A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

I

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole

town went to her funeral: the men through a

sort of respectful affection for a fallen

monument, the women mostly out of

curiosity to see the inside of her house,

which no one save an old man-servant–a

combined gardener and cook–had seen in at

least ten years.

It was 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. But garages and cotton gins had

encroached and obliterated even the august

names of that neighborhood; only Miss

Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn

and coquettish decay above the cotton

wagons and the gasoline pumps-an eyesore

among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had

gone to join the representatives of those

august names where they lay in the cedar-

bemused cemetery among the ranked and

anonymous graves of Union and

Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of

Jefferson.

Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a

duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary

obligation upon the town, dating from that

day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the

mayor–he who fathered the edict that no

Negro woman should appear on the streets

without an apron-remitted her taxes, the

dispensation dating from the death of her

father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss

Emily would have accepted charity.

Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale

to the effect that Miss Emily’s father had

loaned money to the town, which the town,

as a matter of business, preferred this way

of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’

generation and thought could have invented

it, and only a woman could have believed it.

When the next generation, with its more

modern ideas, became mayors and

aldermen, this arrangement created some

little dissatisfaction. On the first of the year

they mailed her a tax notice. February came,

and there was no reply. They wrote her a

formal letter, asking her to call at the

sheriff’s office at her convenience. A week

later the mayor wrote her himself, offering

to call or to send his car for her, and

received in reply a note on paper of an

archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy

in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer

went out at all. The tax notice was also

enclosed, without comment.

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8

They called a special meeting of the Board

of Aldermen. A deputation waited upon her,

knocked at the door through which no

visitor had passed since she ceased giving

china-painting lessons eight or ten years

earlier. They were admitted by the old

Negro into a dim hall from which a stairway

mounted into still more shadow. It smelled

of dust and disuse–a close, dank smell. The

Negro led them into the parlor. It was

furnished in heavy, leather-covered

furniture. When the Negro opened the

blinds of one window, they could see that

the leather was cracked; and when they sat

down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about

their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the

single sun-ray. On a tarnished gilt easel

before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait

of Miss Emily’s father.

They rose when she entered–a small, fat

woman in black, with a thin gold chain

descending to her waist and vanishing into

her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a

tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small

and spare; perhaps that was why what

would have been merely plumpness in

another was obesity in her. She looked

bloated, like a body long submerged in

motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her

eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face,

looked like two small pieces of coal pressed

into a lump of dough as they moved from

one face to another while the visitors stated

their errand.

She did not ask them to sit. She just stood in

the door and listened quietly until the

spokesman came to a stumbling halt. Then

they could hear the invisible watch ticking

at the end of the gold chain.

Her voice was dry and cold. “I have no

taxes in Jefferson.

Colonel Sartoris explained it to me. Perhaps

one of you can gain access to the city

records and satisfy yourselves.”

“But we have. We are the city authorities,

Miss Emily. Didn’t you get a notice from

the sheriff, signed by him?”

“I received a paper, yes,” Miss Emily said.

“Perhaps he considers himself the sheriff …

I have no taxes in Jefferson.”

“But there is nothing on the books to show

that, you see We must go by the–”

“See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in

Jefferson.”

“But, Miss Emily–”

“See Colonel Sartoris.”

(Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten

years.) “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Tobe!”

The Negro appeared. “Show these

gentlemen out.”

II

So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just

as she had vanquished their fathers thirty

years before about the smell.

That was two years after her father’s

death and a short time after her sweetheart–

the one we believed would marry her –had

deserted her. After her father’s death she

went out very little; after her sweetheart

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

8

went away, people hardly saw her at all.

A few of the ladies had the temerity to call,

but were not received, and the only sign of

life about the place was the Negro man–a

young man then–going in and out with a

market basket.

“Just as if a man–any man–could keep a

kitchen properly, “the ladies said; so they

were not surprised when the smell

developed. It was another link between the

gross, teeming world and the high and

mighty Griersons.

