Summary of Part I
The narrator of this story is the voice of the town rather than a specific person. The story begins with a recounting of when Miss Emily Grierson died, and how the whole town went to her funeral. The women of the town went mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which is "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."
The reader then gets a explanation of why Miss Emily had been a "hereditary obligation upon the town." In 1894, the mayor, Colonel Sartoris, remitted her taxes after the death of her father. When the next generation came into office, the Board of Alderman had a meeting to decide how to collect taxes from Miss Emily, who was in the habit of not paying them. A "deputation" went to her house and waited in the dusty parlor until Miss Emily entered. She repeats that Colonel Sartoris has told her she has no taxes in Jefferson, though the Colonel had been dead for almost a decade.
Summary of Part II
The narrator now skips back in time thirty years, to two years after the death of Miss Emily's father and just a short time after the disappearance of her sweetheart. The neighbors complained to Judge Stevens, the mayor, about the smell. The Board of Aldermen met to discuss what to do, and rather than confront Miss Emily, as the young one suggested, they sneak over to her house and sprinkle lime around. As they crossed the lawn to leave, a light came on, and they saw Miss Emily in the window.
The narrator recalls that this was when "people had begun to feel really sorry for her." He discusses how they had, in a way, resented the Griersons as being too high-and-mighty, and so when Miss Emily reached the age of thirty and was still unmarried, they felt "not pleased exactly, but vindicated." When the ladies of the town went to the house to call on Miss Emily the day after her father's death, Miss Emily told them that her father was not dead. Finally, after three days and under threat of law and force, she allows her father to be buried. The townspeople did not say she was crazy then, because they assumed she had to "cling to that which had robbed her" of a married life, since her father had driven away her suitors.
Summary of Part III
The narrator follows chronologically now, to the arrival of the construction company to pave the sidewalks. Homor Barron was the gregarious foreman, and the townspeople began to observe him in Miss Emily's company driving on Sundays. The old people said, "Poor Emily. Her kinsfolk should come to her."
Then the narrator tells the story of when Miss Emily went to the druggist to request "some poison." The conversation between Miss Emily and the druggist is related word for word, and the druggist gives her the poison while strongly implying that it should only be used "for rats and such." When the package is delivered to her, "For rats" is written on it.
Summary of Part IV
The women of the town began to say that her riding around in the buggy with Homer Barron, with no intention of marriage, was a "disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young people." The Baptist minister called upon her, but left and refused to return; his wife wrote to Miss Emily's family in Alabama a week later. Her "kinsfolk" came to her, from Alabama, even though there had been a falling out in the family. The townspeople thought that "the two female cousins were even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been." The town had become a "cabal, and we were all Miss Emily's allies to help circumvent the cousins." Homer Barron disappeared, but after the cousins from Alabama left, a neighbor reported seeing Homer Barron return to the house "at dusk one evening." But he was never seen again.
After that, Miss Emily did not leave the house for six months.
For a period of "six or seven years" when she was about forty years old, Miss Emily gave china-painting lessons to "the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris' contemporaries." Then the students stopped coming. Miss Emily also refused to let a mailbox be attached to her house when the town got postal delivery service. Years pass and Miss Emily "passed from generation to generation - dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse." The town did not even know she was sick before she died, since Tobe, her servant, did not talk to anyone.
Summary of Part V
After letting in the mourners after Miss Emily's death, Tobe disappeared out the back door. The two female cousins from Alabama arrived and held the funeral. The narrator describes how a group of townspeople waited until Miss Emily "was decently in the ground" before forcing open the door to a deserted room above the stairs. The room was coated in dust, and "decked and furnished as for a bridal," including a man's toiletries and "carefuly folded" suit. And there on the bed was the rotting body of Homer Barron in a nightshirt. On the pillow next to him, also coated in dust, was the indentation of a head, and a single strand of "iron-gray hair," which the reader can assume belonged to Miss Emily.
The narrator, who is the voice of the town in general, uses anecdotes to tell the story of Miss Emily's life as observed by the people around her. This technique is used to transcend time, from the time right before Miss Emily's death to her youth to the time around her father's death, etc.
Foreshadowing is also used to allude to the ending, in which the townspeople discover that Miss Emily has been living with the body of her dead sweetheart for many years. In Part II, the story about how the house began to smell takes place "a short time after her sweetheart - the one we believed would marry her - had deserted her." In Part III, when she buys arsenic from the druggist, she will not confirm that the arsenic is for killing rats. There is no explanation provided right away, but later the reader can assume that it was used to poison Homer Barron, Miss Emily's sweetheart.
Because the narrator is the voice of the town, the story unfolds to the reader through the town's eyes, and thus their assumptions are the readers' own. For instance, when the narrator reports about the awful smell that pervaded the Grierson house, he/she includes she small detail that it started "a short time after her sweetheart - the one we believed would marry her - had deserted her." Like the townspeople, the reader does not discover that the source of the smell is the sweetheart's dead body until the very end of the story when the body is discovered.
Simile is used to imply a macabre tone. For example, in the first description the reader has of Miss Emily, when the aldermen visit her house to ask for her taxes, she is described as "bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue." This comparison of Miss Emily to a drowned body suggests that she has been dead inside for a time now. The "motionless water" is the house around her, which remains frozen in a time past as the world outside changes. When the door is forced open to the deserted room in Part V, the narrator reports that "a thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room..." The diction choice of "tomb" hints to the reader what he or she is soon to discover: this room is, in fact, a tomb for Homer Barron.
The theme of the gap between generations is clear in this story. Miss Emily is stuck in the time of Colonel Sartoris and his contemporaries. Her inability to adapt to change is demonstrated not only in her refusal to pay taxes after Colonel Sartoris remitted them, but by her refusal to have a mailbox when free postal delivery becomes available to the town. "Thus she passed from generation to generation - dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse."
Originally published in the April 30, 1930, issue of Forum, "A Rose for Emily" was Faulkner's first short story to be published in a major magazine. Casual readers find it to be one of his most accessible short stories, and the revelation of Miss Emily's horrible secret at the end contributed to its popularity.
The story's accessibility is the result of its versatility, for which it is praised. In Notes on Mississippi Writers, Frank A. Littler describes how it has been ‘‘read variously as a Gothic horror tale, a study in abnormal psychology, an allegory of the relations between North and South, a meditation on the nature of time, and a tragedy with Emily as a sort of tragic heroine.’’