Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Death and Taxes
As we discuss in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," Faulkner might be playing on the Benjamin Franklin quote, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," in this initial scene. We move from a huge funeral attended by everybody in town, to this strange little story about taxes.
Taxes aren't the only thing that stinks.
The taxes seem tame compared to what comes next. In Section II, we learn lots of bizarre stuff about Miss Emily: when her father died she refused to believe it (or let on she believed it) for four days (counting the day he died); the summer after her father died, she finally gets a boyfriend (she's in her thirties); when worried that her boyfriend might leave her, she bought some poison and her boyfriend disappeared, but there was a bad smell around her house. We technically have enough information to figure everything out right here, but we are thrown off by the issue of the taxes, and by the way in which facts are jumbled together.
The Town's Conscience
For this stage it might be helpful to think of this story as the town's confession. This section is what complicates things for the town's conscience. The town was horrible to Miss Emily when she started dating Homer Barron. They wanted to hold her to the southern lady ideals her forbearers had mapped out for her. She was finally able to break free when her father died, but the town won't let her do it. When they can't stop her from dating Homer themselves, they sick the cousins on her.
Even though this story seems all jumbled up chronologically, the climax comes roughly in the middle of the story, lending the story a smooth, symmetrical feel. According to Faulkner, Homer probably was a bit of a rat, one which noble Miss Emily would have felt perfectly in the right to exterminate. Yet, she also wanted to hold tight to the dream that she might have a normal life, with love and a family. When she sees that everybody – the townspeople, the minister, her cousins, and even Homer himself – is bent on messing up her plans, she has an extreme reaction. That's why, for us, the climax is encapsulated in the image of the skull and crossbones on the arsenic package and the warning, "For rats."
As with the climax, Faulkner follows a traditional plot structure, at least in terms of the story of Emily and Homer. Emily buys the arsenic, and at that moment the information is beamed into the brains of the townspeople. This is one of the nastiest sections. The town is in suspense over whether they are married, soon will be, or never will be. Their reactions range from murderous, to pitying, to downright interference. We also learn that Homer Barron was last seen entering the residence of Miss Emily Grierson on the night in question. So, we can be in suspense about what happened to him, though by the time we can appreciate that this is something to be suspenseful about, we already know what happened.
The Next 40 Years
At this point, we've already been given a rough outline of Emily's life, beginning with her funeral, going back ten years to when the "newer generation" came to collect the taxes, and then back another thirty some odd years to the death of Emily's father, the subsequent affair with Homer, and the disappearance of Homer. The story winds down by filling us in on Miss Emily's goings on in the 40 years between Homer's disappearance and Emily's funeral. Other than the painting lessons, her life during that time is a mystery, because she stayed inside.
The Bed, the Rotting Corpse, and the Hair
The townspeople enter the bedroom that's been locked for 40 years, only to find the rotting corpse of Homer Barron.