A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What does the narrator mean when he describes Emily Grierson as "a fallen monument" in Part 1 of "A Rose for Emily"?

Emily Grierson was born during the Civil War, and she came of age during Reconstruction. Though the city of Jefferson and its inhabitants change with the times, Miss Emily clings to the memories and values of the past. Her once-magnificent house is crumbling yet she acts as if she is still a member of the southern aristocracy. She returns the tax bill "without comment," an indication that she finds it unseemly for women of her stature to talk about financial matters. Though she has very little money and lives alone, she employs a black servant to take care of her just as southern aristocrats did for decades before the war. Initially the townspeople of Jefferson view Miss Emily's adherence to old values and customs as a symbolic reminder, or monument, of the glory days of the South. Yet by the time of her death in the 1930s, she is viewed by her neighbors as an out of touch relic. In their eyes she is not so much a person as she is a symbol of how things used to be. When she dies, she becomes "a fallen monument" to an outdated way of life.

How does Faulkner's decision to set "A Rose for Emily" in Yoknapatawpha County give the reader a better understanding of the story?

"A Rose for Emily" takes place in Jefferson, the seat and only town of Yoknapatawpha County. Yoknapatawpha County is the setting for most of William Faulkner's work, including 15 novels and more than 50 short stories. From Faulkner's other stories it is known that the county's economy revolves around agriculture. The Grierson family's presence in town automatically positions them as better off than the small tenant farmers in the outlying county, but it also puts them under the scrutiny of the town gossips. In a small town the wealthier families were supposed to set an example of morality, grace, and decorum. Many of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha characters appear in multiple stories. This reuse of characters not only allows readers to become intimately familiar with each character's backstory, it also gives Faulkner the chance to explore similar themes throughout his work. Colonel Sartoris, for example, is a major character in two of Faulkner's novels and the narrator of one short story. In "A Rose for Emily" he is the mayor of Jefferson at the time of Mr. Grierson's death. His brief appearance gives the reader just a glimpse of his old-fashioned values. Those familiar with Faulkner's work, however, have a complete understanding of the colonel's resistance to change and his dedication to preserving the heritage of his family and his town. The struggle between the past and the future is a recurring theme in Faulkner's writing, and Colonel Sartoris's presence in "A Rose for Emily" indicates that this story is no exception.

How does Emily Grierson's reaction to the tax bill in Part 1 of "A Rose for Emily" reflect her values and self-image?

Emily refuses to even acknowledge the tax bill from the Board of Aldermen. When she responds to the mayor's letter beseeching her to meet with him, she also encloses the tax notice "without comment." This is because she views herself as a proper southern lady. Prior to the Civil War and for several years after it was considered unseemly for a woman of a certain social status to engage in discussion about money, particularly with a man. A woman's domain was limited to taking care of the family and the home; upper-class women were expected to do even less. Though Miss Emily's way of life is long outdated she still clings to the aristocratic training and values she received as a young woman. Miss Emily's refusal to acknowledge the receipt of the tax bill is her way of chastising city officials for daring to broach such an indelicate subject with a woman of her stature. It is also a sign that she is still living by the values of the old, pre–Civil War South.

What is the importance of the aldermen's visit in Part 1 of "A Rose for Emily"?

The aldermen come to Miss Emily's house to talk to her about her languishing tax bill. In the grand scheme of the story however, the taxes are of very little importance. William Faulkner sets up this meeting to allow the reader a glimpse into Miss Emily's life and home 30 years after her father's death. The reader learns several key things during this brief scene: The once-regal Grierson family home has fallen into disrepair, even on the inside. The leather furniture is cracked and dusty; the room smells of dust and disuse. Thirty years after his death Miss Emily is still mourning her father. She dresses all in black; his portrait is displayed "[o]n a tarnished gilt easel," almost as if it hasn't moved since his funeral. Miss Emily has deteriorated almost as badly as her house. She looks dead herself, "bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water." Miss Emily is literally living in the past. She does not understand that Colonel Sartoris is no longer mayor, nor does she realize that he died 10 years earlier.

What does the narrator of "A Rose for Emily" mean when he says of the townspeople, "At last they could pity Miss Emily," in Part 2?

