A Rose for Emily | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Part 1 | Summary

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Summary

Miss Emily Grierson is dead. Everyone in Jefferson, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, attends the funeral, though the majority are there out of curiosity and obligation rather than actual mourning. Born in the South during the Civil War, Miss Emily is raised by her father. When he dies in 1893, Miss Emily inherits the family's "big, squarish frame house that had once been white." Colonel Sartoris, the mayor at the time of Mr. Grierson's death, tells Miss Emily she no longer has to pay taxes in Jefferson because her father "loaned money to the town."

Thirty years pass and the next generation of city officials has no sympathy for Miss Emily, who earns no income. They send her a tax notice followed by two formal letters requesting she appear at the sheriff's office. She replies "on paper of an archaic shape" in handwriting that is "thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink" to say she no longer leaves the house for any reason. The tax bill is enclosed without comment.

The Board of Aldermen, which effectively runs the town of Jefferson, calls upon Miss Emily in person. These men are the first people in 10 years to cross the threshold of the decrepit house save for the black servant, Tobe. Miss Emily, dressed all in black, enters the parlor. Short and rotund she leans on a cane as she listens to their plea. Replying dispassionately, "I have no taxes in Jefferson," she tells them to look in the city records, then to take it up with Colonel Sartoris. The aldermen are at a loss for what to do as Colonel Sartoris has been dead for 10 years. Tobe escorts them to the door.

Analysis

William Faulkner is a master of the short story form, and he packs more information in a few short paragraphs than many writers can manage in the course of several pages. Instead of explicitly saying everything the reader needs to know about Miss Emily and the town of Jefferson, Faulkner leaves implicit clues for the reader to digest. This style of exposition mirrors the behind closed doors rumor mill of the Old South. Nobody comes right out and says what he or she thinks about someone, instead relying on carefully worded anecdotes to get a point across.

"A Rose for Emily" does not follow the chronological structure common to short stories. It bounces around in time, starting with Miss Emily's death and then delving into brief, nonsequential flashbacks. These memories and observations add tension to the story while foreshadowing events to come. The purpose of this nonlinear structure isn't to relate a history of Miss Emily's life, but rather to engage the reader in the town gossip.

The tone of "A Rose for Emily" is set by the narrator, who speaks in the collective voice of the townspeople. This third-person eyewitness account reveals no personal details, but a close reading of the text provides some basic information. The narrator is most likely a man, as evidenced by the way he describes the townspeople's interest in Miss Emily's death. The men go to the funeral out of "a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument" while the women go "mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house." The narrator portrays the men as upstanding citizens and the women as simply nosy. The narrator is either a member of the Board of Alderman or has close ties to someone who is, as he knows the details of the board's visit to Miss Emily's home as well as her interaction with Colonel Sartoris 30 years earlier.

The aldermen's visit to Miss Emily's house is the key to understanding her psyche close to the end of her life. It's 30 years after the death of her father, and nothing in the house has changed. She dresses in the black clothes of mourning, and a "tarnished gilt easel" in front of the fireplace bears a portrait of her father. The room is dusty, and the furniture is cracked. She thinks Colonel Sartoris is still alive and running the town. Though her body has gotten older to the point where she almost looks dead herself, her mind is stuck in the past. Her life has not advanced since her father's death—nor has her understanding of the world around her.

Miss Emily still adheres to the morals and values of the pre–Civil War South. She expects to be absolved of her debts because, decades earlier, her father was of some importance in town. She refuses to even acknowledge the tax bill, which most likely stems from an old-fashioned belief that it is improper for women to talk about money. Miss Emily's proud and icy demeanor while talking with the aldermen exposes her conviction that she is still the beloved daughter of a powerful man. Outsiders, however, see only a crumbling mansion and a grumpy, aging recluse who clings to a lost way of life.

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