A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner: Summary, Theme & Analysis Video

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  • 0:01 The Author & the Story
  • 1:05 Story Summary & Analysis
  • 6:11 Themes of the Story
  • 7:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Anderson
In William Faulkner's strange and startling short story 'A Rose for Emily,' the reader is introduced to one of literature's most talked-about female characters: Emily Grierson. Learn about how her eccentric life highlighted tensions surrounding change in the South and how death and other Gothic elements tie this story together.

Introduction to the Author & the Story

William Faulkner was born in 1897 and died in 1962. He grew up in a small town in Mississippi, which is the setting for many of his novels and short stories. Faulkner's family had lost power and money during the Civil War. His work is deeply rooted in the story of the South, tackling issues such as race, gender, and class, as you'll notice in 'A Rose for Emily,' which was published in 1931. Also, this story is considered Gothic. Gothic literature includes elements that verge on horror and Romanticism. 'A Rose for Emily,' in other words, is a tad bit creepy.

Story Summary & Analysis

'A Rose for Emily' is divided into five parts. Part one opens at the time of protagonist Emily Grierson's death. A protagonist is the main character in a story. The entire community attends Emily's funeral, but as the narrator suggests, no one really knew Emily. The narrator is the person telling any given story. In this case, the narrator is unnamed and assumed to be one of the townspeople. As the narrator tells the reader, no one really knew Emily. Emily rarely went out, had never been married, and died alone at age 74. Her entire existence was a puzzle for the townspeople to piece together.

Part one also reveals part of the reason Emily died alone: Emily's father had turned down most of Emily's suitors. By the time he died, Emily had no more suitors. At this point in American history, women were generally defined by their role as a mother, wife, or daughter. Because of this, the town felt bad for Emily. Also, out of respect for Emily's deceased and well-regarded father, the county made Emily exempt from paying town taxes.

In part two, the narrator further elaborates upon the collective pity the town felt for Emily once her father died. All her father had left behind was the house. When people stopped by to express their condolences about her father's death, Emily told them that her father was not dead. Eventually there was a strange odor that emanated from Emily's house. Faulkner alludes to the possibility that Emily had kept her father's corpse in her home. The narrator confides, 'We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.'

Part three describes how Emily had started to physically transform. While she rarely left her house, the public did manage to see her now and then. The narrator describes an Emily sighting that occurred after her father's death: 'When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows - sort of tragic and serene.' The narrator clearly still feels sympathy for Emily, viewing her as something to at once pity and worship.

A significant aspect to part three is that Emily meets Homer Barron, a single Northerner who is in town to oversee the construction crew making new sidewalks. Homer's reputation is scandalous. The narrator describes him as a man never meant for marrying. It is still in question whether Faulkner's reference suggests Homer is gay, or rather, just a man who isn't meant for settling down.

When the town noticed Emily and Homer spending time together, the town frowned upon the union. Emily, in spite of her lack of money, was still revered with old-fashioned Southern expectations. Homer was a working class fellow, not good enough for Emily by most standards.

Also, that Emily and Homer were dating without any talk of marriage was considered scandalous. The narrator describes Emily as a fallen woman. A fallen woman is a woman who has been guilty of adultery or sex before marriage. It's an outdated term. This is just an example of how society judged women at this point in history.

The climax of the story takes place in part three, when Emily decides to buy arsenic from the local pharmacy. While she allows the pharmacist to assume it's for killing rats, there's definitely a red flag here for the reader.

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