The Tragic Emily Grierson

The Tragic Emily Grierson

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay about the main character in "A Rose for Emily." Written for ENG 1121: Composition and Analysis.


The Tragic Emily Grierson

26 January 2009


          Emily Grierson is the tragic heroine of “A Rose for Emily.”  Through the somewhat convoluted timeline of the story, the reader sees Emily live through a series of personal tragedies, which need to be explored in order to clearly see the real tragedy of Emily Grierson, and which are more easily considered according to the chronology of her life than according to the order of the narrative.  Although Emily’s family has a history of mental illness, Emily’s own mental state would not have become as strange as the reader sees it in this story if her life had unfolded differently.  The mental illness the reader observes in Emily is greatly increased by her reactions to the emotional traumas of her early life.

          The tragedies which form the framework of Emily’s life appear to begin with the death of her father in 1894, which leaves her as one of the last orphaned remnants of the South’s impoverished nobility.  Faulkner gives a hint of her genteel poverty when he writes, “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 " 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” (Faulkner 700-701).  As Emily had been a duty and a care for the town, the reader may surmise that she is not entirely able to care for herself.  It would have been an embarrassment to the town to allow Emily to live according to her poverty after having been part of one of the neighborhood’s elite families, so the town feels an obligation to maintain her in her accustomed lifestyle.  The fact that Colonel Sartoris saw a need to ease Emily’s financial burden by remitting her taxes into perpetuity also indicates her level of poverty.  In this, the reader sees that Emily’s tragedy at the death of her father is two-fold: she loses her primary caregiver, on whom she has depended for everything throughout her life, and she becomes a charity case for the town to support for the rest of her life.  To add to the tragedy of Emily’s situation, it appears that she is never aware of how pathetic her life has become.

          The reader’s next view of Emily appears late in the story, though it is less than a year ahead in her personal chronology.  Emily’s tragic circumstances have continued with an extended illness after her father’s death.  “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” (Faulkner 704).  This image of Emily as a lost, young girl struggling to live without her father, who has been her buffer from the rest of the world for her entire life, instead of the woman she is, makes the townspeople and the reader alike feel a bit sorry for Emily.  In this time immediately after her father’s death, the town is still able to feel sympathy for Emily, and to dismiss her oddness as a result of her grief: “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” (Faulkner 704).

          Two years after her father’s death, Emily experiences yet another tragedy when her sweetheart, who is expected to be her future husband, deserts her (Faulkner 702).  Faulkner doesn’t tell the reader much of anything about the sweetheart, except for his existence and his disappearance, but the reader may note the tragic pattern of the important men in Emily’s life leaving her by one means or another.

In the summer of 1894 or 1895, the neighborhood around Emily’s house sees improvements in the form of sidewalks, bringing to the neighborhood an array of common laborers.  It appears that the project took some time to complete, because the reader may note that the improvement began in the summer after Emily’s father died, and appears to have continued until after her sweetheart leaves her.  For a short time, then, Emily’s life appears to become less tragic and more hopeful, as she finds a romantic relationship with a Yankee day laborer named Homer Barron, a man decidedly below Emily’s social position, but who appears to make her happy.  Even that happiness has a tragic overtone, though, in that the community " and especially the women " think Emily’s behavior with Homer is “a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young people” (Faulkner 706).

The pattern of tragedy in Emily’s life continues when Homer, who was supposed by some in the town to have become her husband, such beliefs being based on her purchases of intimate, personal items for him, but whom the reader knows was not interested in marriage because of Faulkner’s comment that “Homer himself had remarked " he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elk’s Club " that he was not a marrying man” (Faulkner 706), disappears shortly after he returns to Emily’s house after the two female cousins leave, as the reader knows from the comment that  “that was the last we saw of Homer Barron” (Faulkner 707).   It is easy for the reader to see that the pattern of men leaving Emily’s life continued with Homer’s disappearance, even though she was the reason for his disappearance, but the reader discovers the scope of Emily’s tragedy with Homer only in the final paragraphs of the story, where Emily’s need for arsenic appears to be explained by the decayed remains of a man’s body in a bed in an upstairs bedroom of Emily’s house.  The man appears to have died while embracing someone " presumably Emily (Faulkner 709).  The tragedy becomes truly macabre when the reader realizes that Emily’s hair, a strand of which was found on the pillow next to the corpse, did not achieve its iron-gray color until several years after Homer was last admitted to the house by the Negro manservant.

“A Rose for Emily” begins with the tragedy of Emily Grierson’s death and funeral, it ends with the grim tragedy of her apparent murder of Homer and continued occupation of the marriage bed, and it meanders through a series of tragic vignettes of Emily’s life.  Throughout the story, Emily does not appear to change a great deal from one stage of her life to another.  She is steadfastly set in her own ways of living, and appears to care little about what her neighbors think of her or want her to do.  She is almost tragic enough to be pitied by the reader, except that it is quite plain that Emily Grierson would never “have accepted charity” or anyone pitying her (Faulkner 701).

Throughout the story, there are physical descriptions of Emily which also contribute to a description of her as tragic.  One, shortly after her father’s death, is given earlier in this discussion.  Later, when Emily is keeping company with Homer, Faulkner describes her: “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” (Faulkner 705).  This strained look about the eyes suggests a life of tragedy, which has drained much of the vigor of life from Emily’s countenance.  A generation later, when the new aldermen attempt to collect Emily’s taxes, the reader has another view of her:

They rose as 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.  (Faulkner 701)

It would be easy to see only the fat woman in this description, but a closer reading reveals to the reader that she is entirely in black, even to her cane.  The gold head of the cane is tarnished, indicating not only disuse or neglect, which would keep it from being well-polished, but also the poor quality of the cane head, which appears to be gold " which cannot tarnish " but is clearly made of a lesser metal.  Looking at Emily herself, the reader sees that she has ceased to be unusually thin, as she was in her thirties.  Tragically, she has not attained a healthy weight, but has become so obese that her eyes are lost in the fat of her face.

          Emily’s appearance as “bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water” (Faulkner 701) gives the impression that she is existing in a mental and emotional vacuum.  She is stagnant, like the water, and is unable to go back in time to recapture what she has lost, but she is also unable to move forward in time and allow her losses to slip into the past.

          On the surface, Emily Grierson might appear to be a strange, even crazy woman.  She might even appear to be evil, for the premeditation of Homer’s murder.  If the reader looks more deeply into her life, however, as this discussion has attempted to do, all of Emily’s oddities and behaviors may be attributed to the pall of tragedy which lay over the whole of her life, from the loss of her father to her own death.

© 2017 Debbie Barry

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Debbie Barry
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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, assignment, a rose for emily, William Faulkner, tragic flaw, tragedy

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..