William Faulkner’s short story, A Rose for Emily, blends mystery and tragedy. It details the descent into the madness of its heroine, Emily Grierson. Emily lives under the stifling custody of her authoritarian father, who chases away any potential suitors who come to woo his daughter. After his death, Emily is courted by a construction company foreman, Homer Barron. Jilted by Barron, Emily remains a spinster for the remainder of her long life, confined to the isolation of her home. After Emily’s death, it is discovered that Barron has been murdered by Emily. She has concealed his death, lying beside his corpse during all those years. The setting of the story and Emily’s character play a pivotal role in the development of the narrative’s plot.
The story is set in Jefferson, a small town in the deep American South of the late nineteenth century. This is the Confederate South after the Civil War, reluctantly caught up in the demands of the changing times. Faulkner sets his story in a world caught between stubborn adherence to the past and the compulsions of modern progress. Emily’s house reflects this conflict, as it lifts “its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps” (I). Emily’s house, like Emily herself, is caught in a time-warp: “It smelled of dust and disuse–a close, dank smell” (I). The plot develops in a world of old-age chivalry. Colonel Sartoris invents a face-saving excuse for Emily to avoid paying taxes. Emily gets away with murder because the eighty-year-old mayor, Judge Stevens, refuses to investigate the cause of the foul odor emanating from her house. He declares that he cannot “accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad” (II). The plot of the story evolves from this unhealthy adherence to a bygone past. This is again reflected in the setting of the room which Emily obviously prepares as her bridal suite, in which “A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere” (V). The setting clings to the dead past.
Emily’s character reflects this setting and directs the action of the story. The Griersons cling to the past and Emily is perceived to be “a fallen monument” (I) to a bygone era. She steadfastly refuses to accept change: “Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it” (IV). She clings to the past social position of “the high and mighty Griersons” (II) and expects the world to acknowledge her superiority. The obstinacy which is the predominant trait of her character makes her categorically declare, “I have no taxes in Jefferson” (I). This obstinacy, which brooks no denial, is again seen in her purchase of arsenic. The chemist is cowed down by her proud sense of entitlement. She flatly refuses to give a reason for her purchase and “just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him an eye for an eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up” (III). When she refuses to accept her father’s death and holds on to his corpse for three days, Jefferson does “not say she was crazy” (II). This sensitivity to her feelings only contributes to Emily’s growing insanity. On her father’s death, Homer Barron represents Emily’s only hope of marriage. She cannot accept Barron’s repudiation. Her subsequent actions are in line with her character. She refuses to let Barron go and clings on to him, even after his death.
Setting and plot are important elements in A Rose for Emily. The reader can accept Emily’s murder of Homer Barron and her concealment because the author skilfully lets his plot build up as a natural development of a setting that continues to reflect the ideals of the Old South. Old-world chivalry accepts Emily’s eccentricities and provides a realistic setting for her actions. Emily is able to get away with murder only because of this setting. Emily’s obstinate character, her refusal to countenance change and her aristocratic disdain for public opinion make her crime, and its concealment, plausible to the reader. Faulkner’s setting and his characterization of his heroine are the moving forces of A Rose for Emily.
Faulkner, William. A Rose for Emily. Retrieved from