Study Guide

A Rose for Emily Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Faulkner

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The House

Miss Emily's house is an important symbol in this story. (In general, old family homes are often significant symbols in Gothic literature.) For most of the story, we, like the townspeople, only see Miss Emily's house from the outside looking in. Let's look at the some of the descriptions we get of the house:

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. (1.2)

The fact that the house was built in the 1870s tells us that Miss Emily's father must have been doing pretty well for himself after the Civil War. The narrator's description of it as an "eyesore among eyesores" is a double or even triple judgment. The narrator doesn't seem to approve of the urban sprawl. We also speculate that the house is an emblem of money probably earned in large part through the labors of slaves, or emancipated slaves. The final part of this judgment has to do with the fact that the house was allowed to decay and disintegrate.

For an idea of the kind of house Miss Emily lived in, take a look at artist Theora Hamblett's house in Mississippi, built, like Emily's, in the 1870. Now picture the lawn overgrown, maybe a broken window or two, the paint worn and chipping and you have a the creepy house that Emily lived in, and which the children of the "newer generation" probably ran past in a fright.

The house, as is often the case in scary stories, is also a symbol of the opposite of what it's supposed to be. Like most humans, Emily wanted a house she could love someone in, and a house where she could be free. She thought she might have this with Homer Barron, but something went terribly wrong. This something turned her house into a virtual prison – she had nowhere else to go but home, and this home, with the corpse of Homer Barron rotting in an upstairs room, this home could never be shared with others. The house is a huge symbol of Miss Emily's isolation.

The Pocket Watch, the Stationery, and the Hair

These are all symbols of time in the story. What's more, the struggle between the past and the future threatens to rip the present to pieces. When members of the Board of Aldermen visit Emily to see about the taxes a decade before her death, they hear her pocket watch ticking, hidden somewhere in the folds of her clothing and her body. This is a signal to us that for Miss Emily time is both a mysterious "invisible" force, and one of which she has always been acutely aware. With each tick of the clock, her chance for happiness dwindles .

Another symbol of time is Emily's hair. The town tells time first by Emily's hair, and then when she disappears into her house after her hair has turned "a vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man" (4.6). When Emily no longer leaves the house, the town uses Tobe's hair to tell time, watching as it too turns gray. The strand of Emily's hair found on the pillow next to Homer, is a time-teller too, though precisely what time it tells is hard to say. The narrator tells us that Homer's final resting place hadn't been opened in 40 years, which is exactly how long Homer Barron has been missing. But, Emily's hair didn't turn "iron-gray" until approximately 1898, several years after Homer's death.

In "What's up With the Ending?" we suggest that the town knew they would find Homer Barron's dead body in the room. But maybe what they didn't know was that she had lain next to the body at least several years after its owner had departed it, but perhaps much more recently. Still, the townspeople did have to break into the room. When and why it was locked up is probably only known by Emily (who is dead, and wouldn't talk anyway) and Tobe (who has disappeared, and wouldn't talk anyway).

The stationery is also a symbol of time, but in a different way. The letter the town gets from Emily is written "on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink" (1.4). Emily probably doesn't write too many letters, so it's normal that she would be using stationery that's probably at least 40 years old. The stationery is a symbol, and one that points back to the tensions between the past, the present, and the future, which this story explores.

Lime and Arsenic

Lime and arsenic are some of the story's creepiest symbols. Lime is a white powder that's good at covering the smell of decomposing bodies. Ironically, it seems that the lime was sprinkled in vain. The smell of the rotting corpse of Homer Barron stopped wafting into the neighborhood of its own accord. Or maybe the town just got used to the smell. The lime is a symbol of a fruitless attempt to hide something embarrassing, and creepy. It's also a symbol of the way the town, in that generation, did things.

We lump it together with arsenic because they are both symbols of getting rid of something that smells, and in the case of "A Rose for Emily," it happens to be the very same thing. Remember what the druggist writes on Emily's packet of arsenic, under the poison sign? "For rats." Faulkner himself claims that Homer was probably not a nice guy. If Homer is planning to break a promise to marry Emily, she, in the southern tradition, would most probably have considered him a rat.

The arsenic used to kill a stinky rat creates a foul stench, which the townspeople want to get rid of with lime. (If you want to read more about arsenic, click here). We should also note that arsenic is a favorite fictional murder weapon, due to its reputation for being odorless, colorless, and virtually undetectable by the victim. Director Franz Capra's 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace is good example of this.

Death and Taxes

Notice how the first section of the story involves what Benjamin Franklin said were the only two certain things in the world: death and taxes. Franklin was talking about the fact that even the U.S. Constitution would be subject to future change.

Miss Emily's death at the beginning of the story, and the narrators memory of the history of her tax situation in Jefferson might be what Alfred Hitchcock called "macguffins." A macguffin is "an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance" (source). Neither the funeral nor the tax issue seem to be about are all that important to the tale of murder and insanity that follows.

Still, we should question whether or not they actually are macguffins.

The taxes are can be seen as symbols of death. The initial remission of Miss Emily taxes is a symbol of the death of her father. It's also a symbol of the financial decline the proud man must have experienced, but kept hidden from Emily and the town, until his death. Since the story isn't clear on why Emily only got the house in the will, the taxes could also be a symbol of his continued control over Emily from the grave. If he had money when he died, but left it to some mysterious entity, (the story is unclear on this point), he would have denied Emily her independence.

Over 30 years after the initial remission of Miss Emily's taxes when the "newer generation" tries to revoke the ancient deal they inherited, taxes are still a symbol of death, though this time, they symbolize the death of Homer Barron.

As we argue in "What's Up With the Ending?", the town is probably already aware that she has a rotting corpse upstairs. Maybe the taxes were just an excuse to definitively see what was going on at the house. The next phase of their plan might well have been foreclosure. They could have used the tax situation to remove Emily from the neighborhood, and to condemn her house. Perhaps they wanted to remove the "eyesore," and to cover up everything Miss Emily says about the past and present of the South.

The fact that they didn't do this might just turn the taxes into a symbol of compassion. Wasn't it out of compassion that her taxes were initially remitted? That the "newer generation" decides to continue the tradition also shows that some of the older ways might well have merit.