Initially published in Forum on April 30, 1930, and collected in These Thirteen in 1931, “A Rose for Emily” remains one of William Faulkner’s most read, most anthologized, and most significant stories. From every imaginable perspective, critics have scrutinized the components of Faulkner’s literary technique: The story has been viewed as an allegory of southern history, a metaphorical depiction of NorthSouth relationships, feminist nightmare or feminist victory, a gothic horror story, a sociological portrayal of individualism squelched or individualism triumphant, a bleak fictional tale of determinism. Faulkner’s uses of structure, tone, point of view, and imagery play key roles in his depiction of Miss Emily Grierson. The fact that readers and critics still engage in interpretive debates over its meaning merely ensures that it will continue to be read.
Told from the perspective of Jefferson, in Yoknapatawpha County, in a narrative voice that consistently relates the details that “we”—the smug and gossipy townspeople of Jefferson—have observed, the story is intriguing on the level of plot and character alone: Miss Emily has just died, and we learn that she lived alone after her father died and Homer Baron, her Yankee lover, apparently abandoned her. Suspense continues to build when we learn that a mysterious odor emanated from her house at the time that Homer disappeared. Faulkner employs a number of clues to foreshadow both denouement and motivation, including the “tableau” of the imperious father with a horsewhip overshadowing his white-clad young daughter Emily; the portrait of her father that Emily displays at his death, despite his thwarting of her natural youthful desires; her defiant public appearances with the unsuitable Homer Baron; her sense of entitlement; and the arsenic she buys to rid her house of “rats.” Despite these and other devices, however, new generations of readers still react in horror when Emily’s secret is revealed: She not only murdered her lover but slept with his corpse in the attic bridal chamber she carefully prepared.
If Miss Emily is crazy (and most critics agree that she is), Faulkner implies that she has been made so by the constrictions of a father who refused to let her marry and by the conventions of a society that eagerly filled the void at his death. Numerous critics have suggested that behind the gothic horror of necrophilia and insanity in this classic story, Miss Emily Grierson is the oddly modern hero. Indeed, one critic asserts that we cannot understand any of Faulkner’s heroes if we do not understand Miss Emily, for she is the “prototype” of them all (Strindberg 877). As with other troubled Faulknerian protagonists, death literally frees Miss Emily—from patriarchy, from society’s conventions, from sexual repression, from the class structure she was taught to revere, from the useless existence of privileged women of her era, even from the burdens of southern history and slavery: With her death, her black servant, mysteriously complicit in his relation to Miss Emily, walks out of her house at the end of the story. In an interview at the University of Virginia, Faulkner suggested that Miss Emily deserved a rose for all the torment she had endured, and, whatever else they feel, most readers appear to agree with this sentiment.
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 Vols. New York: Random House, 1974. Rev. ed., New York: Random House, 1984.
Carothers, James. Faulkner’s Short Stories. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” In Collected Short Stories. New York: Random House, 1940.
Ferguson, James. Faulkner’s Short Fiction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Strindberg, Victor. “A Rose for Emily.” In Reader’s Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson, 577. Detroit: St. James Press, 1993.