A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What is so scandalous about Emily Grierson's relationship with Homer Barron in "A Rose for Emily"?

Emily's relationship with Homer Barron is considered scandalous for several reasons: Emily considers herself to be a member of the upper class. She acts as if she is too good to associate with regular people, sending Tobe to do her shopping and refusing to pay her taxes. Yet she becomes romantically linked with a day laborer. A man who actually works for a living is below her station. Homer Barron is a Yankee. Northerners were not looked upon kindly after the Civil War, and a proper southern woman would never sink so low as to entertain the affections of someone not from a proper southern family. Even worse Homer purposefully draws attention to himself by choosing to drive a buggy with yellow wheels on their Sunday excursions. Gentility doesn't draw attention to itself. Homer Barron has no intention of marrying anyone as he's proud to announce at the Elks' Club. From the townspeople's perspective it looks as if Emily is having sex with Homer even though he's publicly said he won't get married. In their eyes she looks like a "fallen woman." This is a far cry from her reputation as a genteel southern lady.

Why is the older generation hesitant to use the phrase noblesse oblige in Part 4 of "A Rose for Emily"?

Noblesse oblige (pronounced no-BLESS o-BLEEJ) is the belief of the upper class that their position makes them duty bound to be gracious to those who are less fortunate. Miss Emily's first Sunday drives with Homer Barron are considered to be a function of noblesse oblige. As the older generation said, "[E]ven grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige—without calling it noblesse oblige." The narrator's aside about not addressing noblesse oblige by name is a peek into the unspoken values and customs of the Old South. Being considerate of one's inferiors is not just a nice thing to do; it's a way of making oneself look even better in the eyes of society. That effect is totally lost when an act of goodwill is openly talked about and assigned a name. It's tacky to talk about social status in the Old South. According to the older generation talking around the subject without naming it is much more genteel and polite.

How is female sexuality addressed in "A Rose for Emily"?

Shortly after her father's death Miss Emily begins going for weekly outings with Homer Barron, a northern day laborer. Rumors start to fly that she is a "fallen woman," which basically means that she has had sex with Homer out of wedlock. This is an enormous scandal, and the way the townspeople talk about it is reflective of the era in which the story takes place. Female sexuality was a taboo topic in the late 19th century, particularly in the Old South where a woman's virtue (namely her virginity) was of utmost importance. It is so taboo that no one in Jefferson will come right out and say exactly what Miss Emily has been accused of. Sex and its common euphemisms are found nowhere in the text, and the reader must infer the meaning of the only clue word, fallen. Just a rumor about premarital sex is enough to severely harm a woman's reputation; she falls in the esteem of society. Note that there's no such restriction on men. Women in the late 19th century were expected to be pure and chaste. Any digression from this path is automatically blamed on the woman alone.

Why does the narrator of "A Rose for Emily" use the word cabal in Part 3 when speaking about Miss Emily's cousins?

A cabal is a group of people united in secretive interests, particularly those that are political. The reason for their gatherings is usually unknown to those outside of the group. The narrator of "A Rose for Emily" uses cabal to describe Miss Emily's cousins because they, too, are united in a secret purpose. This hints at the townspeople's eager curiosity to find out what's going on in the Grierson home during their visit. There are two possibilities: The cousins are helping Miss Emily secure a proposal from Homer Barron. The cousins are doing everything in their power to break up the relationship between Miss Emily and Homer. There is evidence and reasoning behind each option. The female cousins want Miss Emily to maintain the family's social standing in Jefferson (as evidenced by two of the female cousins being "even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been"). She needs to marry to do that, and marrying Homer Barron would alleviate the stigma of supposedly sleeping with him out of wedlock. Then again Homer disappears while the cousins are in town. The cousins may have chased him off in an effort to save Miss Emily from marrying a low-class Yankee. In either case the word cabal describes the collective and secret plotting of the rest of the family as they try to enforce their will on Miss Emily.

Why does Emily Grierson attach herself to Homer Barron in Part 3 of "A Rose for Emily"?

Emily's association with Homer Barron is unusual, to say the least. She thinks of herself as a member of the upper class, which is diminishing rapidly after the end of the Civil War. Homer is a Yankee day laborer. Socially he is far beneath her. For someone who cares as much about her family's image as Miss Emily does, it is almost unthinkable that she would even imagine a relationship with Homer. But Miss Emily's sense of propriety is overruled by her age. She's in her 30s when her father dies, which, at the time, was considered to be well past a woman's prime. A woman's role in the late 19th century was to be a wife and a mother, in that order. Women who didn't fulfill that role were viewed as failures. Emily's situation, though bleak, was better when her father was alive. At least then she had a man to care for. That was respectable enough. Now that he is gone she needs to find a husband. Every eligible man in town has been run off by Mr. Grierson and the family's reputation. Her only hope for a complete life as dictated by the Victorian era is an outsider who neither knows nor cares about her personal and family history.

