The Theme of Death & Decay in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (Quotes & Thematic Analysis)

William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily, decay death theme, quotes, (thematic) literary analysis, macabre short story
Skull and crossbones that symbolize death. A thematic analysis of William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” determines the theme of death and decay that defines the characters, plot, setting, and symbols. (Image: Public Domain)

The theme of death and decay encompasses the events in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This Southern gothic short story provides a thematic perspective that uses death and decay to characterize the process of decline, such as the decline of the Griersons, as well as the personal decline of Emily toward her death. “A Rose for Emily” also features the theme of sex discrimination and the theme of freedom and free will. Other notable themes in this short story are gossip and racism. Regarding the theme of death and decay, William Faulkner encourages the reader to examine how death and decay contributes to the development of the plot and characters, especially Emily. The author also points to the significance of this theme in relation to the underlying message contained in “A Rose for Emily,” as it relates with Faulkner’s time period and the reader’s current societal conditions and experiences.

Faulkner’s emphasis on death and decay makes “A Rose for Emily” a macabre piece of literature. This macabre showcase relates to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which also involves the theme of death and decay. In relation, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents the theme of death by suicide. Such thematic perspectives in these literary works highlight how death and decay adds meaning to stories, just as how death gives meaning to Homer’s disappearance and Emily’s peculiar behavior in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”

Natural Death in “A Rose for Emily” (Quotes #1, #2, and #3)

William Faulkner’s short story depicts the theme of death and decay in terms of the natural death of some of the characters. For example, the natural death of Emily Grierson is a major event that characterizes the entire plot. In this regard, the theme of death and decay in “A Rose for Emily” is notable in the following quotes:

  1. “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral” (Faulkner).
  2. “Colonel Sartoris, the mayor–he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron-remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity.”
  3. “When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to her . . .”

In Quote #1, Faulkner starts “A Rose for Emily” with the narrator talking about Emily’s death. This initial thematic framing establishes death as a defining factor throughout the plot. For example, the short story ends with the discovery of Homer Barron’s death. The theme of death and decay is also seen in other parts of the story. Quotes #2 and #3 talk about the death of Emily’s father. In these quotes, the author presents the idea of death as a major event: The townspeople went to Emily’s funeral, the mayor exempted her from taxes when her father died, and the people gossiped about what she has left after Mr. Grierson died. In these excerpts, Faulkner’s text uses death to signify major events that shape the plot of “A Rose for Emily.”

Death through Murder and Suicide (Quotes #4 through #6)

The theme of death and decay is also evident in “A Rose for Emily” in terms of implied murder and thoughts of suicide. For instance, the townspeople thought of suicide after Emily bought arsenic. In the following excerpts from Faulkner’s text, this manifestation of the theme is observable:

  1. “So the next day we all said, ‘She will kill herself’.”
  2. “The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin.”
  3. “Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.”

Quote #4 points to the theme of death and decay through the speculation that Miss Emily was to commit suicide. The townspeople speculated after knowing that she bought arsenic. The theme is also manifested in “A Rose for Emily” in the form of murder, as illustrated in Quotes #5 and #6. For example, in Quote #5, the visitors discover the remains of a man, who is implicitly Homer Barron. Quote #6 links Emily to his death. Based on these quotations, Faulkner implies that Emily bought arsenic to murder Homer. The horror of this murder is highlighted in the end when the visitors discover his remains. In these quotes, the theme of death and decay takes the unnatural forms of speculated suicide and implied murder.

The Figurative Death and Decay of Emily Grierson’s House (Quotes #7 & #8)

Aside from literal depictions of death as a theme, William Faulkner includes figurative forms of death and decay in “A Rose for Emily.” The Grierson house is an example of this figurative showcase of death and decay. The following quotes present this figurative thematic expression:

  1. “It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps – an eyesore among eyesores.”
  2. “And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows”

William Faulkner figuratively depicts the death and decay theme through the House of Grierson. For example, Quote #7 describes the house’s deterioration from its initial opulence to its present state of decay. In essence, “A Rose for Emily” presents societal changes and the inevitable decline of things of the past, such as this house and its residents. Also, Faulkner directly relates Emily’s death to the house’s decaying condition, as shown in Quote #8. In the Old South context, this aspect of the short story is figurative in using the house as a symbol of the theme of death and decay, which characterize the lives of Emily and her contemporaries. Based on these quotes, “A Rose for Emily” creates a representation of the process of death and decay. Faulkner uses such representation to emphasize the theme by confining Emily’s character in the decaying house. Based on these quotes, this figurative aspect enriches the meaning of the theme of death and decay in making “A Rose for Emily” extend its relevance beyond the characters and the setting of the Old South.

Explanation & Importance of the Death and Decay Theme in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

The theme of death and decay makes “A Rose for Emily” a macabre short story. Through the murder of Homer Barron and the speculation about Emily’s suicide, William Faulkner connects various scenes. For example, within this thematic view, the cited quotes connect Homer’s disappearance and death, Emily’s purchase of arsenic years earlier, her death, and the Grierson house’s decay. These quotations reveal that “A Rose for Emily” is a tragic story of death and decay that are only fully uncovered after Emily’s death.

The death and decay theme is important because it is a factor in the story’s climax. For example, the excerpts illustrate that Emily’s death gives way to the discovery of Homer Barron’s death. Also, the theme explains the short story’s title, “A Rose for Emily,” in terms of what the rose possibly means and how it relates to Emily’s life. The cited quotes give the idea that the rose is likely Faulkner’s expression of pity for Emily and her tragic life of confinement and loneliness.

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.
  • Asmarani, Ratna. “The Stunted Identity of Emily Grierson in A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner.” Culturalistics: Journal of Cultural, Literary, and Linguistic Studies 1.1 (2017): 23-30.
  • Binder, Aubrey. “Uncovering the Past: The Role of Dust Imagery in A Rose for Emily.” The Explicator 70.1 (2012): 5-7.
  • Blythe, Hal. “Faulkner’s a Rose for Emily.” The Explicator 47.2 (1989): 49-50.
  • 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.
  • Petry, Alice Hall. “Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.” The Explicator 44.3 (1986): 52-54.
  • Sullivan, Ruth. “The Narrator in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 1.3 (1971): 159-178.