Course 6—Study Guide

A Rose for Emily
by William Faulkner (1897-1962)

course6-book Arguably Faulkner’s most famous short story and for good reason—"A Rose for Emily" packs a wallop at the end. Throughout the story, the narrator cleverly hints at the outcome yet drops the hints so casually that the reader is caught unaware. We are unprepared for the shock at the end.

The story is in the tradition of both mystery and gothic (decrepit mansions, dark secrets, and a pervasive sense of dread). Its most notable aspect, however, is the distorted timeline, discussed in the LitCourse Lecture. It moves back and forth among different pasts and the present. It's a modernist approach to time.

Symbols and irony abound in this story, making it fresh and interesting read after read.

And, please, don’t overlook the story’s rich humor, especially how little old Miss E. cows an entire deputation of grown men waiting in her parlor. Faulkner was often a very funny writer.

Also, pay attention to the narrative voice— the communal "we," a highly unusual point of view.

1. The narrative "we" expresses varying attitudes toward Miss E. At first curiosity, at times sympathy, at other times resentment, even glee. Gradually, we begin to distance ourselves from the "we," seeing hypocrisy and cruelty in the sentiments. Readers’ sympathies begin to lean toward Miss E—which she will need from us when we reach the last line.

2. Notice the portrait of Miss E.’s father in the parlor—an indication of his domineering presence, alive or dead. Notice, too, Miss E.'s "invisible watch ticking," as well her ignorance of Col. Sartoris' death. Miss E. is unaware of time’s passage—she clings to the past, unable to move forward to grasp life’s new possibilities. She is death-in-life.

3. Notice how casually the narrator inserts the rat poison/pharmacy episode: it follows mention of the smell—although it causes the smell. Note, too, the humorous reference to "rats" by the pharmacist and on the package. The rat, of course, is Homer Barron, but we don’t get that yet. There’s also the great line from Justice Stevens: "Dammit, sir… will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?" Funnier still is the image of grown men skulking around Miss E’s house in the dark, sprinkling lime around to cover up the stench.

4. We’re supposed to feel shock at the end, especially at the last line — the iron-gray hair left on the pillow. It’s a clear sign of poor Emily’s insanity. (Yes, we’re talking necrophilia.) But there is foreshadowing of her insanity: the mention of her great-aunt Wyatt's insanity and Emily’s refusal to give up her father’s corpse.

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