A neighbor, a woman, complained to the

mayor, Judge Stevens, eighty years old.

“But what will you have me do about it,

madam?” he said.

“Why, send her word to stop it,” the

woman said. “Isn’t there a law? ”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Judge

Stevens said. “It’s probably just a snake or a

rat that nigger of hers killed in the yard. I’ll

speak to him about it.”

The next day he received two more

complaints, one from a man who came in

diffident deprecation. “We really must do

something about it, Judge. I’d be the last one

in the world to bother Miss Emily, but

we’ve got to do something.” That night the

Board of Aldermen met–three graybeards

and one younger man, a member of the

rising generation.

“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her

word to have her place cleaned up. Give her

a certain time to do it in, and if she don’t…”

“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will

you accuse a lady to her face of smelling

bad?”

So the next night, after midnight, four

men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk

about the house like burglars, sniffing along

the base of the brickwork and at the cellar

openings while one of them performed a

regular sowing motion with his hand out of

a sack slung from his shoulder. They broke

open the cellar door and sprinkled lime

there, and in all the outbuildings. As they

recrossed the lawn, a window that had been

dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it,

the light behind her, and her upright torso

motionless as that of an idol. They crept

quietly across the lawn and into the shadow

of the locusts that lined the street. After a

week or two the smell went away.

That was when people had begun to feel

really sorry for her. People in our town,

remembering how old lady Wyatt, her great-

aunt, had gone completely crazy at last,

believed that the Griersons held themselves

a little too high for what they really were.

None of the young men were quite good

enough for Miss Emily and such. We had

long thought of them as a tableau, Miss

Emily a slender figure in white in the

background, her father a spraddled

silhouette in the foreground, his back to her

and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them

framed by the back-flung front door. So

when she got to be thirty and was still

single, we were not pleased exactly, but

vindicated; even with insanity in the family

she wouldn’t have turned down all of her

chances if they had really materialized.

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8

When her father died, it got about that

the house was all that was left to her; and in

a way, people were glad. At last they could

pity Miss Emily. Being left alone, and a

pauper, she had become humanized. Now

she too would know the old thrill and the

old despair of a penny more or less.

The day after his death all the ladies

prepared to call at the house and offer

condolence and aid, as is our custom Miss

Emily met them at the door, dressed as

usual and with no trace of grief on her face.

She told them that her father was not dead.

She did that for three days, with the

ministers calling on her, and the doctors,

trying to persuade her to let them dispose of

the body. Just as they were about to resort to

law and force, she broke down, and they

buried her father quickly.

We did not say she was crazy then. We

believed she had to do that. We remembered

all the young men her father had driven

away, and we knew that with nothing left,

she would have to cling to that which had

robbed her, as people will.

III

She was sick for a long time. When we saw

her again, her hair was cut short, making her

look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to

those angels in colored church windows–

sort of tragic and serene.

The town had just let the contracts for

paving the sidewalks, and in the summer

after her father’s death they began the work.

The construction company came with

riggers and mules and machinery, and a

foreman named Homer Barron, a Yankee–a

big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and

eyes lighter than his face. The little boys

would follow in groups to hear him cuss the

riggers, and the riggers singing in time to

the rise and fall of picks. Pretty soon he

knew everybody in town. Whenever you

heard a lot of laughing anywhere about the

square, Homer Barron would be in the

center of the group. Presently we began to

see him and Miss Emily on Sunday

afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled

buggy and the matched team of bays from

the livery stable.

At first we were glad that Miss Emily

would have an interest, because the ladies

all said, “Of course a Grierson would not

think seriously of a Northerner, a day

laborer.” But there were still others, older

people, who said that even grief could not

cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige —

without calling it noblesse oblige. They just

said, “Poor Emily. Her kinsfolk should

come to her.” She had some kin in

Alabama; but years ago her father had fallen

out with them over the estate of old lady

Wyatt, the crazy woman, and there was no

communication between the two families.

They had not even been represented at the

funeral.

