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A Character Analysis and Summary of William Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily'

'A Rose for Emily' by William Faulkner: Summary and Character Analysis
'A Rose for Emily' by William Faulkner is a tragic tale of a woman's struggle to hold on to her past ways.
Shruti Bhat
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
But Where's the Rose?
"A Rose for Emily, was an allegorical title; the meaning was, here was a woman who had a tragedy, an irrevocable tragedy and nothing could be done about it, and I pitied her and this was a salute... to a woman you would hand a rose."
― William Faulkner (in an interview)
A Rose for Emily was first published in a national magazine, Forum, on April 30, 1930. It was republished in Faulkner's personal collection of short stories called These 13 in the following year.
This story is a Gothic tragedy of a woman succumbing to a mental illness. It is loaded with symbolism and deals with themes such as psychological bondage, living in the past, and death (not only physical but also death of old South habits).
Though this is a short story, the writer has split it into 5 parts, each part recording different parts of the protagonist's life. The author also stands as the narrator and a fellow townsman in the story.
Section 1
The story opens at Emily Grierson's funeral, where the whole town along with her man-servant is present. The narrator describes the house and the curiosity of the town's people, as no one has entered the house in decades.

At first glance, the house seems to be at an upscale neighborhood with all its olden grandeur. The narrator recalls that the town's previous mayor Col. Sartoris had exempted Emily's family from paying taxes after her father's death. He claimed that her father Mr. Grierson had loaned a large sum of money to the community in time of their need, and thus, this was their way of paying it back. Even after the new mayor took charge, Emily refused to pay taxes stating she had already discussed it with the previous mayor, who had died a decade ago. She later asked her servant Tobe to show the men the way out.
Section 2
The narrator takes a trip 30 years back in time. He describes the time when the city official received complains from Emily's neighbors. They complained of a foul stench that radiated from Emily's house and reeked their entire neighborhood. They believed that someone or something had died. They soon come to realize that it was her father who had passed away. After constant complaints, Judge Stevens, the mayor of the time, decided to get some lime sprinkled in her yard and foundation. This subsided the odor.

The town's people began to pity Emily and believed her to be going insane like her great aunt. She was left alone in this world at her age of 30. Her father had successfully driven away any possible suitors when they had come their way.

The day after Mr. Grierson's death, the women of the town visited Emily to offer their condolences. They were met at the door with an odd reply. Emily stated that her father wasn't dead. She stuck to this statement for 3 days before she finally handed over the body for the funeral.
Section 3
In this section, the narrator describes how a new man entered Emily's life. A year after her father's demise, the town appointed a construction company and contract workers to pave the sidewalk under Homer Barron. He was said to be a Yankee with a loud personality.

Homer and Emily soon began to court. Their affair was the talk of the town. They were often seen riding around in a buggy on Sunday afternoons.

Emily's name and fame was further compromised when she visited a drug store to purchase some poison and came home with arsenic labeled For Rats.
Section 4
Rumors had it that the wedding that Emily and Homer were planning would not be materializing. People in the town were concerned that she was going to kill herself for that. They tried their best including sending the Baptist minister and calling in her cousins from Alabama.

The talks of her plans of committing suicide sizzled down when the town heard that she had ordered silver toiletries set with Homer's monogram. Soon after her cousins departed, Homer was seen entering her home late one night. That was also the last time anyone had ever seen him.

Decades rolled by, and Emily refused to leave her house. She grew plump and gray. Apart from the occasional China-painting lessons, only the servant "Tobe" entered and exited the house. Nothing was heard from her till until her death at her age of 74.
Section 5
This section speaks of what happens after Emily's death. She is laid out in the parlor and visitors are swarming in to see the remains of her house and her. The town's people break down an upstairs door and find that the room has stood still for decades. They find things bought for the wedding along with the groom lying dead on the bed. The advanced decay suggests that the body was of Homer Barron. The onlookers also find the dust on the pillow next to his had an indentation of a head along with a strand of a long gray hair.
Character Analysis
Emily Grierson
Emily is the protagonist of this short story. She is an old-school southern woman, who clings on to her old lifestyle even when she can no longer afford to do so. She is portrayed to be her father's daughter, who had high expectations of what her suitor should be, which ultimately kept her single all her life. She was said to be artistic as she taught China-painting. She had presumably already committed a murder when she was in her 30s. Her rigid and curt attitude quickly made her an outcast in her society.

Due to lack of sufficient information, it is difficult to know her true nature. But one can conclude that she had issues with letting go of. This is evident not just when it comes to her lifestyle, but she was also unable to let go of her father's corpse even after 3 days of his demise. One can assume that Homer was planning on leaving her after the many wedding plans made by them. So she killed him like he probably killed her plans of a happily ever after.
Homer Barron
According to the narrator, Homer Barron was a Yankee with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face. He was known for his loud voice and cussing at his workers. His loud personality attracted the attention of lonely Emily.

His sexuality too comes into question as the story states: Homer himself had remarked--he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks' Club--that he was not a marrying man. This also could be one of the reasons that he might have wanted to call off the wedding, which drove Emily into insanity and she killed him.

After his death, he was placed on the bed in the room filled with her broken dreams of a happy future with him.
Mr. Grierson
Like the other characters, very little is written about Emily's father, Mr. Grierson. When he was alive, he seemed to be a man with a gigantic horsewhip. He had (over)protected his daughter and kept her in the false pretense of an ultra elite living. He did not believe that any man was suitable for his daughter, which ultimately led her to a life of spinsterhood.
Setting and Theme
The story takes place in the late 19th - 20th century and is set in a fictional Mississippi town of Jefferson. The city is modeled after the town of Oxford (where the writer spent most of his life).

The house in which Emily stayed in till the last was probably an ancestral property. This is because the town still remembered Emily's great-aunt who had gone completely crazy. They were probably very rich too, as Col. Sartoris claimed that Mr. Grierson had loaned the town money, and thus, the town didn't collect taxes from them as a means of repayment.
The story deals with several themes, viz., isolation, clinging on to the past, change, seeing reality, decline of the south, community, psychological bondage, death, and mystery. But mainly, it deals with unwillingness to let go of things that are beyond one's control.
The house was once majestic and probably the pride of not just the residents but also of the town, but now it is decaying. This also symbolizes the decay of old rigid ways and society.
Mailbox and Metal House Number
These things might be small and trivial, but they represent modernization and change. Emily's refusal depicts her unwillingness to change and be stuck and adamant.
Faded Ink
It represents the old ways and methods. The fading of the ink also symbolizes the fading of old ways.
Homer Barron
This character symbolizes immense change and stagnation at the same time. If Homer married Emily, she would have to move or he would move in with her, which would open the doors to a lot more changes. But when he uprooted their wedding plans, Emily was slapped in the face with stagnation, which meant she would be denied of companionship, love, all her dreams would be shattered, and yet again, she would be the talk of the town. It would also mean that nothing would change in her life, and he would leave her for good. Therefore, for her, he had to die so that he does not leave her.
The narrator has mentioned that both Emily's father as well as Homer used large whips to lash the horses of their buggies. Whips represent dominance.