“A Rose for Emily” opens in the twentieth century on the day Miss Emily Grierson’s funeral, held in the once grand, now decaying Grierson family house. Many townspeople were in attendance, not only to pay their respects but also out of curiosity, for no one had seen the interior of the Grierson house in ten years.
However, the narrative quickly shifts back in time, and describes an episode in which Colonel Sartoris, the then-mayor of Jefferson, Mississippi, excused Miss Emily from having to pay taxes in 1894 (he did so because she was both impoverished and unmarried despite being in her forties). Almost twenty years after Sartoris granted this amnesty to Miss Emily, however, a newer generation of men had assumed power in Jefferson, with “modern ideas” and a more pragmatic approach to governance. This generation found the arrangement Sartoris had made with Miss Emily dissatisfying; but, despite their persistence, they failed in their several attempts to exact taxes from the increasingly reclusive woman.
The narrator then likens this small victory of Miss Emily's (her continuing avoidance of taxes) to one she secured thirty years earlier, when she was in her thirties. Neighbors complained to the then-mayor of Jefferson, Judge Stevens, that a bad smell was issuing from Miss Emily's place, but Stevens refused to inform Miss Emily of this for fear of humiliating her. Instead, four men were dispatched to investigate the smell in secret and to spread an odor-neutralizing agent, lime, on Miss Emily's property. The smell went away thereafter.
The narrative takes a final step back in time, to two years before the bad smell was detected. Miss Emily’s father died, leaving her a “pauper.” Miss Emily denied that he was dead, however, and would have kept his corpse had town authorities not intervened.
In the same year as her father’s death, a construction company headed by a Northerner named Homer Barron arrived in town to pave the sidewalks; he and Miss Emily came to be sweethearts despite the scandal of a Southern woman of genteel birth being romantically involved with a Northern laborer. The townspeople were only further scandalized, however, when they learned that Homer was by his own account “not a marrying man.” Consequently, the Baptist minister’s wife wrote to two of Miss Emily’s haughty female cousins, who duly arrived in Jefferson to live with Miss Emily and oversee her conduct. Soon after, Homer deserted Miss Emily. She bought poison, arsenic—to commit suicide, the townspeople assumed. Yet her cousins departed within the week, and Homer returned to her within three days of their departure, leading the townspeople to suspect that it was only the haughty cousin who had driven Homer away. The day he returned, Homer was admitted into Miss Emily’s house at dusk. Yet Homer Barron was never seen again, and the townspeople assumed that he had abandoned her after all.
The narrative then moves forward, back up to Miss Emily’s funeral. The narrator recalls how, after Miss Emily was buried, the townspeople found and eventually forced entry into a locked room in her house, where they discovered Homer Barron’s corpse laid out in a bed and, on a pillow next to his head, a strand of Miss Emily’s hair.