The rumor that Miss Emily's father left her penniless gives the townspeople of Jefferson an immense sense of satisfaction, which they disguise as pity. Long ago fed up with the way the Griersons "held themselves a little too high for what they really were," the townspeople are glad to see the family get its comeuppance. This could be out of jealousy of the Griersons' supposedly unearned status in town or irritation at the false airs assumed by the family. No matter the reason southern manners dictate that delight in someone else's troubles be disguised as pity. Outright revelry would be considered unseemly, particularly for true southern ladies. "Poor Miss Emily," they can say to one another before launching into the latest gossip about the spinster in the crumbling white house. This sense of schadenfreude, or pleasure at someone else's misfortune, is present throughout the story.

What is the narrator's purpose for mentioning old lady Wyatt, Emily Grierson's great-aunt, in Part 2 of "A Rose for Emily"?

The narrator introduces the unseen character of "old lady Wyatt" for several reasons. The first is to show Miss Emily's connection to mental illness. The narrator doesn't give specifics, simply saying she "had gone completely crazy at last." It wasn't unusual for women in the Victorian era to be labeled mentally ill, particularly if the woman in question violated social norms. The narrator makes this connection between Miss Emily and her great-aunt to give credence to the theory that there might be something wrong with Miss Emily that prevents her from marrying. This short aside also speaks to the long memories of Jefferson's close-knit community. The generations of Griersons who came before her cast a long shadow over Miss Emily, which colors the way her neighbors perceive her. Miss Emily will always be a Grierson, for better or worse, and she will always carry the stigma associated with the family name.

How is imagery used to show the evolution of Emily Grierson's personality in Part 2 of "A Rose for Emily"?

William Faulkner uses imagery in Part 2 of "A Rose for Emily" to show how Emily has taken on the same ideals as her father. The narrator describes how the townspeople visualize Emily and her father. Emily, all in white, is in the background, while her father, all in black, stands in the foreground, "his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door." This menacing image shows that Mr. Grierson controls Emily's life (and marriage prospects) even during Emily's adulthood. He is the gatekeeper of the household. As Emily ages she takes on her father's menacing personality. When the aldermen confront her about her tax bill she "vanquished them, horse and foot," as though they were cavalry and foot soldiers in the Civil War. The force of her presence is further evident as the narrator describes what the aldermen see as they sneak around Miss Emily's yard. A light comes on in a darkened upstairs room, "and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless" as if she were a statue. Like her father Miss Emily isn't just the protector of the Grierson home—she literally looks down on anyone who dares cross its property line. She has stepped to the forefront of the picture, her own icy glare replacing her father's foreboding image.

How is the Grierson family's fall from grace illustrated in Part 1 of "A Rose for Emily"?

The Griersons' fall from the top of the social ladder is mirrored in the decay of their home. When new it was bright white and "decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies" meant to display the family's wealth on the "most select street" in Jefferson. As the years passed however, the house fell into disrepair, and commercial buildings gradually took the place of other houses on the street. The smell that emerges from the property a few years after Mr. Grierson's death is chalked up to "another link between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty Griersons." When Miss Emily dies the house is "an eyesore among eyesores" on a street crowded with cotton gins, garages, and gasoline pumps. The Griersons no longer have any status or legacy in Jefferson.

How does the druggist's note in Part 3 of "A Rose for Emily" create dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony is when the reader of a story knows something the characters do not. By law the druggist has to record any sales of poison and how the poison will be used. When Miss Emily won't tell him why she wants the arsenic he suspects that she may be planning to commit suicide. So as not to embarrass or insult her he labels it as being "for rats" as that's what everyone else in town uses it for. The dramatic irony is that Miss Emily really is getting the arsenic for rats, or one rat in particular: Homer Barron. Though the druggist doesn't know this the reader does, which is why it's ironic.

What does Homer Barron represent in "A Rose for Emily"?

Homer Barron is a Yankee carpetbagger, or someone who came to the South for profit after the end of the Civil War. Carpetbaggers were looked upon with suspicion—most wanted to get rich quickly at the expense of a population and an economy that suffered greatly during the war. Perhaps more of a problem was that northern transplants were ignorant about the customs and heritage southerners held so dear. Homer's presence in Jefferson represents the North's influence in the decline of southern culture following the Civil War. The townspeople do not welcome this outside influence. Miss Emily murders Homer because he won't marry her, which goes against traditional southern thoughts about relationships between men and women. His death at Miss Emily's hands symbolizes how tightly the South clung to its traditions even after the war's end.

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