort of pivotal story from it. All of these elements create many symbolic aspects in the story like the home itself. She lives in a home that has been a symbol of wealth and prosperity for many generations prior to her, however as the woman ages and deteriorates, so does the house. Lending to the symbol that the mighty have fallen, and just as time ages all, it also eventually decays the life of social status and family history.

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Many stories often revolve around one specific aspect of writing in order to really stress the specific point that the author is trying to make. In this case, character is most important. The character of main focus is Emily, a considerably static character throughout the story, but one that seems to have a very dynamic effect on the people around her. While the reader may not get to know Emily on a personal level, the distance that is created between the reader and the main character is exactly what Faulkner was trying to achieve. The unknown that is felt by the reader and the townsfolk is what perpetuates the desire for the town to speculate on her life, thus evolving Emily’s character without ever having to directly explain her. According to the way she is viewed, Emily is a quiet and introverted individual, what I thought to be possibly attributed to being shy because of her fathers’ protective “insanity” (58) when it came to men, was actually contrasted by another literary analysis as Emily simply feeling too good for others and fiscal obligations.

“The town particularly likes to mention Emily’s failure to pay taxes, which emphasizes her dependency on patriarchal guidance. It also makes her seem petty and greedy, as if she does not want to contribute to the well-being of the town.” (Exists, web). To contrast a particular view of simplistic thinking such as shyness from an overbearing father to assuming that she is a woman of an arrogant nature just provides how unknown Emily is throughout the story and again, only perpetuates further speculation from the reader and townsfolk. The only concrete description that we get of Emily is her physical description as she ages. She grows from a “slender figure in white” (58) to the excerpt in the story where the Board of Aldermen pay her a visit and physically describe the woman they see in front of them. “They rose when she entered – a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony crane with a tarnished gold head.

Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue.” (56). The reader can really see Emily through this description, they can also feel the harsh, undesirable attitude that she has towards these men through the coldness that the character emanates when she “did not ask them to sit” (56). Whether it is a result of growing up with a protective father, or the social status that has been bestowed upon her through inheritance of her last name, she is a character that remains consistently unwilling to let anyone into her house of secrets both physically and metaphorically.

In many stories, when the author portrays a character such as Faulkner did with Miss Emily, there is usually inner dialogue that portrays an internal struggle to back up the negativity that the character feels. However in this piece, because there is no inner dialogue to back up Miss Emily’s distain for the common conversation, the reader is left to draw their own conclusions as to why she behaves the way she does. The key to Miss Emily’s character is that she is a mystery, both to the other characters in the piece and also to the reader. There isn’t a point in the story where the truths come out about her or her intentions. Even through the very end of the story, it remains unclear why her presumed husband to be laid in bed, baron bones with a “profound and fleshless grin” (62).

An important part in creating the controversial character of Emily is the plot. The plot in this story is somewhat choppy, because the timeline in the story isn’t necessarily flowing and in chronological order, it is difficult to pinpoint the initial issue, the climax and the resolution within this story. Even after reading the final sentence, it is difficult to find the resolution. It is possible that Faulkner intended for the resolution to be that of the townsfolk finally finding out what Emily had been hiding all these years in the home. Or perhaps it was the resolution of all the pieces falling together to explain the mystery behind Emily herself.

The story opens with the discussion of a funeral for Emily Grierson. The whole town has attended the funeral not because she was a likable woman, but because she was a woman who was only known through speculation, gossip and her “hereditary obligation” (55) to be free from taxes. Men came to pay respects for a “fallen monument” (55) and women came out of “curiosity” (55). This is the way Faulkner lays the foundation work for the plot of the story. While she is a woman of high regard due to her hereditary roots, she is an obligation and somewhat of a sore as the responsibility to tend to her is passed down from generation to generation. “While she had once lived on one of the nicest streets in Jefferson, the street in now considered to be one of the worst in the town. It would seem that the street had aged and decayed with Miss Emily” (Sem, Web). The plot throughout the story depicts a woman who has fallen victim to the penalties of age and time and the town that has unfortunately been unwillingly given the burden of carrying on her legacy.

