The Symbolism of Tradition and Change in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

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Symbolism of Emily’s House as a Keeper of Southern Gentility

Anthony C. Lee Professor Waggoner Engwr 303 26 Feburary 2019 Emily Trapped in Time As time ticks, society continues to develop in pop culture, social norms, rules, regulations and so much more. We as the people of the society must continuously keep up with these developments to understand how the world alters and functions. To many people, this is not important and they may become a recluse, yet other people are quick to follow the social trends or figure out the algorithm of our society.

Going back in time we can see that all things have drastically changed from style to communication, to values, and morals and it is up to us to decide if we want to stay in the past or continue adapting. William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a short story about Miss Emily Grierson’s life and through the symbolism of her house, the town, and her hair he is able to use her story as an allegory for the “death” or changes in the South–post-civil war.

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Faulkner uses Emily’s house to symbolize how it is a keeper of the American southern gentility. Southern gentility is The beauty that this house once possessed has disappeared and it has become just an old building. It once was “white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies,” and as time passed the house has become an “eyesore among eyesores” (451). The Southern style of the house is the first indication of Emily’s house being a symbol of the past because we come to learn how their society was devloping into modern times.

Symbolism of Miss Emily’s House and Relationships

We see that Miss Emily’s house and her traditions symbolize that they were keepers of southern gentility when, the “negro appeared” to escort the tax collectors out, when she did not allow a house number to be placed on her door for free postal service, or how the mayor had to write a tax notice to Emily using archaic shapes and flowing calligraphy. These moments show that the house is cemented in a certain time era, one that is far removed.

Miss Emily’s house is a symbolism of how Southerners may have tried relentlessly to keep southern gentility alive, but as time progresses death in any form is inevitable. Add one more pargraph about the towns perception of emily and how they see her as a monument and sort of inhuman until her father died. Although Miss Emily never receives an actual rose in the story the rose comes in the form of a person and we learn that Miss Emily and love are just not meant to be.

Miss Emily grew up raised with a strict father that scared away all her courting lovers and so when he died she had no one. It is not until Homer Baron, a day laborer from the North appears in her life. Homer is the rose, is the love that Miss Emily thought she could have, but because she was a Grierson there was a certain set of noblesse oblige (expectations) that she was held to. Although Homer was the rose, the love to complete Miss Emily’s life he said he “was not a marrying man”(454). And so Miss Emily kills him with arsenic in order to keep him.

Symbolic Significance of Miss Emily’s Actions and Appearance

The death or murder of Homer symbolizes how obsessive Southener’s may have been with keeping their loved traditions, like having slaves or servants, however, after the war, these traditions could no longer stay. This symbolizes how the love of the past cannot coincide with the present because traditions like slavery do not coincide with freedom, but can only serve as a “loving” memory to some. Miss Emily’s strand of gray hair found at the very end of the story symbolizes how the old Americna South will remain in history.

In the opening of the story Faulkner says, “When Miss Emily died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument” (451). It is evident to readers that Miss Emily is more than just a woman, she is a monument, a tradition, a hereditary obligation of the town they say. And as Miss Emily aged her hair only became grayer and grayer till the day she died. When she died the townspeople forced themselves into her room that no one had seen in decades. They found Homer’s skeleton on a bed next to a pillow with a strong “indentation of a head” and a “long strand of iron-gray hair” (456). First, the head indentation on the pillow is a symbolism of how the past does not just disappear, but remains as indentations in history.

Symbolic Resilience of Southern Culture and Miss Emily’s Legacy

It symbolizes how deeply southern culture was rooted in many peoples lives and to dismiss that lifestyle after the war was not going to happen. Secondly, the word choice to describe the piece of hair is oddly interesting. The hair referencing iron, which is a strong metal that only heat can morph, symbolizes the undying strength of the southern traditions after the civil war. The strong symbolism that Miss Emily is and carries throughout the story evidently shows how carrying onto the past can lead to ones demise and symbolizes the undying strength of the southerners post war.

In Faulkner’s short story about Emily Grierson, we must remember that as times change things cannot stay the same, however, do remain as memories. Miss Emily is a woman who symbolized the traditional ways of the south. Her house symbolizes how she physically lives in the past. The rose symbolizes how loving something bad cannot continue forever. And her hair symbolizes how the Southern ways are respected and remembered even after the prime of southern traditions have passed. In society, we act as a collective and so as a collective we must strive to be individuals of progressiveness and growth in order to reach higher ground, whether that be in technology, medicine, or ethics.


  1. Faulkner, W. (1930). A Rose for Emily. The Forum, 84(2), 451-456. [This is the source for the short story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner.]
  2. Blotner, J. L. (1974). Faulkner: A Biography. University Press of Mississippi. [For information about Faulkner’s life and works.]
  3. Genovese, E. D. (1974). Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Pantheon Books. [Provides insights into the South’s historical context and traditions, which could help support the essay’s analysis of Miss Emily’s situation.]
  4. Wyatt-Brown, B. (1984). Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. Oxford University Press. [Offers a deeper understanding of Southern culture, gentility, and societal norms.]
  5. Polk, N. M. (2015). Faulkner and Southern Womanhood. LSU Press. [Provides context on Southern womanhood and how it’s portrayed in Faulkner’s works.]
  6. Williams, T. H. (1997). Realigning Modernism: Postmodernism and the American Literary Canon. University of Georgia Press. [Offers insights into the shifts from modernism to postmodernism in literature, which could be relevant for discussing Faulkner’s writing style.]

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The Symbolism of Tradition and Change in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily". (2023, Aug 10). Retrieved from

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