And as soon as the old people said,

“Poor Emily,” the whispering began. “Do

you suppose it’s really so?” they said to one

another. “Of course it is. What else could . .

.” This behind their hands; rustling of

craned silk and satin behind jalousies closed

upon the sun of Sunday afternoon as the

thin, swift clop-clop-clop of the matched

team passed: “Poor Emily.”

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

8

She carried her head high enough–even

when we believed that she was fallen. It was

as if she demanded more than ever the

recognition of her dignity as the last

Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of

earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness.

Like when she bought the rat poison, the

arsenic. That was over a year after they had

begun to say “Poor Emily,” and while the

two female cousins were visiting her.

“I want some poison,” she said to the

druggist. She was over thirty then, still a

slight woman, though thinner than usual,

with cold, haughty black eyes in a face the

flesh of which was strained across the

temples and about the eyesockets as you

imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face ought to

look. “I want some poison,” she said.

“Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats

and such? I’d recom–”

“I want the best you have. I don’t care

what kind.”

The druggist named several. “They’ll kill

anything up to an elephant. But what you

want is–”

“Arsenic,” Miss Emily said. “Is that a

good one?”

“Is . . . arsenic? Yes, ma’am. But what

you want–”

“I want arsenic.”

The druggist looked down at her. She

looked back at him, erect, her face like a

strained flag. “Why, of course,” the druggist

said. “If that’s what you want. But the law

requires you to tell what you are going to

use it for.”

Miss Emily just stared at him, her head

tilted back in order to look him eye for eye,

until he looked away and went and got the

arsenic and wrapped it up. The Negro

delivery boy brought her the package; the

druggist didn’t come back. When she

opened the package at home there was

written on the box, under the skull and

bones: “For rats.”

IV

So the next day we all said, “She will kill

herself”; and we said it would be the best

thing. When she had first begun to be seen

with Homer Barron, we had said, “She will

marry him.” Then we said, “She will

persuade him yet,” because Homer himself

had remarked–he liked men, and it was

known that he drank with the younger men

in the Elks’ Club–that he was not a

marrying man. Later we said, “Poor Emily”

behind the jalousies as they passed on

Sunday afternoon in the glittering buggy,

Miss Emily with her head high and Homer

Barron with his hat cocked and a cigar in his

teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove.

Then some of the ladies began to say

that it was a disgrace to the town and a bad

example to the young people. The men did

not want to interfere, but at last the ladies

forced the Baptist minister–Miss Emily’s

people were Episcopal– to call upon her.

He would never divulge what happened

during that interview, but he refused to go

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

8

back again. The next Sunday they again

drove about the streets, and the following

day the minister’s wife wrote to Miss

Emily’s relations in Alabama.

So she had blood-kin under her roof

again and we sat back to watch

developments. At first nothing happened.

Then we were sure that they were to be

married. We learned that Miss Emily had

been to the jeweler’s and ordered a man’s

toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on

each piece. Two days later we learned that

she had bought a complete outfit of men’s

clothing, including a nightshirt, and we said,

“They are married.” We were really glad.

We were glad because the two female

cousins were even more Grierson than Miss

Emily had ever been.

So we were not surprised when Homer

Barron–the streets had been finished some

time since–was gone. We were a little

disappointed that there was not a public

blowing-off, but we believed that he had

gone on to prepare for Miss Emily’s coming,

or to give her a chance to get rid of the

cousins. (By that time it was a cabal, and we

were all Miss Emily’s allies to help

circumvent the cousins.) Sure enough, after

another week they departed. And, as we had

expected all along, within three days Homer

Barron was back in town. A neighbor saw

the Negro man admit him at the kitchen

door at dusk one evening.

And that was the last we saw of Homer

Barron. And of Miss Emily for some time.

The Negro man went in and out with the

market basket, but the front door remained

closed. Now and then we would see her at a

window for a moment, as the men did that

night when they sprinkled the lime, but for

almost six months she did not appear on the

streets. Then we knew that this was to be

expected too; as if that quality of her father

which had thwarted her woman’s life so

many times had been too virulent and too

furious to die.

