A Summary and Analysis of William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ (2024)

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘A Rose for Emily’ is a short story by William Faulkner, originally published in Forum in 1930 before being collected in Faulkner’s collection, These Thirteen, the following year. The story concerns an unmarried woman living in the American South who attracts the concern and suspicion of the townspeople after her father dies and she becomes romantically involved with a Yankee man from the North.

‘A Rose for Emily’ is a story that invites a number of different critical interpretations and has attracted a great deal of commentary and analysis. Before we analyse the meaning of Faulkner’s classic story, it might be worth recapping the plot.

‘A Rose for Emily’: plot summary

The story begins with the news that Miss Emily Grierson, a recluse living alone with a black servant in a large house in town, has died. The narrator, a kind of collective voice of the townspeople, tells us that everyone in the town attended the funeral, with many of the women being curious to see inside the woman’s house that nobody had been allowed inside for years.

We are told that ten years earlier, the aldermen of the town had gained access to her house in order to question her about failure to pay her taxes. She simply tells them that she does not owe any taxes to the town, and calls for her servant to show the men out. Thirty years before that, another group of men from the town had visited Emily Grierson’s home to sprinkle lime in the cellar and the outbuildings, in order to get rid of the smell coming from the house.

That was two years after the death of her father, a crayon portrait of whom stands on an easel in front of the fireplace. After her father’s death, Emily’s sweetheart had deserted her and Emily left the house only on very rare occasions. When the house had begun to smell a short while after, neighbours had complained to the mayor, but the mayor had been reluctant to confront Emily about such a delicate matter, hence the party of men sprinkling lime under and around the house.

The narrator tells us that the townspeople had always thought the Griersons held themselves in high regard, as if none of the men would be good enough for Emily. When her father died, the women turned up at her house to pay their condolences, but she denied that he had died. The doctors had to persuade Emily to bury the body.

Despite this odd behaviour, the townspeople didn’t consider Emily to be mad. They attributed her actions to her father’s controlling presence, and the way he had sent away all her potential suitors, forcing her to rely on him, even after his death.

After her father’s death, Emily was sick for a long while, and when she was seen again, she had cut her hair short to make her look like a girl. The following summer, a construction company arrived to pave the paths of the town, and the foreman, a Yankee from New York named Homer Barron, is seen out riding on Sundays with Emily. The townsfolk start to say, ‘Poor Emily’, believing that she cannot be seriously interested in a Northerner like Barron.

Emily purchases some arsenic from the local druggist, who assumes she will use it to kill rats. However, the rumour in the town is that Emily is planning to take her own life. People start to grow suspicious of the length of Emily’s courtship with Barron, with the minister intervening and the minister’s wife writing a concerned letter to Emily’s relatives in Alabama, and her cousins come to stay with her. Soon after this, the townsfolk became certain that Emily and Barron had married.

But then Homer Barron vanished, and nobody saw him again. Emily is barely seen either, and when she does reappear from the house, her hair has turned grey and she has put on weight. For a short while, Emily would give lessons in china-painting from her doorstep, but even this she eventually gave up. The townspeople grow up and move on and she becomes even more of a recluse. Her African-American servant loyally remains in her service, but nobody else goes into the house.

When Emily dies and her body is buried, the townsfolk finally venture into the upstairs bedroom in the house, where they discover the dead body of a man lying on the bed, surrounded by dust – presumably, the man is Homer Barron (though this is not stated). Next to the dead body is the indentation of a head and a long strand of Emily’s hair, suggesting that she was in the habit of lying next to the man’s body in the bed.

‘A Rose for Emily’: analysis

‘A Rose for Emily’ is a subtle story which blends first- and third-person narration, Gothic literature and realism, past memories and present events, to unsettle us as readers. The whole town appears to be the story’s narrator, a kind of collective ‘we’ which speaks together about – and against – Emily’s strange behaviour until we reach the chilling finale and Homer Barron’s body is discovered.

