Summary and Analysis: "A Rose for Emily" Introduction


Faulkner's most famous, most popular, and most anthologized short story, "A Rose for Emily" evokes the terms Southern gothic and grotesque, two types of literature in which the general tone is one of gloom, terror, and understated violence. The story is Faulkner's best example of these forms because it contains unimaginably dark images: a decaying mansion, a corpse, a murder, a mysterious servant who disappears, and, most horrible of all, necrophilia — an erotic or sexual attraction to corpses.

First published in the April 1930 Saturday Evening Post, "A Rose for Emily" was reprinted in These Thirteen (1931), a collection of thirteen of Faulkner's stories. It was later included in his Collected Stories (1950) and in the Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (1961).

Most discussions of the short story center on Miss Emily Grierson, an aristocratic woman deeply admired by a community that places her on a pedestal and sees her as "a tradition, a duty" — or, as the unnamed narrator describes her, "a fallen monument." In contrast to the community's view, we realize eventually that Miss Emily is a woman who not only poisons and kills her lover, Homer Barron, but she keeps his rotting corpse in her bedroom and sleeps next to it for many years. The ending of the story emphasizes the length of time Miss Emily must have slept with her dead lover: long enough for the townspeople to find "a long strand of iron-gray hair" lying on the pillow next to "what was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt" and displaying a "profound and fleshless grin."

The contrast between the aristocratic woman and her unspeakable secrets forms the basis of the story. Because the Griersons "held themselves a little too high for what they really were," Miss Emily's father forbids her to date socially, or at least the community thinks so: "None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such." She becomes so terribly desperate for human love that she murders Homer and clings to his dead body. Using her aristocratic position to cover up the murder and the necrophilia, ironically she sentences herself to total isolation from the community, embracing the dead for solace.

Although our first reaction to the short story might be one of horror or disgust, Faulkner uses two literary techniques to create a seamless whole that makes the tale too intriguing to stop reading: the suspenseful, jumbled chronology of events, and the narrator's shifting point of view, which emphasizes Miss Emily's strength of purpose, her aloofness, and her pride, and lessens the horror and the repulsion of her actions.