Study Guide

A Rose for Emily Summary

By William Faulkner

A Rose for Emily Summary

Psst: before you start, you might want to look at our discussion of the story's setting. The town functions almost as a character—it's traditions, societal mores, history, and prejudices inform a whole lot that happens to Miss Emily (and the people she interacts with). Also keep in mind that the narrator of this story represents several generations of men and women from the town.

Yeah—we know it's complicated...but hey: welcome to the wild world of reading Faulkner.

Okay: without further ado:

The story begins at the huge funeral for Miss Emily Grierson. Nobody has been to her house in ten years, except for her servant, so everyone's pretty thrilled to get a peek inside. Miss Emily's house is old, but was at one point the best house around.

The town had a special relationship with Miss Emily ever since it decided to stop billing her for taxes in 1894. But, the "newer generation" wasn't happy with this arrangement, and so they paid a visit to Miss Emily and tried to get her to pay the tax debt. She refused to acknowledge that the old arrangement might not work any more, and flatly refused to pay.

Massive temporal leap time: thirty years before Emily "vanquishes" the tax office, the townspeople complained about a terrible stink coming from Miss Emily's house. This was about two years after her father died, and a short time after her lover disappeared from her life. The stench was overpowering, but the authorities didn't want to confront Emily about the problem.

She was a lady, after all, and to accuse a woman of smelling bad was considered not-so-chivalrous. So they took the gentlemanly way out: they sprinkled lime around the house in the dead of night and the smell was eventually gone.

Smaller temporal leap time: everybody felt sorry for Emily when her father died. He left her with the house, but no money...and he had spent his living years scaring away any suitor that might have wanted to marry her. When he died, Emily refused to admit it for three whole days. The town didn't think she was "crazy then," but assumed that she just didn't want to let go of her dad...even though he had been a wildly abusive monster.

The story doubles back and tells us that, not too long after her father died, Emily begins dating Homer Barron, a Northerner who was in town on a sidewalk-building project. The town heavily disapproves of the affair and brings Emily's cousins to town to stop the relationship. One day, Emily is seen buying arsenic at the drugstore, and the town thinks that she plans to kill herself. The town thinks that this might actually be for the best: after all, Emily is an unmarried woman over thirty (the horror!) and Homer has been heard saying he's not the marrying type.

But then, Emily goes and buys a bunch of men's items—an engraved shaving kit, a suit, a nightshirt—and the townsfolk think that she and Homer are going to get married, after all. Homer leaves town, then the cousins leave town, and then Homer comes back. He's seen entering Miss Emily's house...and then he's never seen again.

Emily herself rarely leaves the home after that. In fact, she's never really seen again, except for a period of half a dozen years when she gives painting lessons in her parlor. Her hair turns gray, she gains weight, and she eventually dies in a downstairs bedroom that hasn't seen light in many years.

It's massive temporal leap time yet again: the story cycles back to where it began, at her funeral. Tobe, miss Emily's servant, lets in the townswomen and then leaves by the backdoor. He's never seen again. After the funeral, and after Emily is buried, the townspeople go upstairs to break into the room that they know has been closed for forty years.

Inside, they find the corpse of Homer Barron, rotting in the bed. On the dust of the pillow next to Homer they find an indentation of a head, and there, in the indentation, a long, gray hair.