A Rose for Emily | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Part 3 | Summary

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Summary

Miss Emily disappears for a while after her father's death. When she finally emerges from the house the townspeople think she looks "tragic and serene," particularly with her new, shorter haircut. Miss Emily's childlike hairstyle isn't the only change in town; workmen are pouring concrete sidewalks, a first for Jefferson. The foreman is Homer Barron. He's from the North, "a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face." His unrestrained laughter attracts a lot of attention, and he quickly knows everyone in town.

To the surprise of everyone Homer and Miss Emily start taking buggy rides together on Sundays. It is originally thought Miss Emily is just being gracious, for a Grierson "would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer." The older generation, though, thinks Miss Emily's actions go way past the duties of noblesse oblige, or the responsibility of being considerate of one's inferiors. Hushed rumors about Miss Emily and Homer Barron start flying around town, all ending with "Poor Emily." Yet Miss Emily carries her head high. Perhaps, the narrator says, this was her way of demanding "the recognition of her dignity," showing "that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness."

Miss Emily's "earthiness" with Homer reminds the narrator of a separate incident a year later. Miss Emily, looking strained and thinner than usual, asks the town druggist for arsenic. By law the druggist must find out the purpose of her purchase. Miss Emily refuses to say. When she opens the package at home, it is labeled simply, "For rats."

Analysis

Emily's association with Homer Barron causes a scandal in Jefferson. He arrives in 1894, the year after her father's death. The official period of Reconstruction following the Civil War ended in 1877, but northerners still flocked to the South for job opportunities. The end of the war didn't do much to change the attitudes of the die-hard Southerners. In Jefferson black women are required to wear aprons in public, and the black men paving the sidewalks are called derogatory names. Northerners were just as suspect as blacks, perhaps even more so, and Homer's position as a day laborer puts him quite low on the rungs of the social ladder. Someone of Miss Emily's self-proclaimed stature would normally be hard-pressed to find a reason to associate with such a man, much less go out with him in public week after week.

Naturally the town gossips assume Miss Emily has become a "fallen woman." To put it more bluntly, they think she has had sex with Homer Barron. Women of this era were expected to maintain their honor and good virtue by not engaging in sexual relations before marriage. Flirtation was fine, but any hint of sexual impropriety could severely damage a woman's reputation and her marital prospects. A rumor about extramarital activities is one of the worst things that could happen to a woman of Miss Emily's station. Her continuing relationship with Homer effectively ruins any future prospects of matrimony with a proper southern gentleman.

This doesn't bother Miss Emily at first. "She carried her head high" even when she knew the townspeople were whispering about her. A year later however, her strong facade shows cracks. When she turns up at the druggist's to buy the arsenic, she looks terrible. Her skin is "strained across the temples and about the eyesockets," a look that the narrator compares to how a lighthouse keeper appears after keeping watch for so long. In the convoluted timeline of Faulkner's narrative, this visit takes place a year after Miss Emily and Homer became romantically involved. Her cousins are visiting from out of town, and Homer has disappeared for a while. Something is taking a physical toll on Miss Emily. It could be the arrival of her family, or, more likely, it's that she and Homer have courted for more than a year and he still hasn't proposed. The Griersons' recent fall from the upper echelons of society has made Miss Emily more mindful than ever of what is expected from her as a woman, and the pressure to conform is apparent in her appearance. She needs to marry, and fast. Homer Barron is her last chance.

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