A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

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

A Rose for Emily | Themes


The southern way of life goes through distinct changes during Emily Grierson's lifetime, approximately 1863–1937. The American Civil War (1861–65) brings the end of slavery as well as the traditional southern way of life. These changes, along with the roles of gender and class in the New South, are the major themes of "A Rose for Emily."

Post–Civil War South

Southern culture didn't change all at once after the Civil War, partly because specific customs and manners were an ingrained way of life and partly because those who lived through the war clung to the memories of life before it began. This is particularly true for former aristocrats like Miss Emily and Colonel Sartoris. Their families were prosperous and powerful before the war. For Miss Emily and Colonel Sartoris preserving the ways of the "Old South" is a means of protecting the family legacy.

Faulkner and the narrator believe those who cling to the past view it with rose-tinted glasses. Those who long for the past erroneously view it as "a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches." The past seems so much better than the present because people do not remember it clearly thanks to the "narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years." As is the case with the very old men wearing their Civil War uniforms to Emily Grierson's funeral, the passage of time blurs the reality of distant experiences. The past is never as good as it's remembered.

Tradition versus Progress

The citizens of Jefferson are divided into two camps: the older generation, which upholds the traditions of the Old South, and the younger generation, which is more focused on progress than the way things were done in the past. These two parties continually butt heads about what is practical versus what is proper etiquette, particularly when it comes to dealing with Miss Emily.

Southern gentility dictates women, particularly aristocratic women, be treated as if they were fragile objects requiring the utmost care. Colonel Sartoris's promise that Emily Grierson will no longer have to pay taxes is an example of traditional southern manners. He reasons a single female will have no income of her own, and, as the daughter of a well-respected member of the community, she should not be troubled with money, which is up to the men to think about and disperse. Thirty years later the Board of Aldermen can't understand this line of thinking. From their point of view they had to make their own ways after the destruction of the war. No one is exempt from these hardships and new responsibilities, not even formerly aristocratic spinsters. Everyone must pay taxes.

Many southerners feared the North's influence following the Civil War. As the older generation in Jefferson passes on and fades away, so do the manners and customs particular to the Old South. These manners, which included deference to family rankings, landowner graciousness, and a high degree of formality, existed because of a slave economy. Southern gentility conveniently overlooked the fact that their financial and social success was built on the blood and toil of slaves. When the ways of the Old South came crumbling down, the older generation refused to acknowledge its role in creating an unsustainable way of life and instead blamed the growing influence of the North. Modern conveniences championed by the younger generation, such as paved sidewalks and door-to-door mail service, were scapegoats for the perceived destruction of how things used to be. To the older generation in Jefferson the price of progress is the erasure of the charm and character that had made the South such a singular place for more than a century. To the younger generation progress is a necessary part of economic and social recovery.


Emily Grierson, like many women of the Victorian era, is a victim of a society run entirely by men. The first and most damaging male influence in her life is her father. Mr. Grierson uses the family's aristocratic lineage to effectively imprison his daughter in her own home by refusing any suitors who come to the door on the grounds they're not good enough for his only child. It is he, not Emily, who makes this judgment. She remains imprisoned after his death. With no prospects for marriage and no income of her own, she is forced to remain in the family's crumbling mansion. Even after his death Mr. Grierson keeps a tight grip on Emily's future.

Emily's father isn't the only controlling man in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris makes a law that "no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron" but doesn't make any comments about the attire of black men. Judge Stevens ignores the woman who complains about the smell at Miss Emily's house; the man who says the same thing with "diffident deprecation" is rewarded with action by the Board of Aldermen. No matter their class, wealth, or color, women in Jefferson are treated as less important than the town's men.

This isn't unusual for the time period in which "A Rose for Emily" was written and when it takes place. What is unusual is the change in Miss Emily's demeanor after Homer Barron's disappearance. Once cowed into subservience by her father, then forced to find a suitable husband by society, post–Homer Barron Miss Emily suddenly poses a threat to the patriarchy that had so long controlled her. She no longer allows anyone to tell her what to do—not the post office, not the Board of Aldermen. Faulkner uses Miss Emily to show how the patriarchy molded womanhood into a form that can easily be controlled.

Pleasure in Misfortune

The Griersons' slide from southern aristocracy into a lower class is a familiar theme in stories about the Civil War. Faulkner adds another dimension to this riches-to-rags story by showing how much the citizens of Jefferson delight in the inevitable fall of the formerly mighty. This pleasure taken in the misfortune in others, often referred to by the German term schadenfreude, highlights the insecurities felt by those of lower social status. For example, the narrator says that when the news spreads Mr. Grierson left his daughter practically nothing, "in a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily." Her fall makes them feel they are her equals or superiors, which in turn makes them feel better about themselves. Though not a flattering depiction of so-called southern manners, the townspeople's increasing interest in Miss Emily's failing is an accurate portrayal of the ugly side of human nature.

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