Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” – Short Summary & Literary Analysis

William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily, short summary, synopsis, themes, symbols, characters, setting, meanings, literary analysis
William Faulkner in 1954. Faulkner’s Southern Gothic short story, “A Rose for Emily,” involves macabre themes and related symbols, characters, and a setting that reflect the social context of the fictional town of Jefferson. (Image: Public Domain)

William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a short story that portrays the life and death of Emily Grierson. This Southern gothic tale involves themes that echo the themes found in the literary works of other authors, such as the theme of death and decay in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the theme of freedom and free will in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” As shown in the short summary below, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a presentation of the townspeople’s perspective regarding Emily. The story is a set of gossips that the narrator, a representative of the town of Jefferson, relays to the reader. Various themes are shown in relation to the story’s setting in the Old South context. These themes are expressed through the characters, setting, and symbols that make “A Rose for Emily” a narrative masterpiece in the Southern Gothic genre.

In this literary analysis, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is examined in terms of themes, characters, setting, and symbolism, with consideration for other literary elements and devices, and the social environment pertinent to the Old South. The macabre nature of the murder of Homer Barron and Emily’s necrophilia relates to other macabre literary pieces, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of Red Death.”

Brief Summary of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

The narrator starts with Miss Emily Grierson’s funeral. Colonel Sartoris, the former mayor of Jefferson, exempted her from taxation ever since her father died. However, new town officials wanted her to pay taxes. She refused. When they visited her decaying house, she told them to see Colonel Sartoris, who was already dead. Thirty years earlier, after her father died, Emily rarely went out. She became more reclusive after her lover, Homer Barron, left her. When he left, an unbearable smell started emanating from her house. Not wanting to confront her, the townspeople sprinkled lime onto the Grierson property in the cover of darkness. The smell eventually went away. Emily had nothing left but the house. The narrator notes that her father drove all the young men away.

When Emily started seeing Homer Barron, a construction foreman, the town was happy. The ladies thought she would never date a laborer. Others believed it was noblesse oblige. She “carried her head high,” like when she bought arsenic, on the package of which the druggist wrote “for rats.” That was when the people of Jefferson gossiped that Miss Emily would commit suicide. Then they thought she already married Homer because she bought a man’s toilet set and clothing. When her cousins arrived to dissuade her from marrying Homer, the latter disappeared. When the cousins left, he came back. Then, he was never seen again. She kept the house closed to everyone except Tobe, a black manservant. She grew fat and with iron-gray hair and died at seventy-four. Tobe let the visitors in for the funeral, walked out of the decaying house, and was never seen again. After Emily’s burial, the townspeople opened an upstairs room that was not seen in forty years. In the room, which was dusty and like a tomb, were a man’s toilet set and clothing. The fleshless remains of a man are on the bed. On the second pillow beside the man was a long strand of iron-gray hair.

Brief Literary Analysis & Explanation of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

Themes. The themes presented in Faulkner’s short story involve Emily Grierson and her family’s situation, the people of Jefferson, and the narrator. For example, the constraints in Emily’s life point to the theme of freedom and free will. The following are the major themes in “A Rose for Emily”:

  • Death and decay – Emily’s death, Homer Barron’s death and decay, and the decay of the Grierson house
  • Sex discrimination against women – discrimination against Emily and the ladies of the town
  • Freedom and free will – Freedom and free will of Emily, Tobe, and black construction workers
  • Gossip – the townspeople’s perception of Emily and other figures in Jefferson
  • Race and racism – discrimination against black people, like Tobe and the construction laborers

Characters. Emily is the main character of “A Rose for Emily.” However, William Faulkner also includes other characters that add meaning to the Southern gothic short story. The author’s characterization of persons in the story makes these characters complementary, supporting various themes. The following are the major characters in “A Rose for Emily”:

  • Emily Grierson – the central character of the story
  • The narrator – the character who interprets and relays the meanings of what the town sees and knows about Emily
  • Townspeople – the ones who spread gossip, which is a major theme of the short story
  • Homer Barron – Emily’s lover
  • Tobe – Emily’s manservant
  • Colonel Sartoris – former town mayor who exempted Emily from taxation
  • The cousins – Emily’s relatives from Alabama

Symbols and Symbolism. The rose stands out as the most notable symbol in “A Rose for Emily.” The symbolic nature of the title hints on the symbolism that abounds in the story. The following are the major symbols in “A Rose for Emily”:

  • The rose – a symbol of various interpretations and meanings, including Emily’s condition, the narrator’s perspective, and William Faulkner’s response to her character
  • Miss Emily Grierson – a symbol of women’s oppressed condition
  • The Grierson House – a symbol of Emily’s situation and its problems
  • Grierson – a symbol of societal oppression of women
  • Tobe – a symbol and representative of racially discriminated people

Setting. William Faulkner depicts the narrator’s story about Miss Emily primarily in the setting of the Grierson house and the fictional town of Jefferson. This town is a representation of a stereotypical population that is into gossiping. For example, the narrator’s story is essentially a collection of gossips about Emily. Also, “A Rose for Emily” is set in the Old South, which frames the theme of sex discrimination and the theme of racism that Tobe and the construction laborers experience.

Works Cited and References

  • Allen, Dennis W. “Horror and Perverse Delight: Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Modern Fiction Studies 30.4 (1984): 685-696.
  • Barani, Forough, and Wan Roselezam Wan Yahya. “Binary Opposition, Chronology of Time and Female Identity in William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 3.2 (2014): 155-160.
  • Dilworth, Thomas. “A romance to kill for: Homicidal complicity in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Studies in Short Fiction 36.3 (1999): 251.
  • Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” 1930. University of Virginia.
  • Hays, Peter L. “Who is Faulkner’s Emily?” Studies in American Fiction 16.1 (1988): 105-110.
  • Klein, Thomas. “The Ghostly Voice of Gossip in Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily.” The Explicator 65.4 (2007): 229-232.
  • Palmer, Louis. “Bourgeois Blues: Class, Whiteness, and Southern Gothic in Early Faulkner and Caldwell.” The Faulkner Journal 22.1/2 (2006): 120.
  • Rodman, Isaac. “Irony and Isolation: Narrative Distance in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The Faulkner Journal 8.2 (1993): 3-12.
  • Romdhani, Mourad. “Female Silence in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and ‘A Rose for Emily’: Crossing the Borders of the Speakable.” International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies (IJHCS)​ ISSN 2356-5926 2.3 (2016): 716-728.
  • Stafford, T. J. “Tobe’s Significance in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Modern Fiction Studies 14.4 (1968): 451-453.
  • Sullivan, Ruth. “The Narrator in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 1.3 (1971): 159-178.