When we next saw Miss Emily, she had

grown fat and her hair was turning gray.

During the next few years it grew grayer

and grayer until it attained an even pepper-

and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning.

Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it

was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the

hair of an active man.

From that time on her front door

remained closed, save for a period of six or

seven years, when she was about forty,

during which she gave lessons in china-

painting. She fitted up a studio in one of the

downstairs rooms, where the daughters and

granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris’

contemporaries were sent to her with the

same regularity and in the same spirit that

they were sent to church on Sundays with a

twenty-five-cent piece for the collection

plate. Meanwhile her taxes had been

remitted.

Then the newer generation became the

backbone and the spirit of the town, and the

painting pupils grew up and fell away and

did not send their children to her with boxes

of color and tedious brushes and pictures cut

from the ladies’ magazines. The front door

closed upon the last one and remained

closed for good. When the town got free

postal delivery, Miss Emily alone refused to

let them fasten the metal numbers above her

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

8

door and attach a mailbox to it. She would

not listen to them.

Daily, monthly, yearly we watched the

Negro grow grayer and more stooped, going

in and out with the market basket. Each

December we sent her a tax notice, which

would be returned by the post office a week

later, unclaimed. Now and then we would

see her in one of the downstairs windows–

she had evidently shut up the top floor of

the house–like the carven torso of an idol in

a niche, looking or not looking at us, we

could never tell which. Thus she passed

from generation to generation–dear,

inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and

perverse.

And so she died. Fell ill in the house

filled with dust and shadows, with only a

doddering Negro man to wait on her. We

did not even know she was sick; we had

long since given up trying to get any

information from the Negro

He talked to no one, probably not even

to her, for his voice had grown harsh and

rusty, as if from disuse.

She died in one of the downstairs rooms,

in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her

gray head propped on a pillow yellow and

moldy with age and lack of sunlight.

V

The Negro met the first of the ladies at the

front door and let them in, with their

hushed, sibilant voices and their quick,

curious glances, and then he disappeared.

He walked right through the house and out

the back and was not seen again.

The two female cousins came at once.

They held the funeral on the second day,

with the town coming to look at Miss Emily

beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the

crayon face of her father musing profoundly

above the bier and the ladies sibilant and

macabre; and the very old men –some in

their brushed Confederate uniforms–on the

porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily

as if she had been a contemporary of theirs,

believing that they had danced with her and

courted her perhaps, confusing time with its

mathematical progression, as the old do, to

whom all the past is not a diminishing road

but, instead, a huge meadow which no

winter ever quite touches, divided from

them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the

most recent decade of years.

Already we knew that there was one

room in that region above stairs which no

one had seen in forty years, and which

would have to be forced. They waited until

Miss Emily was decently in the ground

before they opened it.

The violence of breaking down the door

seemed to fill this room with pervading

dust. A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb

seemed to lie everywhere upon this room

decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon

the valance curtains of faded rose color,

upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the

dressing table, upon the delicate array of

crystal and the man’s toilet things backed

with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that

the monogram was obscured. Among them

lay a collar and tie, as if they had just been

removed, which, lifted, left upon the surface

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

8

a pale crescent in the dust. Upon a chair

hung the suit, carefully folded; beneath it

the two mute shoes and the discarded socks.

The man himself lay in the bed.

For a long while we just stood there,

looking down at the profound and fleshless

grin. The body had apparently once lain in

the attitude of an embrace, but now the long

sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even

the grimace of love, had cuckolded him.

What was left of him, rotted beneath what

was left of the nightshirt, had become

inextricable from the bed in which he lay;

and upon him and upon the pillow beside

him lay that even coating of the patient and

biding dust.

Then we noticed that in the second

pillow was the indentation of a head. One of

us lifted something from it, and leaning

forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and

acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of

iron-gray hair.

——–