“While she had once lived on one of the nicest streets in Jefferson, the street in now considered to be one of the worst in the town. It would seem that the street had aged and decayed with Miss Emily” (Sem, Web). The initial issue in the story; or the foundation for the perpetual conflict is the unpaid town taxes. It had been determined many years prior that Emily would not be held responsible to pay any town taxes as a result of “an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town” (55). Whether this is in fact true, Emily relied heavily on the promise from Colonel Sartoris to never have a financial obligation to pay taxes for a home that was considered a tradition, such as she was considered. As this initial conflict evolves, it becomes a pressing issue once the new, younger generations of home owners begin to take positions of authority. There are several attempts made to collect taxes however all failed when she “vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell” (57).

This is an important part to the piece because it shows that there has been a pre-existing and long lasting issue with Emily whether it is fiscally or in the form of a foul odor. Section II speaks of this foul odor, yet another conflict in the unfolding of the plot. Years prior, a smell secreted from Emily’s home, one so foul that many neighbors complained. They complained so much so that in the dark of night, several men snuck into her yard, sniffing about the foundation of her home, spreading Lyme throughout just to mask and rid the grounds of the foul stench. It is clear at this point that Emily is considered to be a rather hefty burden on the people of the town. Complaints go unfixed, smells are left hanging with no regard for anyone around her and still, her taxes go unpaid. The climax of the story is a bit hard to find, but can be considered to be the point where Emily meets Homer.

After the death of her father, it seems as though Emily coils into her shell much more than she had done prior to his death. When Homer comes into the picture, the town is perplexed by the odd relationship and offended that someone of her stature would allow a man of his stature to court her. The gossip begins to spread like wildfire and accelerate the public affair even more so in an effort for Emily to stand her ground. It seems, on the surface, that Emily is unscathed by this gossip and continues to hold her head high while the men and women tear her dignity to shreds through their mumbled words amongst themselves.

With the gossip being as perpetual as it is, shortly after the affair has publicly begun, Emily purchases Arsenic, rat poison. The rat poison is packaged in a bottle with a skull and bones, “under the skull and bones: ‘For Rats’” (59). This information is important to the plot because it again can be considered foreshadowing but can also lend itself to symbolism. Could Emily consider herself a rat because she has betrayed her social status by being courted by a “foreman” (58)? Again speculation leads to the conclusion that Emily will kill herself and while this could be considered a likely scenario, it couldn’t be farther from the actual truth.

The conclusion of the story is again, not completely clear. Because the story hops back and forth between past and present and never really follows a clear chronological blueprint for the past, it is difficult to consider the conclusion to be part of the opening paragraph of the story. But as Faulkner wrote it, the opening paragraph is essentially what will lead us to the inevitable conclusion, the rotting corpse in the bedroom. The curiosity that has been a constant accelerant for the antics through the story are what eventually lead to the entire town gathering at Emily’s house to pay respect. Emily’s body isn’t even settled into the ground before the curious neighbors and visitors scavenge her house for a room “which no one had seen in forty years” (62). The description of the entering of the room helps to lead to the shocking conclusion “The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust” (62). The dust had long since been set in, the room had been untouched, the tomb had been preserved as well as the “fleshless grin” on Homers skeletal remains.

Suddenly the aforementioned series of events in the previous 40 years comes to fruition, the rat poison, the foul odor, the sudden disappearance of Homer himself. Emily had killed him albeit in an effort to preserve the dream of a husband and a normal life or out of her own self despair for having chosen a man who the town frowned upon. The single strand of gray hair on the pillow next to him only perpetuates the idea that she had killed him in an effort to hold onto him or get rid of him forever. Once again, Emily’s life and intention remain a mystery. Even after her death, she is still causing question and speculation among the town. She will forever be a mystery whether liked or not, the view of her is that she is a complete and total unknown.

