The story opens with a brief first-person account of the funeral of Emily Grierson, an elderly Southern woman whose funeral is the obligation of their small town. It then proceeds in a non-linear fashion to the narrator's recollections of Emily's archaic and increasingly strange behavior throughout the years. Emily is a member of a family of the antebellum Southern aristocracy. After the Civil War, the family falls into hard times. She and her father, the last two of the clan, continue to live as if in the past; Emily’s father refuses for her to marry. Her father dies when Emily is about the age of 30, which takes her by surprise. She refuses to give up his corpse, and the townspeople write it off as her grieving process. The townspeople pity Emily not only after her father's death but also during his life when he wouldn't let Emily marry.
After her father's death, the only person seen moving about Emily's home is Tobe- a black man, serving as Emily's butler, going in and out with a market basket. Although Emily did not have a strong relationship with her community, she did give art lessons to young children within her town. The townspeople even referred to her as Miss Emily as a sign of the respect that they had for her. With the acceptance of her father's death, Emily somewhat revives, even changing the style of her hair and becomes friendly with Homer Barron. He is a Northern laborer who comes to town shortly after Mr. Grierson’s death. The connection surprises some of the community while others are glad she is taking an interest. However, Homer claims that he is not a marrying man, but a bachelor. Emily shortly buys arsenic from a druggist in town, telling him that it will be used to kill rats. However, the townspeople are convinced that she will use it to poison herself. Emily’s distant cousins are called into town by the minister’s wife to supervise Miss Emily and Homer Barron. Homer leaves town for some time, reputedly to give Emily a chance to get rid of her cousins, and returns three days later after the cousins have left. Homer is never seen again.
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 finds itself 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 after her father had died. 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 outside of the house, and only rarely accepts people into it. 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 enters her house to see what remains of her life there. The door to her upstairs bedroom is locked; some of the townsfolk break down the door to see what has been hidden for so long. Inside, among the possessions that Emily had bought for Homer, lies the decomposed corpse of Homer Barron on the bed; on the pillow beside him is the indentation of a head and a single strand of gray hair, indicating that Emily had slept with Homer's corpse.