Analysis of “A Rose for Emily”
A Rose for Emily is a story written by American writer William Faulkner that was first published on April 30, 1930 in the magazine “Forum.” The story takes place in Jefferson City (Mississippi state), in an imaginary county of Yoknapatawpha created by the author. This was Faulkner’s first story to be published in a reputable national journal.
However, that is not the proper way to begin this story. William Faulkner is more than just “an American writer”; he is a legendary figure in world literature who made significant contributions to describing social breakdown after the Civil War. The writer explored themes such as violence, human decay, terror, dark minds, and society’s unwillingness to understand or even notice all of these concepts in his works. This resulted in him receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature.
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But besides its pinky and optimistic title, “A Rose for Emily” is a gloomy text full of the aforementioned themes: the dilapidated estate of the “once great aristocratic Grierson family,” a dead corpse of Homer Barron lying in the bed being “loved” for decades, and a mentally disturbed Emily Grierson “loved by her father” into loneliness and necrophilia.
From the outside, this appears to be a straightforward story. It’s short and has only a few characters who each have very limited and specific roles: Mr. Grierson and his daughter Emily — their job is to be noble and important; Emily’s beloved low-class Homer Barron, whom she kills to keep around her forever; Colonel Sartoris, who exempts them from paying city taxes; the unbearable cousins who arrive for Emily’s rescue when she falls in love with a “nobody Homer” and, finally, the town
Then there’s the narrator, who introduces the readers to Mr. Faulkner’s story. The narrator is a collection of different Jefferson town men and women, each with a story to tell about Emily. The plot jumps around all the time, relying on memories, stereotypes, and bits and pieces of information that are difficult to piece together until the very end. The events culminate in a gothic whirl of a dark and frightening story whose main theme can be described as resistance to change and generations’ habit of thinking “as we used to think it” and doing “as our parents used to do it.”
Faulkner is well-known for the writing techniques he employs to make his suspenseful stories even more mysterious and engrossing. One of the techniques used in this book is a complete lack of chronology in how events unfold from chapter to chapter, as well as a constant shift in the author’s focus from one phenomenon or character to the next. To better understand the story, read the events in chronological order below. It should help you untangle the plot threads and get all the ducks (events in the story) in a row.
But for the time being, let’s concentrate on the story’s central message. Who are the main characters? Emily Grierson, the protagonist, is a lonely, reserved, and stubborn old lady who lives in the past. She exemplifies social injustice and an unwillingness to change. Mr. Grierson, her father, was once a prosperous Southerner who is now desperately clinging to what little wealth and status he has left after the war. He treats the entire town as if it belonged to him, and he does not want anyone near his daughter. In his example, the reader can see that even after slavery was abolished, previous slave owners were still revered and received a number of undeserved benefits. According to the author in Chapter 4:
“Miss Emily’s family was Episcopal”,
Emily seemed to belong to the entire town, as if she were both their symbol and their pain.
The town is a character in its own right, with its thoughts and ideas, attitudes and fears toward Emily and her family forming a large part of the story’s events and possibly serving as the main reason for the Grierson family’s crooked behavior. The narration begins with the reminiscences of various men and women who lived in Jefferson and attended the funeral of the legendary Emily Grierson. Faulkner introduces his narrators’ plans to attend the funeral at the start of Chapter 1:
“…The men were there out of respect for a fallen monument, and the women were there mostly to see the inside of her house.”
Their memories of Emily are jumbled; they are fragmented, but not completely, come from different people, and have varying degrees of detail.
The title of the story suggests that, despite the atrocities described in the text, the author does not despise his protagonist. Instead of blaming, he wishes to pay tribute to her, as a man would when presenting a flower to his lady. Jeffersonians were also desperately trying not to think negatively of her. We read in Chapter 2:
“When her father died, it came to pass that the house was all that was left to her; and, in a way, people were relieved.” Finally, they could sympathize with Miss Emily.”
The town thought she was strange; they judged her when she fell in love with the construction worker Homer, but couldn’t imagine her murdering him when her house began to stink.
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Through this book, Faulkner demonstrates that in the world, there are people who will do anything to change history, and those who will do anything to avoid doing anything. Faulkner’s characters are divided into two groups: those who want to avoid dealing with Emily at all costs (Colonel Sartoris, who exempts the strange lady from taxes, the pharmacist, who doesn’t ask Emily what she plans to do with the arsenic, or the new mayor, Judge Stevens, who sends four men to quietly sprinkle lime around her cellar and yard to eliminate the smell), and those who want to find reasons to worship her.
Reading the story is like reading the thoughts of Jefferson’s residents. And it’s unclear whether the darkness was all about Emily, or if it was the small pieces of everyone’s flaws that cloaked this story in horror. After all, we all have a little bit of oddness in us.
“A Rose for Emily” in Structured Order
Around the time of the Civil War, Emily Grierson is born; her father (who is never named in the text) is a controlling and invasive man who exaggerates his ancestry. He isolates her from social interaction, but this only serves to pique the town’s interest in her. They regard her as an idol and a symbol of their community.
Despite gradually losing their wealth and status, the Grierson family is seen riding in a fancy carriage and is still regarded as a trophy and Jefferson’s pride.
Emily’s father died around the year 1894, but she kept it a secret for three days. We know this date because Emily is exempted from paying city taxes by mayor Colonel Sartoris in 1894, shortly after her father’s death. The town chief fabricates a story in which Miss Emily’s father lends money to the city council, but no one believes it. Despite giving some music lessons to a few children, Emily becomes increasingly estranged, enclosing herself in her estate and refusing to interact with other citizens.
Summer after her father’s death, when Emily was in her thirties: Homer Barron arrives from the north, looking for construction work in town, and begins a relationship with Emily. The people of the town are outraged at such an inappropriate relationship between a noblewoman and a low-class nobody. They summon Emily’s two female cousins from Alabama to talk sense into her.
Homer then leaves town, followed by his cousins.
Emily is seen purchasing rat poison one year after her and relationship with Barron’s began. They believe she intends to commit suicide, and no one seems to care. However, Emily later purchases a slew of male items, including clothing and an engraved shaving kit. People believe Emily and Barron will marry after all.
Barron returns to town three days after Emily’s cousins leave (the town population seems to think their character is even more difficult than Emily’s), but then disappears.
Emily’s house begins to stink two years after her father’s death. Everyone in town is aware of it, but no one dares to confront her. They spray lime around her house in the middle of the night, and the smell goes away after a week or so. Everyone seems to have forgotten about the lady after that, as there is no recollection or memory of her since then.
“The only sign of life in the area was a Negro man, a young man at the time, going in and out with a market basket.” (Chapter 2)
30 years later: The new town chiefs (Board of Aldermen) come to Emily’s house (one of the few people who ever came up to that mansion) to renounce a previous deal and force her to pay city taxes. She states unequivocally that she would never do such a thing.
Emily dies at the age of 74. The entire town attends her funeral, recalling their memories and impressions of the elderly lady. People enter her house after the funeral for the first time in ten years. Her servant opens the door for them and then leaves. People discover a dead body of Homer Barron and gray female hair on the pillow next to him upstairs in the bedroom.
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