There are five sections in the story. Section I describes the time of Emily Grierson’s death and how the whole town attended the funeral in her home, a home, which had not been entered by a stranger for a period of more than 10 years. The town’s previous mayor colonel Sartoris suspended Emily’s tax responsibilities because Mr. Grierson had once given the community a significant sum. An attempt of the colonel Sartoris’s follower to make Emily pay tax yields no fruits. When Emily is visited by the members of Aldermen who try to make her pay the tax, she tells them to talk to her father who had passed away.
In section II, the townspeople detect a strong odor that is coming from Emily’s property and complain about it to the mayor. Emily’s father died recently. The man Emily had relationships with and who, as the people in the town believed, would marry her abandons her. The mayor at the time, Judge Stevens, cannot take any action in such a delicate issue, so a few Emily’s neighbors decide to sprinkle lime in her garden at night. The odor vanishes within a couple of weeks. By the age of thirty, Emily is still single. Just a day after Mr. Grierson’s death, local women called Emily to offer her condolences, but Emily claimed that her father was not dead and even kept his body for some time before she was finally persuaded to bury him.
Section III focuses on a long-lasting illness that Emily suffers after her father’s death. Homer is seen taking Emily for rides on Sunday and the townspeople sympathize with her because she forgets her family pride and associates with a man of a lower social status. This affair compromises Emily’s reputation. She goes to the drugstore to purchase arsenic. The chemist questions her on how she is going to use the poison, but she does not answer him.
Section IV describes the fear of the townspeople that Emily will use the poison labeled “for rats” to kill herself. It is unlikely that she will marry Homer despite their Sunday ritual. One woman asks the Baptist minister to talk with Emily. Emily refuses to reveal anything about the talk and swears that she will never go back. The minister’s wife writes to two cousins of Emily in Alabama. They arrive for an extended stay, and Homer is believed to be absent from the town as a way of avoiding Emily’s relatives. Soon Homer is seen entering Grierson’s home one evening after the cousin’s departure. Emily begins to grow plump and grey, her doors remain locked to the outsiders, and she even refuses to pay the tax bill. She remains closed on the top floor of the house until her death at the age of seventy-four.
Section V describes the events that follow Emily’s death. Her body is in the parlor, and the town residents and her cousins attend the service. The townspeople open the door to the sealed upstairs room that was closed for forty years. Homer’s body, which is decaying, is stretched on the bed. The onlookers notice the indentation of a head in the pillow and a strand of Emily’s gray hair besides Homer’s body.
The Theme and Symbols
There are various ideas that William Faulkner expresses in the book. These ideas are described below,
Tradition versus Change
Faulkner depicts an effort to maintain the tradition in the face of widespread and radical change; this is conveyed through the mysterious figure of Emily. Jefferson is embracing modern and commercial future, but at the same time, it remains on the edge of the past. Emily is a tradition because she stays the same over many years irrespective of vast changes that took place in the community (Faulker 78). While being appreciated for representing the tradition that is respected by people, she is also a burden and is locked from the outside world creating suspicions by her eccentricities that people cannot understand. She created her own world. Her house does not have metallic numbers, and this is how she loses connection with the reality that threatens to break through her sealed perimeters. Though Jefferson highly regards the traditional notion of honor and reputation, Faulkner is critical of the men who gather for Emily’s funeral in their Confederate uniforms.
Death Has Power
Death is mentioned from the start of the story, beginning with Emily’s father died to the description of Emily’s own death. In each case, death prevails over any effort to escape from it. Emily yields to death slowly. Emily is like a drowning woman who stays in the water for too long. In fact, the author refers to her as a small, spare skeleton. She stands as an emblem of the Old South. Emily denies death itself and this is she tries to exert power over death. She is not able to admit that her father is dead. Emily gives the body of her father reluctantly. She refuses to acknowledge the power of death, this is seen when she refuses to accept that Homer is dead. This time she herself is responsible for causing death. Emily attempts to bring together life and death.