This means that Emily remains distant from us as readers, and we never learn about her inner life: we only ever see her from the outside, through the eyes of the townspeople. This is obviously fitting because Emily is an outsider in the town, but it also lends an air of mystery to the events recounted, because so little is understood of Emily’s motivations and emotions.

Because of this unnerving denouement, ‘A Rose for Emily’ is often regarded as an example of Southern Gothic: a literary mode, practised by writers of the American South (like Faulkner) whose stories and novels are characterised by macabre, horrific, or grotesque elements. Such fiction often also contains an accumulation of realist detail, and Faulkner allows the mood of uncanniness which pervades Emily’s house and her life to emerge gradually.

Her reluctance to give up her father’s body for burial, for example, foreshadows her (presumed) murder of her lover and concealment of his body in the upper bedroom, whom she killed when she realised that was the only way of holding onto him and ensuring he remained hers for good. The crumbling Gothic castle has become a house in the Southern United States, in which everything is ‘tarnished’ (note how often that word recurs), spoiled, fading (like Emily’s iron-grey hair), and falling to ruin.

This offers a new, more domestic take on a traditional trope in Gothic fiction: the dark secret threatening to destroy a ‘house’ or family (see Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ for one notable example from the nineteenth century), and (in many Gothic stories) the dead body that is only discovered at the end of the narrative.

But at least Poe’s protagonists managed to bury their bodies (although sometimes, as in the story just mentioned, before they were actually dead), or concealed them beneath the floorboards. Faulkner’s story instead hints at an altogether more morbid and unwholesome notion: that Emily has continued to ‘sleep’ with Homer even after he was dead (indeed, perhaps that was the only way she could sleep with him at all).

Another reason that the Southern Gothic tag is important for ‘A Rose for Emily’ is that Emily, a Southern lady, falls for a ‘Yankee’: a man from the North of the United States. Although the American Civil War ended in 1865, decades before Faulkner was writing, the sense of North-South divide, in terms of culture, class, and identity, proved long-lasting (and arguably persists to this day).

The townsfolk are appalled by the idea that Miss Emily, an aristocratic Southern lady, might seriously be considering marriage to a Northerner, whom they consider to be beneath her on the social scale (hence the reference to noblesse oblige: Emily should entertain Homer and be courteous to him, but the idea that she could marry such a man horrifies the Southern townspeople’s sensibilities).

Faulkner leaves many specific details of Emily’s relationship with Homer as mere hints and speculations, in keeping with the narrative mode of the story: the townspeople, shut out from her house and, in many ways, from her life, can only conjecture as to what happened. We are in a similar position, though it seems sensible enough to surmise that Emily fell in love with Homer – who, it is strongly suggested, had no intention of settling down with her.

Like Emily, he is a perpetual singleton, but whereas Emily is single because of the controlling influence of her father (an influence which persists, in its psychological hold on her, even after her father’s death), Homer is single by choice: a stark reminder of the gender differences between men and women in Southern society at this time.

Women like Emily attract concern and rumour if they remain unmarried, while the bachelor Homer Barron – whose name summons Greek heroism and nobility, while also hinting at the ‘barren’ nature of Emily’s would-be relationship with him – charms the townsfolk and becomes popular, despite being, like Emily, an outsider set apart from them.

Why does Faulkner title his story ‘A Rose for Emily’? In an interview he gave at the University of Virginia, he suggested that Emily deserved to be given a rose because of all of the torment she had endured: at the hands of her father, perhaps at the hands of Homer as well, and as a result of the townsfolk treating her like an outsider.


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A Summary and Analysis of William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ (2024)


What is the overall analysis of the story A Rose for Emily? ›

The story explores themes of isolation, expectations, and the impact of time on individuals and communities. Emily's character becomes a symbol of resistance to change, reflecting the tensions between tradition and progress in the post-Civil War South.