Stories can often contain many points of view. When multiple characters are involved, many views can be expressed through internal dialogue and also through the description of the series of events that occur and how the characters react to such. In this story, the point of view is in the first person, more specifically in the plural form of the first person. The narrator uses “we” as opposed to I or they which in turn gave the impression of a generalized and unanimous opinion of Emily. While it is never clear how the narrator is affiliated with Emily or what important role they may or may not have played with first-hand experience, the narration is not so much opinion based as much as it is there to simply narrate and portray Emily only through her actions and the reactions of those around her as a result. “By doing this, Faulkner emphasizes his purpose: to allow the reader to realize that the community chooses to isolate certain members of society” (Michaela I, web).

The point of view portrayed in the story is help isolate Emily and point out how different and odd she is considered to be by the town. There is little room to misjudge the town’s opinion of her because of the point of view coming from one of the town’s people. By using “we” in the story instead of I or they, Faulkner allows the narrator to provide a unanimous opinion of Emily, leaving little room for any misjudgment to occur.

In the first section of the story it is clear that the town views Emily to be “A tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (55). Already there is a clear divide between the town and Emily herself. Faulkner continues to build this opinion as the story develops by showing the town’s desire to aide in her troubled life or provide sympathy towards her in times of hardship, yet also shows how critical the town is of Emily. Through the different series of events, Emily’s motives, actions and reactions are questions and criticized by the town. When her father dies the opinions that are formed are in some ways sympathetic and compassionate, but in other ways are harsh and undeserving. “In a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily….she had become humanized” (58). While the people seemed to initially share this feeling of relief and happiness that a mighty and a woman with “noblesse oblige” (59) had fallen to the graces of a mere commoner, there was a quick turn around when “the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom” (58). Through tradition, the women felt compelled to offer their condolences, not because they genuinely felt sorry for Emily or sought any form of friendship with her, but primarily because they felt required to do so by moral and traditional values.

As the story moves forward, once again the reader can see Faulkner’s attempt to portray the towns struggle to be accepting of Emily, but to resort back to the judgmental ways when Emily refuses to conform or mainstream herself to be a part of the town. It is difficult for the town to look past her self-isolation and to not draw conclusions about her mysterious lifestyle when they have nothing but gossip and speculation to fuel their curiosity. When Emily meets Homer, a labor worker, they at first “were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest” (58), however once again this quickly turned into an unacceptable mockery because of her social stature. “Older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige” (59), they thought that her behavior was unacceptable for a woman of her status and began to worry, not about her in specific, but about what tradition dictated.

If there is anything that the point of view in the story helped to strongly portray it is that Emily was anything but typical and most certainly anything but traditional. She did not partake or conform to any social norm among the town’s people. The rift between her life and the town’s life continued to grow through the story, always increasing the isolation that had been bestowed upon Emily both by the town’s own alienation and by her own form of self-seclusion.

The idea of her alienation and her lonely life was portrayed the strongest towards the end of the book. After years of her being ostracized by the town, and years of secretive behavior, she died alone. “And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering Negro man to wait on her. We did not even know she was sick; we had long since given up…..she died in one of the downstairs rooms, in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her gray head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight.” The imagery that is created by this excerpt is disturbing for many reasons. The visual of Emily dying alone in a dusty dark house was the very epitome of how her life had been lived in this town. She was viewed as odd and abnormal, all attempts to aide in her conforming were eventually thrown by the wayside as she resisted. The town didn’t know about Emily in her life, and this except confirms that they didn’t even know about her in death.

The book as whole depicts a town full of people who are involved in each other’s lives and who come together in unity to pick apart one sorrowful woman’s desire to just be left alone. Her actions are never good enough, her decisions are continually challenged, and she is forever left a loner to both age and waste away to nothing in a big lonely house, having been nothing but a bother for the town her entire existence.