Emily is the center of the extreme, controlling the focus of the narrator and the inhabitants of Jefferson. Instead of establishing an actual connection with Emily, the townspeople make subjective and distorted interpretations of Emily, whom they knew little about. They go to her funeral under the guise of respect and honor, but they want to satisfy their curiosity about Emily’s true nature. She is seen only from a distance through windows. The narrator, in fact, refers to her as an idol. This attitude changes briefly during her affair with Homer as she leaves her house frequently. The townspeople know nothing about Emily they can see, the true nature of Emily, as well as the secrets, is only revealed after her death.
Emily’s house is a monument representing the dying world of the southern aristocracy. The scrolled balconies, the cupolas, and the spires represent the hallmarks of a decadent style that was popular in the 1870s. Since those times much has changed. The house in a literal sense is an extension of Emily. It symbolizes the preservation of tradition that is now out of place completely just like the old values of the South in this changing community. Emily’s house also represents mental illness, death, and alienation. It is portrayed as a shrine of the living past.
The hair strand is a reminder of the lost love and perverse things that people always do in pursuit of happiness. It also reveals the life of a woman who was committed to a life of her own and did not pay attention to her behavior, even though it was often shocking to the approval of others. She adheres to her own morals and lives in a world invented by her. The narrator foretells the discovery of the hair on a pillow when he describes the transformation that she exhibits as she ages. Finally, the long strand of hair represents the last vestige of life that was left to decay, just as the body of Homer.
Analysis of Major Characters
The narrator depicts Emily as the classic outsider and mysterious figure. She lives in an old house and hides from the public, so the townspeople do not understand her nature. Faulkner portrays her as a secretive woman. She has her own life and tries to hide her identity as much as possible. Emily also enforces her own law and the conduct when she refuses to pay the taxes and reveals why she buys the poison. She also refuses to have numbers on her house when the federal mail service is put in place.
Emily is also depicted as a monument, who at the same time is irritating because she demands to live by her own rules and often pitied. Emily purchases the poison and the townspeople fear that she will kill herself, but her instabilities lead her to take a different direction, after which one can conclude that she is necrophiliac, which means that she is sexually attracted to the dead bodies. It is also symbolic that after Mr. Grieson controlled her daughter, Emily also controls for some time his body after his death. She definitely lacked a traditional way to express her need for Homer; she opts to take his life to get power over him.
Homer is also like a stranger in the town and he becomes here the center of gossips. People do not trust him because he is a day laborer and a northerner. He has scandalous Sunday outings with Emily, despite the fact that Emily came from a higher social class. He does not properly court Emily and does not ask her to marry him and it arouses speculation and suspicion. Moreover, he seems to be a homosexual because he carouses with young men at the Elks Club. Some people believe that he is not interested in marriage because he is an eternal bachelor. Homer is also an emblem of the North. He is a foreman of the company who came into the town to pave the sidewalks. Homer also represents modernity in industrialization with his machinery. He brings innovation to the changing world of the South. Homer is only an agent of change.
A Quotation Explained
“Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and care; a hereditary obligation upon the town……”. This comes at the start of the story in section I. The narrator explains the funeral of Emily and her life history in the town. Emily casts a shadow on the Jefferson town because of her complex figure. Members of her community always respected Emily’s family because it belongs to the family of higher social class. At the same time, the community criticizes her secretive life and relationships with Homer. Emily becomes a fascinating image that compels people to watch over her daily steps and activities. Emily also plays the role of the last representative of the Great Jefferson family. The people in her community feel that they have inherited a daughter of the disappearing empire of prestige and wealth without any idea if it is for the better or worse. The order of words in this quotation is very significant. Emily represents a great southern tradition. It also focuses on the landed noble with their vast holdings and a wealth of resources, and her legacy that, however, fades making her fall. Emily is viewed as a burden to the town because she failed to honor her tax obligations and adhere to the outdated strict social way of life and conduct.