What is A Rose for Emily about short summary? ›

It is the story of Emily Grierson, a southern belle who continuously shocks the town by breaking the social customs expected of her. Miss Emily represents the old South and fights change. The story proves how far a person can go when pressured to adhere to social norms.

What is the main message of A Rose for Emily? ›

The story explores themes of death and resistance to change. Also, it reflects the decaying of the societal tenets of the South in the 1930s. Emily Grierson had been controlled by her overbearing father for the first 30 years of her life and she had never questioned it.

What is the main conflict in A Rose for Emily? ›

The big internal conflict for Emily is her struggle with reality. She refuses to accept that she is no longer living in the antebellum South, where backroom deals could be made to evade taxes.

What is the moral of the story of the rose for Emily? ›

Lesson Summary

One moral, or ethical message, of this story is the risk we take in wearing rose colored glasses because we can't properly see the world when wearing them. Another moral of this story is that we need to find the balance between the morals of the old generation and the modern ideas of the new generation.

What is the central primary purpose of the story A Rose for Emily? ›

William Faulkner's central theme in the story "A Rose For Emily" is to let go of the past. The main character in the story, Emily Grierson, has a tendency to cling to the past and has a reluctance to be independent.

What is the hidden meaning of the rose for Emily? ›

The Power of Death

Death hangs over “A Rose for Emily,” from the narrator's mention of Emily's death at the beginning of the story through the description of Emily's death-haunted life to the foundering of tradition in the face of modern changes. In every case, death prevails over every attempt to master it.

What is the point of view of the story A Rose for Emily? ›

In "A Rose for Emily," William Faulkner incorporates a first-person narrator who uses the plural voice to describe the titular character in relation to the town in which she lives.

What is the irony in A Rose for Emily? ›

''A Rose for Emily'' contains verbal irony when Colonel Sartoris promises the Grierson family that if they loan the town money, they won't have to pay taxes and when Emily tells the new mayor to see Colonel Sartoris, who has been dead for ten years, about her taxes. Neither party means or believes what they are saying.

What is A Rose for Emily mainly about? ›

What is "A Rose for Emily" about? The primary theme in the story is Emily's isolation from her community. Since the townspeople think Emily is a snob, they relish the idea that Emily is receiving her comeuppance from her many misfortunes.

What is the climax of the story in A Rose for Emily? ›

In "A Rose for Emily," the climax occurs when Miss Emily purchases arsenic from the local pharmacy. Throughout the story, Miss Emily is fighting for control of her life with first her father, then the town itself, and the purchase of the arsenic represents the moment when this conflict has reached its strongest point.

What does the title "A Rose for Emily" symbolize? ›

The title of the story "A Rose for Emily" is meant to represent the pity Faulkner has for the character. She has a difficult life, and caring for her father as an only child gives her responsibilities that make it impossible for her to have a normal life.

What is the point of view of the literary analysis A Rose for Emily? ›

"A Rose for Emily" Narrator. Faulkner utilizes a first-person narrator who uses the plural voice (collective narrator), highlighting that he speaks for the entire town. This approach resembles the way in which the Greeks used the chorus in the earliest days of drama.

What is the hidden message in A Rose for Emily? ›

The rose is a symbol of death, it is probably a flower at Miss Emily's funeral. On the theme of death, Miss Emily is unwilling to let go of the dying past, she expects everything to stay the same and she lives with decaying bodies. Instead of life, laughter, and happiness, she can only bear emptiness.

What is the overall tone in A Rose for Emily? ›

Answer and Explanation: In A Rose for Emily, the tone alternates between curious, judgemental, and pitying. Tone is the speaker's attitude toward his subject, and the speaker adopts several attitudes as he tells Miss Emily's story.

What did Emily teach in A Rose for Emily? ›

After the Civil War, Emily and her father were the family's only surviving members. They faced hard times following the war, making Emily teach Chinese painting to young children in the town until she was 40 years old to earn money.


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