Why doesn't the younger generation of parents in Part 4 of "A Rose for Emily" send their children to Emily Grierson's china painting classes?

There are two reasons the next generation of children does not enter the Grierson home for art lessons. China painting became immensely popular with aristocratic women in the 1870s, but its popularity waned by the early 20th century. Miss Emily began teaching classes in the early 1900s. By the time the next generation of children came around after World War I, the art had long been given up. Women's roles expanded during World War I, both in and out of the home, and women were no longer tied to purely decorative pastimes. By not sending their daughters for china painting lessons, the women of Jefferson are knowingly breaking the chain of turning their daughters into the submissive southern belles of the past. Even more suspect than the art form was the woman who taught it. Miss Emily had long been a target of gossip in Jefferson, but the women who had taken painting classes as children are the same ones who refuse to send their own daughters. They had actually been in her home following Homer Barron's disappearance. They would have surely noticed the decaying furniture and musty air, or at the very least noticed that something wasn't quite right. They suspect the secrets Miss Emily is keeping are not good ones.

What does Emily Grierson's choice of hobby say about her character in Part 4 of "A Rose for Emily"?

Emily paints china, or porcelain tableware. This hobby was common throughout the 1800s but gained enormous popularity in the 1870s, particularly with wealthy women who had a lot of time on their hands. Money and time were both necessary to learn and practice the craft. As both a domestic and inherently feminine pastime, it's something that would have reflected well upon a young woman looking for a husband. Yet when Emily decides to teach china painting in the early 1900s, it is no longer fashionable. Her continued practice of the art is evidence that she is unwilling to give up the culture of the Old South in favor of progress. In addition to allowing her to earn a small stipend, teaching china painting is her way of preserving the values of the past via the new generation.

How do the townspeople react to learning Emily Grierson's secret in Part 5 of "A Rose for Emily"?

Homer Barron's death isn't a big surprise to the citizens of Jefferson. Before the "tomb" is opened, the narrator says about the room, "Already we knew that there was one room ..." They believed Homer was dead and that his body was still somewhere in the house. Faulkner drops hints about the town's complicity throughout the story: Miss Emily's purchase of the rat poison, the terrible smells just weeks after Homer's disappearance, Miss Emily's silhouette in the window on the top floor of the house. The most damning piece of evidence is the pharmacist's refusal to give Miss Emily the rat poison himself. He knows perfectly well she isn't going to use the arsenic for rats, and he doesn't want to be seen giving her the package. They did not, however, expect to see a decaying bridal suite, or Homer Barron's still-clothed body on the bed. The narrator states, "We just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin." They try to piece together what this new aspect of Miss Emily's story means, then realize what the reader has come to understand: Mr. Grierson's stifling influence drove Miss Emily into insanity.

What is the significance of Emily Grierson's gifts to Homer Barron in Part 4 of "A Rose for Emily"?

Emily purchases a man's toilet set, or grooming kit, which was traditionally a comb, a brush, and a mirror, as well as a man's suit and nightshirt. These are not inexpensive purchases—the toilet set, made of silver and engraved with Homer's initials, is purchased from the town jeweler. The townspeople assume that Miss Emily lives on a very small income, if anything at all, and these extravagant gifts indicate Miss Emily's irrational hope for a wedding with all of the trappings. When they are seen at the end of the story, the nightshirt is rotted and the toilet set is tarnished. They are decaying reminders of the hope Miss Emily once had and lost.

What can be inferred about Tobe's relationship with Emily Grierson in "A Rose for Emily"?

Though Tobe talks to no one in town about his life at the Grierson home, there is evidence that he and Miss Emily have a relationship that began as master and slave then evolved into one of trust. Tobe was either Mr. Grierson's slave or hired after the end of the war. Miss Emily probably can't pay him much after her father's death, but he still stays on to take care of her. Prior to her death Tobe is the only other person in the world who knows Miss Emily's secret. He may have even helped her. Homer Barron was a large man, and Miss Emily is very small. If Homer didn't die in the bedroom Miss Emily would have needed Tobe's help to get him there. She trusts him with a secret that could have sent her to prison. Tobe is the public face of the Grierson family and "the only sign of life about the place" as he goes back and forth to town with the market basket. He keeps to himself during these trips, refusing to answer questions about his employer. Even after Miss Emily's death Tobe refuses to talk about her. He simply walks out the back door, never to be seen again.

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