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Read “”Rose For Emily” by Southern Gothic Author William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily
by William Faulkner
I
WHEN MISS Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a
sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the
inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant–a combined gardener and cook–had
seen in at least ten years.
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. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august
names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves
of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation
upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor–he who fathered
the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron-remitted her
taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily
would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss
Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred
this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented
it, and only a woman could have believed it.
When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen,
this arrangement created some little dissatisfaction. On the first of the year they mailed her a tax
notice. February came, and there was no reply. They wrote her a formal letter, asking her to call
at the sheriff’s office at her convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her himself, offering to
call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin,
flowing calligraphy in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice
was also enclosed, without comment.
They called a special meeting of the Board of Aldermen. A deputation waited upon her,
knocked at the door through which no visitor had passed since she ceased giving china-painting
lessons eight or ten years earlier. They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from
which a stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse–a close, dank
smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was furnished in heavy, leather-covered furniture.
When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked;
and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes
in the single sun-ray. On a tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait of Miss
Emily’s father.
They rose when she entered–a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain
descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished
gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been
merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged
in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked
like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to
another while the visitors stated their errand.
She did not ask them to sit. She just stood in the door and listened quietly until the
spokesman came to a stumbling halt. Then they could hear the invisible watch ticking at the end
of the gold chain.
Her voice was dry and cold. “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to
me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and satisfy yourselves.”
“But we have. We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn’t you get a notice from the
sheriff, signed by him?”
“I received a paper, yes,” Miss Emily said. “Perhaps he considers himself the sheriff . . . I
have no taxes in Jefferson.”
“But there is nothing on the books to show that, you see We must go by the–”
“See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson.”
“But, Miss Emily–”
“See Colonel Sartoris.” (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.) “I have no taxes
in Jefferson. Tobe!” The Negro appeared. “Show these gentlemen out.”
II
SO SHE vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty
years before about the smell.
That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart–the one
we believed would marry her –had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little;
after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all. A few of the ladies had the
temerity to call, but were not received, and the only sign of life about the place was the Negro
man–a young man then–going in and out with a market basket.
“Just as if a man–any man–could keep a kitchen properly, “the ladies said; so they were
not surprised when the smell developed. It was another link between the gross, teeming world
and the high and mighty Griersons.
A neighbor, a woman, complained to the mayor, Judge Stevens, eighty years old.
“But what will you have me do about it, madam?” he said.
“Why, send her word to stop it,” the woman said. “Isn’t there a law? ”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Judge Stevens said. “It’s probably just a snake or a rat
that man of hers killed in the yard. I’ll speak to him about it.”
The next day he received two more complaints, one from a man who came in diffident
deprecation. “We really must do something about it, Judge. I’d be the last one in the world to
bother Miss Emily, but we’ve got to do something.” That night the Board of Aldermen met–three
graybeards and one younger man, a member of the rising generation.
“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her word to have her place cleaned up. Give her a
certain time to do it in, and if she don’t. ..”
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”
So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the
house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one
of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder.
They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings. As they
recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light
behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol. They crept quietly across the
lawn and into the shadow of the locusts that lined the street. After a week or two the smell went
away.
That was when people had begun to feel really sorry for her. People in our town,
remembering how old lady Wyatt, her great-aunt, had gone completely crazy at last, believed
that the Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were. None of the young
men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau,
Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the
foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung
front door. So when she got to be thirty and was still single, we were not pleased exactly, but
vindicated; even with insanity in the family she wouldn’t have turned down all of her chances if
they had really materialized.
When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to her; and in a way,
people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily. Being left alone, and a pauper, she had
become humanized. Now she too would know the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more
or less.
The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence
and aid, as is our custom Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of
grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with
the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the
body. Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her
father quickly.
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.
III
SHE WAS SICK for a long time. 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 town had just let the contracts for paving the sidewalks, and in the summer after her
father’s death they began the work. The construction company came with riggers and mules and
machinery, and a foreman named Homer Barron, a Yankee–a big, dark, ready man, with a big
voice and eyes lighter than his face. The little boys would follow in groups to hear him cuss the
riggers, and the riggers singing in time to the rise and fall of picks. Pretty soon he knew
everybody in town. Whenever you heard a lot of laughing anywhere about the square, Homer
Barron would be in the center of the group. Presently we began to see him and Miss Emily on
Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched team of bays from the
livery stable.
At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the ladies all said,
“Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.” But there were
still others, older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse
oblige- -without calling it noblesse oblige. They just said, “Poor Emily. Her kinsfolk should come to
her.” She had some kin in Alabama; but years ago her father had fallen out with them over the
estate of old lady Wyatt, the crazy woman, and there was no communication between the two
families. They had not even been represented at the funeral.
And as soon as the old people said, “Poor Emily,” the whispering began. “Do you suppose
it’s really so?” they said to one another. “Of course it is. What else could . . .” This behind their
hands; rustling of craned silk and satin behind jalousies closed upon the sun of Sunday afternoon
as the thin, swift clop-clop-clop of the matched team passed: “Poor Emily.”
She carried her head high enough–even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if
she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had
wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness. Like when she bought the rat
poison, the arsenic. That was over a year after they had begun to say “Poor Emily,” and while the
two female cousins were visiting her.
“I want some poison,” she said to the druggist. She was over thirty then, still a slight
woman, though thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was
strained across the temples and about the eyesockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face
ought to look. “I want some poison,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I’d recom–”
“I want the best you have. I don’t care what kind.”
