A Rose for Emily Book Summary - A Rose for Emily Book explained in key points
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A Rose for Emily summary

William Faulkner

A Southern Gothic Tale on Death, Resistance to Change and Isolation

4.4 (14 ratings)
19 mins
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    A Rose for Emily
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    Miss Emily’s funeral

    Miss Emily Grierson was a town fixture. When she passes away, people come to her funeral out of both respect and curiosity. After all, she didn’t let anyone besides her manservant inside her house for decades.

    That house was once a showplace, its street once a prime location. But over the years, the aristocracy of Jefferson slowly decayed. Now only the traces of grandeur remain.

    In the old days, after Emily’s father died, the town mayor, Colonel Sartoris, made an exception for her. He said she’d never have to pay taxes on the house she’d inherited, and created some excuse about her father having loaned money to the town. Emily willingly accepted the fabrication.

    But time passed, and different people came into positions of power. The new mayor didn’t see the need to honor the agreement, and sent Miss Emily a notice to pay her taxes.

    When she refused, a group of aldermen paid her a visit. Miss Emily’s manservant let them into the parlor. The house was dank and dusty, and Emily appeared both overweight and wasted away – more of a corpse than a living person.

    She didn’t invite anyone to sit. Instead, she stood in the parlor’s entryway and listened to the men explain their purpose. She then informed them that she didn’t have any taxes in Jefferson. Against all their protests, she showed them to the door and told them to see Colonel Sartoris. Of course, Colonel Sartoris was long dead.


    William Faulkner was never bound to chronology in his writing. He used the freedom of telling a story out of order to slowly reveal the characters and the surprising truth behind the mystery of Miss Emily and her fetid house.

    In this first section, there’s a lot of death imagery. Obviously, there’s the funeral itself – but when we go back to the day when the aldermen call on Emily, she’s described as bulky but with a small skeleton. Faulkner says, “She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water.”

    We also see glimpses of an important trait of Emily’s – difficulty adjusting to change. It’s almost as though time is fixed to those years when Colonel Sartoris was mayor. She never moved past this period; in her mind, she only answers to the colonel and doesn’t have any taxes.

    A popular interpretation of Miss Emily is that she’s a metaphor for the Old South. With her inability to adapt to modern times, she simply decays and deteriorates like the structures around her. Her house is described as once having been a place of prominence – but then “garages and cotton gins” made their way in. While there’s no real reason the rise of the cotton gin should do away with a street full of beautiful houses, the description takes on a different meaning when read as a metaphor. The cotton gin represents industrialization and modernity, while Miss Emily and her house represent ideals that no longer have a place in the new world.

    In the story, modern people don’t understand Emily, but they have a lingering respect for her. They’re willing to let her finish out her life in her own way. At the same time, they’re curious about what kind of life that actually is – and what’s behind her closed doors.

    We know from a small, purposefully dropped detail that Emily once gave porcelain-painting lessons in her home – which indicates that she used to be a social person. This detail will come back later in the story; it’s one of Faulkner’s ways of helping us keep track of time.

    At this point, we’ve addressed four different eras of Emily’s life. Starting from the most recent, they are: Emily’s funeral, the last time anyone tried to collect taxes from her, the period of teaching porcelain-painting, and the day Colonel Sartoris remitted her taxes.

    The rest of the story is told with these events as landmarks to help us know where – and when – we are in the story.

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    What is A Rose for Emily about?

    A Rose for Emily (1930) was first published in Forum magazine. Told in a nonlinear style, it starts with the funeral of Emily, a fixture in the fictional Jefferson County. It then goes back in time to trace moments of her life, and the decline in her health and status. 

    Who should read A Rose for Emily?

    • Faulkner fans
    • Lovers of Southern Gothic literature
    • Anyone curious to learn more about a complex classic

    About the Author

    William Faulkner was the Nobel Prize–winning author of many Modernist and Southern Gothic stories, including As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. He’s known for his cerebral, experimental writing style featuring unreliable narrators and stream of consciousness.

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