In many pieces of literature, there can be multiple scenes, or settings that take place to help place the reader in the heart of the story. However in “A Rose for Emily” there is only one setting, the home. It can be considered both the physical setting, but also the metaphoric setting because of the secrets it houses and the shelter it provides for Emily from the town. The house had “once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily light-some style of the seventies” (55). The description of what the house once was helps to show that at one point in time, just like Emily, the house was considered to be of wealth and prosperity, sitting on one of the “most select streets” (55) in the town. But overtime the house had fallen victim to an evolving economy. While the houses were knocked down around Emily’s home, hers remained standing “stubborn and coquettish” (55). Just like Emily, this home does not fit into the town. Gas stations are put up next to it and cotton wagons are erected from the ground around the “eyesore” (55). Faulkner’s choice in description of the now awkward house helps to set it apart from the town.

Just like Emily was set apart from the town, the “stubborn” (55) house has continued to go against the grain of society and continued to remain standing much like Emily did, against the grain of change and evolution. An interesting take on the setting of the home is the symbol that it is a fallen legacy. “The setting in “A Rose for Emily” is Faulkner’s fictitious post-civil war Jefferson, a small town in the deep south of the United States. Faulkner’s use of this particular time-period or genre, is successful in giving the reader an understanding or background to the values and beliefs of the characters in the story” (Unknown, web). In essence, the unknown author is reflecting on the comparison that Faulkner made to the legacy of the town of Jefferson. Just as the Grierson’s were once considered high class and of “noblesse oblige” (59) Jefferson was once a booming and flourishing town, but time had deteriorated it and caused it to be just a distant memory. The house itself represents a symbol of time and of age and resistance to change in a modernizing society. Much like Emily, the house has grown, aged and become less than beautiful, while the majority of the story speaks of Emily as “a small, fat woman” (56) there was a point in time where she was considered to be a beautiful “slender figure in white” (58) a woman of desire and high social stature.

This description of Emily relates to symbolism in the story because it is exactly how the home was once viewed. It was built on a street where only the wealthiest of families lived, perched high with cupolas and beautiful architecture, it was admired among many. As time wore on, the house wore down, becoming ragged and uninviting. The house is considered to be a monument, a legacy from what once was. Emily herself is considered to be the same way. She is an inherited burden of the town just like her home is. The home can’t be plowed down, nor can Emily’s stubbornness. The house in essence symbolizes the refusal for conformity in a changing world. Emily is afraid of change and of leaving a world that she has grown up in and come to know as her own, to symbolically venture out into an unknown world around her. When her father passed away, Emily was in denial and refused to admit that he is in fact gone. “Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly” (58). She spent days denying the death, and countless attempts to get her to accept his death went unsuccessful. She was afraid to accept the change that was now being forced upon her. When he was buried, the people in the town didn’t see her for a long time. She kept herself locked in the only thing that has remained consistent in her life, her home.

As the world crashed and changed around her, she took refuge in a familiar place that would allow for her to remain unchanged and accept her for that. Throughout the story, Faulkner spends little time addressing the fact that Emily can’t accept change around her for fear of the unknown however in the many instances that her physical appearance is revealed, it is clear that she has changed albeit willingly or just from aging, “Though, it is later revealed Emily does not like change, the author shows her constant change in appearance. By doing this the author emphasizes the fact that change can not be prevented” (CoutureLover, Web). The house symbolizes consistency in her life, as the world changes around her she is able to maintain control by never changing anything inside of her home. When Homer is introduced into the story, her life suddenly is changed in a more positive light. He symbolizes new hope, change and a chance at a new beginning. However, the reader may not know it, but Emily is once again refusing change. Her desire to keep things she loves around, just like her father and her fear of losing those she loves are the driving force behind her decision to buy Arsenic.

Her purchase of “Rat Poison” (59) is a symbol of her resistance to change and her fear of losing loved ones. She knew that Homer would change her life, and that there would be many unknown obstacles that he may decide he doesn’t want to stick around for and to ensure he stays, out of her own fear, she poisons him. The ending of the story further backs up this symbol of fear of change when he is found in the bedroom in a position that was “once lain in the attitude of an embrace” (62), he died holding Emily. The body formed in this position is a symbol of consistency and forever remaining the same, he may be decayed, but “the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him” (62) and had ensured that for Emily, he would never change and would always be by her side.

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Literary Analysis on “A Rose For Emily”. (2016, Jun 24). Retrieved from