The druggist named several. “They’ll kill anything up to an elephant. But what you want
is–”
“Arsenic,” Miss Emily said. “Is that a good one?”
“Is . . . arsenic? Yes, ma’am. But what you want–”
“I want arsenic.”
The druggist looked down at her. She looked back at him, erect, her face like a strained
flag. “Why, of course,” the druggist said. “If that’s what you want. But the law requires you to tell
what you are going to use it for.”
Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he
looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up. The Negro delivery boy brought
her the package; the druggist didn’t come back. When she opened the package at home there
was written on the box, under the skull and bones: “For rats.”
IV
SO THE NEXT day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would be the best thing.
When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, “She will marry him.” Then
we said, “She will persuade him yet,” because Homer himself had remarked–he liked men, and it
was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Club–that he was not a marrying
man. Later we said, “Poor Emily” behind the jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon in the
glittering buggy, Miss Emily with her head high and Homer Barron with his hat cocked and a cigar
in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove.
Then some of the ladies began to say that it was a disgrace to the town and a bad
example to the young people. The men did not want to interfere, but at last the ladies forced the
Baptist minister–Miss Emily’s people were Episcopal– to call upon her. He would never divulge
what happened during that interview, but he refused to go back again. The next Sunday they
again drove about the streets, and the following day the minister’s wife wrote to Miss Emily’s
relations in Alabama.
So she had blood-kin under her roof again and we sat back to watch developments. At first
nothing happened. Then we were sure that they were to be married. We learned that Miss Emily
had been to the jeweler’s and ordered a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each
piece. Two days later we learned that she had bought a complete outfit of men’s clothing,
including a nightshirt, and we said, “They are married.” We were really glad. We were glad
because the two female cousins were even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been.
So we were not surprised when Homer Barron–the streets had been finished some time
since–was gone. We were a little disappointed that there was not a public blowing-off, but we
believed that he had gone on to prepare for Miss Emily’s coming, or to give her a chance to get
rid of the cousins. (By that time it was a cabal, and we were all Miss Emily’s allies to help
circumvent the cousins.) Sure enough, after another week they departed. And, as we had
expected all along, within three days Homer Barron was back in town. A neighbor saw the Negro
man admit him at the kitchen door at dusk one evening.
And that was the last we saw of Homer Barron. And of Miss Emily for some time. The
Negro man went in and out with the market basket, but the front door remained closed. Now and
then we would see her at a window for a moment, as the men did that night when they sprinkled
the lime, but for almost six months she did not appear on the streets. Then we knew that this
was to be expected too; as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman’s life so
many times had been too virulent and too furious to die.
When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the
next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray,
when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous irongray, like the hair of an active man.
From that time on her front door remained closed, save for a period of six or seven years,
when she was about forty, during which she gave lessons in china-painting. She fitted up a studio
in one of the downstairs rooms, where the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris’
contemporaries were sent to her with the same regularity and in the same spirit that they were
sent to church on Sundays with a twenty-five-cent piece for the collection plate. Meanwhile her
taxes had been remitted.
Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town, and the
painting pupils grew up and fell away and did not send their children to her with boxes of color
and tedious brushes and pictures cut from the ladies’ magazines. The front door closed upon the
last one and remained closed for good. When the town got free postal delivery, Miss Emily alone
refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it. She
would not listen to them.
Daily, monthly, yearly we watched the Negro grow grayer and more stooped, going in and
out with the market basket. Each December we sent her a tax notice, which would be returned
by the post office a week later, unclaimed. Now and then we would see her in one of the
downstairs windows–she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house–like the carven torso
of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which. Thus she passed
from generation to generation–dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.
And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering
Negro man to wait on her. We did not even know she was sick; we had long since given up trying
to get any information from the Negro
He talked to no one, probably not even to her, for his voice had grown harsh and rusty, as
if from disuse.
She died in one of the downstairs rooms, in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her gray
head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight.
V
THE NEGRO met the first of the ladies at the front door and let them in, with their hushed,
sibilant voices and their quick, curious glances, and then he disappeared. He walked right
through the house and out the back and was not seen again.
The two female cousins came at once. They held the funeral on the second day, with the
town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her
father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old
men –some in their brushed Confederate uniforms–on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss
Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and
courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom
all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite
touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.
Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had
seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced. They waited until Miss Emily was
decently in the ground before they opened it.
The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust. A
thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as
for a bridal: upon the valance curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the
dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man’s toilet things backed with
tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured. Among them lay a collar
and tie, as if they had just been removed, which, lifted, left upon the surface a pale crescent in
the dust. Upon a chair hung the suit, carefully folded; beneath it the two mute shoes and the
discarded socks.
The man himself lay in the bed.
For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The
body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts
love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted
beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay;
and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding
dust.
Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted
something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils,
we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.
-END-
Questions to Ponder (and answer)
For each of the five sections of the story, there are several questions. Answer each carefully and support
your answers with evidence from the story.
Part I
1. What is your impression of Miss Emily’s house?
2. How does Miss Emily treat her visitors?
Part II
3. Why were people glad to find out that all Emily’s father left her was the house?
4. How did the townspeople finally solve the problem with the smell?
Part III
5. Why do the townspeople say, “Poor Emily”?
6. What does Miss Emily want the arsenic for?
Part IV
7. Why is it, according to the townspeople, that Homer Barron would not marry Emily?
8. What do the townspeople believe happened to Homer Barron?
9. How does Faulkner describe Miss Emily’s hair in this section?
Part V
10. Describe the room upstairs that no one had seen in forty years.
Study Guide | A Rose for Emily | © Dawn Hogue, 2007
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