The unnamed narrator of “A Rose for Emily” serves as the town’s collective voice. Critics have debated whether it is a man or woman; a former lover of Emily Grierson’s; the boy who remembers the sight of Mr. Grierson in the doorway, holding the whip; or the town gossip, spearheading the effort to break down the door at the end. It is possible, too, that the narrator is Emily’s former servant, Tobe—he would have known her intimately, perhaps including her secret. A few aspects of the story support this theory, such as the fact that the narrator often refers to Emily as “Miss Emily” and provides only one descriptive detail about the Colonel Sartoris, the mayor: the fact that he enforced a law requiring that black women wear aprons in public. In any case, the narrator hides behind the collective pronoun we. By using we, the narrator can attribute what might be his or her own thoughts and opinions to all of the townspeople, turning private ideas into commonly held beliefs.
The narrator deepens the mystery of who he is and how much he knows at the end of the story, when the townspeople discover Homer’s body. The narrator confesses “Already we knew” that an upstairs bedroom had been sealed up. However, we never find out how the narrator knows about the room. More important, at this point, for the first time in the story, the narrator uses the pronoun “they” instead of “we” to refer to the townspeople. First, he says, “Already we knew that there was one room. . . .” Then he changes to, “They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it.” This is a significant shift. Until now, the narrator has willingly grouped himself with the rest of the townspeople, accepting the community’s actions, thoughts, and speculations as his own. Here, however, the narrator distances himself from the action, as though the breaking down of the door is something he can’t bring himself to endorse. The shift is quick and subtle, and he returns to “we” in the passages that follow, but it gives us an important clue about the narrator’s identity. Whoever he was, the narrator cared for Emily, despite her eccentricities and horrible, desperate act. In a town that treated her as an oddity and, finally, a horror, a kind, sympathetic gesture—even one as slight as symbolically looking away when the private door is forced open—stands out.
Psst: before you start, you might want to look at our discussion of the story's setting. The town functions almost as a character—it's traditions, societal mores, history, and prejudices inform a whole lot that happens to Miss Emily (and the people she interacts with). Also keep in mind that the narrator of this story represents several generations of men and women from the town.
Yeah—we know it's complicated...but hey: welcome to the wild world of reading Faulkner.
Okay: without further ado:
The story begins at the huge funeral for Miss Emily Grierson. Nobody has been to her house in ten years, except for her servant, so everyone's pretty thrilled to get a peek inside. Miss Emily's house is old, but was at one point the best house around.
The town had a special relationship with Miss Emily ever since it decided to stop billing her for taxes in 1894. But, the "newer generation" wasn't happy with this arrangement, and so they paid a visit to Miss Emily and tried to get her to pay the tax debt. She refused to acknowledge that the old arrangement might not work any more, and flatly refused to pay.
Massive temporal leap time: thirty years before Emily "vanquishes" the tax office, the townspeople complained about a terrible stink coming from Miss Emily's house. This was about two years after her father died, and a short time after her lover disappeared from her life. The stench was overpowering, but the authorities didn't want to confront Emily about the problem.
She was a lady, after all, and to accuse a woman of smelling bad was considered not-so-chivalrous. So they took the gentlemanly way out: they sprinkled lime around the house in the dead of night and the smell was eventually gone.
Smaller temporal leap time: everybody felt sorry for Emily when her father died. He left her with the house, but no money...and he had spent his living years scaring away any suitor that might have wanted to marry her. When he died, Emily refused to admit it for three whole days. The town didn't think she was "crazy then," but assumed that she just didn't want to let go of her dad...even though he had been a wildly abusive monster.
The story doubles back and tells us that, not too long after her father died, Emily begins dating Homer Barron, a Northerner who was in town on a sidewalk-building project. The town heavily disapproves of the affair and brings Emily's cousins to town to stop the relationship. One day, Emily is seen buying arsenic at the drugstore, and the town thinks that she plans to kill herself. The town thinks that this might actually be for the best: after all, Emily is an unmarried woman over thirty (the horror!) and Homer has been heard saying he's not the marrying type.
But then, Emily goes and buys a bunch of men's items—an engraved shaving kit, a suit, a nightshirt—and the townsfolk think that she and Homer are going to get married, after all. Homer leaves town, then the cousins leave town, and then Homer comes back. He's seen entering Miss Emily's house...and then he's never seen again.
Emily herself rarely leaves the home after that. In fact, she's never really seen again, except for a period of half a dozen years when she gives painting lessons in her parlor. Her hair turns gray, she gains weight, and she eventually dies in a downstairs bedroom that hasn't seen light in many years.
It's massive temporal leap time yet again: the story cycles back to where it began, at her funeral. Tobe, miss Emily's servant, lets in the townswomen and then leaves by the backdoor. He's never seen again. After the funeral, and after Emily is buried, the townspeople go upstairs to break into the room that they know has been closed for forty years.
Inside, they find the corpse of Homer Barron, rotting in the bed. On the dust of the pillow next to Homer they find an indentation of a head, and there, in the indentation, a long, gray hair.