The Function of Imagery and Symbolism used by William Faulkner in "A Rose for Emily"

Term Paper, 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Functions of the Grierson House

3. The Picture drawn of Emily
3.1. Emily as a “Lady”
3.2. Religious Images in Contrast to Masculine Traits

4. The Function of the Town

5. The Three Men in Emily´s Life
5.1. Her Father
5.2. Her Lover
5.3. Her Servant

6. The Aspect of Time

7. The Symbol of the Rose

8. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

William Faulkner's short story A Rose for Emily is often regarded as a “story of horror”, with gothic elements (Brooks & Warren 302) due to its creepy and shocking final scene. Moreover different themes such as the loss of beloved ones, isolation and the refusal to accept change are covered in this story. There is also a variety of popular readings of A Rose for Emily emphasizing “the conflict between the North and the South” or “the conflict between individual and the community, between the past and the present, between men and women” (Carothers 9).

The question is of how the author depicts such complexity of character, emotion and setting?

Faulkner himself said that “in a short story [...] almost every word has got to be almost exactly right” (Petry 54). As a result almost every word in a short story has a greater meaning, which is achieved using imagery and symbolism. Imagery is the representation of experiences of the senses, which uses descriptive, but also figurative language (Brooks & Warren 333), whereas symbolism is used by “writers to invest objects, actions or ideas with a symbolic meaning” (Scott 283).

The symbols convey special meanings to the reader, standing for one single idea or many (Scott 283). This paper will analyze the function and use of imagery and symbolism in A Rose for Emily focusing on the functions of the house, how the picture of Emily is drawn, the function of the town, the characterization of the men in the protagonist´s life, then the aspect of time and finally the attempt to analyze the symbol of the rose in the title trying to reveal a much imagery and symbolic meaning as possible. It will be shown, that a Rose for Emily is complex and rich in imagery, symbolism and ambiguity used by Faulkner to characterize people, describe relations and atmosphere.

2. Functions of the Grierson House

The main function of the house is to characterize Miss Emily by describing her outer appearance and her inner life. In the first passage Emily is portrayed as “a fallen monument” (295), a relic from the Southern aristocracy, through her stately house representing the old values and traditions of the South. Holland calls both Emily and the house “monuments of the past”, that persisted into the present (24-25).

According to Ziegler the contrast between tradition and modern spirit is illustrated through the coexistence of Emily's old fashioned house and modern industrial buildings (92):

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 [...] (295)

Like her house in the modern surrounding she seems alone and displaced in the modern society due to her stubbornness to change and accept modernity:

[...] 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.” (296)

The adjectives “stubborn” and “coquettish” emphasize what Emily has become (Holland 24). Faulkner hightlights the similarities between the ageing of the house with the ageing of its owner. As a young woman Emily is described as “a slender figure in white”, like the house which used to be white as well. Due to the ageing process and neglect she becomes “a small, fat woman in black” with grey hair looking “bloated [...] and of that pallid hue”, having lost her beauty and being decrepit like the house itself. So in the end both the house and Emily become “an eyesore among eyesores” (296).

Also the interior of the house is neglected, representing the inner life of Emily. When the Board of Aldermen visits Miss Emily to talk about her taxes, her house is described as “dim” and shadowy with “cracked” and “tarnished” furniture (296). The house smells “of dust and disuse – a closed, dank smell” and “faint dust” rises “sluggishly about [the mens’] thighs” (296). Here the dust is probably used as a symbol for death.

Another function of the house is to keep a secret, and in order to keep that secret Emily chooses a locked up, isolated life. The fact that she lives “in [a] house filled with dust and shadows” might foreshadow a dark secret inside her (301).

The reader, like the narrator does not get many glimpses inside the house, because after Homer's disappearance “the front door remained closed”. The symbol of the door is significant and Faulkner stresses on several occasions (in part IV), that Emily did not have any visitors “since she ceased giving china-painting lessons”, nor did she leave the house (296).

While her father was still alive, the townspeople pictured them standing in the frame of the door of their house. Schede suggests that Emily was standing behind the doorway with Mr. Grierson blocking her way out, rendering the house a prison to her until her father died (53).

One might even speak of a “golden cage”, the enormous house providing her with luxury but denying her freedom.

Ziegler points out that there is another object belonging to the house, linked through the door: the street in front of the house can be regarded as a symbol for transportation and locomotion (94). After the death of her father Emily is seen being taken out by Homer, who actually came to modernize the streets, “in the yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched team of bays from the livery stable” driving through Jefferson (299). But again after the disappearance of Homer “she did not appear on the streets” for a long time (301), locking herself up and separating her from the outside.

As well as this, the windows can be seen as a dividing line between Miss Emily and the outside world, emphasizing her mystical appearance (Ziegler 93): “[...] 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.”

It is not until her death that the reader is presented with another chance to see the interior of Emily´s house, when she is found in a downstairs room “in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her gray head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight” (301), which indicates one more that Emily shut herself away in the decaying mansion and became removed “from the bustle and dust and sunshine of the human world of normal affairs” (Brooks & Warren 303).

This last glance inside Emily´s house also reveals the secret it has held for over forty years. The locked room where Homer is found is “all decked out in rose as for a wedding-night” (Holland 21), but also has the atmosphere of a grave (Ziegler 94):

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 [...] The man himself lay in the bed. [...] beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust. (302)

The “mute shoes” (302) stand for Homer, who was killed and will not talk anymore. Faulkner contrasts the rose-colored room, which seems to stand for life, romance and love, with the remains of a dead body symbolizing death in its timelessness (Ziegler 91).

3. The Picture drawn of Emily

When Emily was alive, she “had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (296). She is characterized almost like the property and treasure of the town, she was living a public life (Brooks & Warren 304). After her death she becomes a story, “the mystery itself” (Holland 23).

Emily is characterized to the reader as passing “from generation to generation—dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse” (301), which Alice Hall Petry recognizes not only as representations of the ambivalent attitude of the townspeople towards her, but also as key words for each of the five parts of the story. “Dear” refers to Emily´s refusal to pay taxes, causing expensive problems for the town. “Inescapable” then represents the disgusting smell mentioned in the second part of the story. Faulkner then uses the adjective “impervious” for her proud reaction to the gossip around the town and “tranquil” describes her reclusive lifestyle, which is the main topic of the fourth part. Finally the fifth adjective “perverse” can be regarded as an indicator for future events, such as the shocking discovery of Homer`s dead body in the last part of the story (Schede 63).

When Emily sees the druggist to buy arsenic she is described as

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. (299)

According to Perry, both Emily and the lighthouse-keeper chose to live alone, refusing to be part of society, and both look down at all of the people beneath them (332).

In this scene she behaves arrogantly and aggressively towards the druggist, demonstrated by her “erect” posture as she intimidates the druggist, her face described as “a strained flag” (299). This image of a flag resistant to wind, while the druggist is inhibiting her actions, shows the toughness of this woman.


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The Function of Imagery and Symbolism used by William Faulkner in "A Rose for Emily"
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A Rose for Emily, William Faulkner, Imagery, Symbolism
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Daria Poklad (Author), 2009, The Function of Imagery and Symbolism used by William Faulkner in "A Rose for Emily", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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