A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

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Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College explains the symbols in William Faulkner's short story A Rose for Emily.

A Rose for Emily | Symbols


"A Rose for Emily" is only a few pages long, but every word and turn of phrase is packed with meaning. Many words, particularly those describing the aging and decay of Miss Emily and her surroundings, do double duty as physical representations of Miss Emily's evolving psyche.

The Grierson House

The "big, squarish" house symbolizes Emily Grierson's crumbling hopes and mental condition, along with the Grierson family's fall from their position in southern high society. The house had been constructed in a "lightsome" or carefree style "with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies" on the "most select street" in Jefferson. Throughout her youth when she and the house were in their prime, Emily saw her hopes for marriage and a family destroyed as her father judged each young suitor not "quite good enough" for his daughter. As the story's timeline skips around the reader can ascertain Emily's emotional state and the Griersons' status by the condition of the house. When the reader first meets Miss Emily, the formerly grand house is described as "an eyesore among eyesores" in a run-down, junk-filled neighborhood. In Part 2, however, the Grierson home is in pretty good condition save for one thing: the smell of Homer Barron's rotting corpse. This blemish on an otherwise fine property indicates the fall from grace on the horizon. The appearance of the Grierson home is a physical representation of the family's status and Emily's descent into delusion and madness. By the end of Miss Emily's life what used to be such a source of pride is now a source of pity.

Gray Hair

Like the Grierson House hair color is used to indicate the passing of time in "A Rose for Emily." Emily Grierson's original hair color is never stated, but when she finally emerges from her house after Homer Barron's disappearance the narrator notices "her hair [is] turning gray." The servant Tobe's hair also turns gray, and the townspeople track how long it has been since Miss Emily was last seen by the color of his hair, "daily, monthly, yearly."

As Miss Emily ages her hair grows "grayer and grayer" until it is a "vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man." The narrator's comparison of Emily's hair to that of a man is apt, as is its description as "vigorous" and "iron-gray," vigor and iron both indicating strength. Her hair starts to turn gray immediately after Homer's disappearance, which coincides with Emily's tacit refusal to take care of the smell on her property. By the time her hair is completely gray she is flat-out refusing to cooperate with city officials on a number of issues. The graying of her hair over time symbolizes the strengthening of her will—iron-like —to live as she pleases, in defiance of social strictures.

Man's Toilet Set

The toilet set, or grooming kit, Miss Emily purchases for Homer Barron is a generous gift that represents the hope Emily has placed on an anticipated union with Homer Barron. Usually including a brush, a comb, and a mirror backed with silver, men's toilet sets were more than just toiletries; they were a status symbol that indicated membership of the aristocracy. Such a purchase would have been a major expense for a woman with limited income, but the concept of maintaining her role as an aristocrat is important to Miss Emily. By marrying Homer (and his money) she will be able to save the family's name and position.

She doesn't marry him, of course, and when the toilet set is seen again it's in the bridal-suite-turned-tomb. The narrator's description of the scene is one of immeasurable sadness. The careful tableau arranged years before is covered in a thick layer of dust. The toilet mirrors the decay of the bridal suite. Disuse has tarnished the formerly shiny silver; the HB monogram is almost illegible. Its decay symbolizes the crumbling of the ways of the Old South, the crumbling of the town's connection to the past, and the crumbling of the heart, which had finally found an outlet in Homer Barron.

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