The story opens with a brief first-person account of the funeral of Emily Grierson, an elderly Southern spinster. It then proceeds in a nonlinear fashion to the narrator's recollections of Emily's archaic and increasingly insane behavior throughout the years. Emily is a member of a family in the antebellum Southern aristocracy; after the Civil War, the family has fallen on hard times. She and her father, the last two of the clan, continue to live as if in the past; neither will consent to a marriage for Emily to a man below their perceived status. Her father dies when Emily is about thirty; she refuses to accept that he has been dead for three days, behavior written off by the community as part of her grieving process.
After her acceptance of her father's death, Emily revives somewhat; she becomes friendly with Homer Barron, a Northern laborer who comes to the town as a contractor to pave the sidewalks. The connection surprises the rest of the community: the match would have been far below her earlier standards, and Homer had himself claimed that he was "not a marrying man." The town appeals to Emily's distant cousins; they are her closest remaining relatives, but they have been on bad terms with Emily and her father, and had not even been present at her father's funeral. The cousins arrive at Emily's house, but quickly gain a reputation even worse than that of Emily; the sentiment of the town rallies behind Emily in opposition to the cousins. Indeed, during this time, Emily buys arsenic from a druggist's shop without giving her reasons for needing it; neighbors believe that she means to poison herself with it. However, her relationship with Homer appears to solidify, and there is talk of marriage between the two. Homer leaves the area for a time, reputedly to give Emily a chance to get rid of her cousins, and returns three days after the cousins have left; one person reports seeing Homer walk in the house at night, which is the last contact the neighborhood has with either of them for a long time.
Despite these turnabouts in her social status, Emily continues to behave haughtily, as she had before her father died. Her reputation is such that the city council find themselves unable to confront her about a strong smell that has begun to emanate from the house. Instead, they decide to send men to her house under the cover of darkness to sprinkle lime around the house, after which the smell dissipates. The mayor of the town, Colonel Sartoris, made a gentleman's agreement to overlook her taxes as an act of charity, though it was done under a pretense of repayment towards her father to assuage Emily's pride. Years later, when the next generation has come to power, Emily insists on this informal arrangement, flatly refusing that she owes any taxes; the council declines to press the issue. Emily has become a recluse: she is never seen out of the house, and only rarely accepts people into it; her black servant does all her shopping for her. The community comes to view her as a "hereditary obligation" on the town, who must be humored and tolerated.
The funeral is a large affair; Emily had become an institution, so her death sparks a great deal of curiosity about her reclusive nature and what remains of her house. After she is buried, a group of townsfolk enter her house to see what remains of her life there. The door to her upstairs bedroom is locked; some of the townsfolk kick in the door to see what has been hidden for so long. Inside, among the possessions that Emily had bought for their wedding, lies the horribly decomposed corpse of Homer Barron on the bed; on the pillow beside him is the indentation of a head, and a single strand of Emily's now-gray hair.