A Rose for Emily

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Patriarchal Authority and Control Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Post Civil-War South Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Patriarchal Authority and Control Theme Icon
Time and Narrative  Theme Icon
Gossip, Social Conventions, and Judgment Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Rose for Emily, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Patriarchal Authority and Control Theme Icon

Members of Jefferson’s Board of Alderman, whether old and gallant and nostalgic for the Old South like Sartoris or young and business-like such as the newer generation of authorities, all have something in common: they are all male and govern over—and to the exclusion of—women. Faulkner foregrounds this dynamic when he has his narrator recall Sartoris’s law requiring all black women to wear their aprons in public, and dramatizes it in Miss Emily’s relationships with her father and the town authorities themselves. For even in private life, the men in Jefferson exert full control over women’s lives, as Emily’s father does in telling his daughter which suitors she may and may not allow to court her. Indeed, social repression, stiff propriety, and a fetishization of female virginity characterize the Southern culture portrayed in the story.

However, one reason Ms. Emily draws so much attention to herself in town is because she often resists patriarchal authority, as when she flat-out refuses to pay her taxes (here she plays the old generation of patriarchal authority against the newer), or when she forbids the installation of a mailbox and postal numbers on her property. Even courting Homer Bell is a subtle act of rebellion on Miss Emily’s part, against her society’s social conventions and, presumably, the wishes of her dead father.

Given how pre-determined the course of her life has been—not only by the Jefferson patriarchs but also by the Civil War and its aftermath and the code of conduct enforced on her by her society—it is no wonder that Miss Emily attempts to take control of her own life, to live on her terms, to be the master of her fate. Her ultimate gesture to this end, of course, is the murder of Homer and her lifelong marriage, as it were, to his rotting, dust-suffused corpse—instead of letting Homer leave her, Miss Emily asserts absolute control over his life, literally turning him into an object which she can manipulate at will. The madly desperate, horrific nature of this crime speaks to just how oppressed and stifled Miss Emily is, as well as to the huge denial of freedom which her society subjects her to. That her great aunt Wyatt went mad too suggests that Miss Emily’s is not an isolated case. Although it would be misguided to insist on this comparison past a certain point, the subjugation of women in this story quietly reflects the even more virulent subjugation of black Americans at the hands of the white South, as Tobe’s presence in the story quietly reminds us.

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Patriarchal Authority and Control ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Patriarchal Authority and Control appears in each section of A Rose for Emily. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Patriarchal Authority and Control Quotes in A Rose for Emily

Below you will find the important quotes in A Rose for Emily related to the theme of Patriarchal Authority and Control.
Section 2 Quotes

“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”

Related Characters: Judge Stevens (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes when the Board of Alderman in Jefferson is debating what to do about complaints concerning a bad smell emanating from Miss Emily's house.

A younger man, a member of the more progressive rising generation, suggests that Miss Emily simply be told to clean her place up. Judge Stevens, an old man committed to maintaining old Southern values, explodes at the idea (his curse word here reveals just how passionately committed to the old values he is, so much so that he breaches decorum). From his perspective, it is a trespass of good etiquette to tell a woman that her home smells bad, especially given that Miss Emily is such a socially prominent woman. Simmering beneath such a perspective is a patriarchal attitude: women in Old Southern culture were often treated like delicate objects, to be spared reality so that men could gallantly take pleasure in them all the more. 

It is only at the end of the story that we learn what the cause of the bad smell is: the rotting corpse of Homer Barron. In superficially protecting Miss Emily's dignity, Judge Stevens ironically prevents her madness and crime from being discovered. Stephens would rather repress dark truths about Southern culture than face them by the light of day.


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She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days… 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.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson, The townspeople, Miss Emily’s father
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Emily's father was a proud, controlling man, and he rejected many of his daughter's potential suitors out of this pride, and despite his daughter's wishes. When he dies, he leaves to his daughter only the family house, leaving her poor and unmarriageable, as this quote reveals.

However, Miss Emily insists that her father is not dead at all—that is, she insists that the passage of time is not real, that there is no such thing as change. This is indeed a kind of madness, and it is telling that the townspeople do not think of it as such—yet. This is because the townspeople themselves deny the reality of time and change, albeit in a subtler way. They live as though their glorious Southern heritage were a living tradition, and not what time has revealed it to be: dead, unrealistic, and ultimately repellent. The townspeople's madness in this respect is very similar to Miss Emily's, and Homer Barron's corpse becomes, in one sense, an image for what the South has become.

Ironically, Miss Emily most protects from the ravages of time the very father who denied her the full richness of life and self-determinatio—"that which had robber her," as the townspeople put it. But the townspeople cling to what robbed them, too: they cling to an aristocratic plantation economy that cut against the fundamental American values of democracy and equality, and they cling also to the moral evils of the institution of slavery.  

Section 3 Quotes

She carried her head high enough—even when we believe 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.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

After Miss Emily takes a romantic interest in Homer Barron, the townspeople vocally disapprove, thinking that she is lowering herself by becoming involved with a Northerner of low social station. However, Miss Emily maintains her pride through it all, at least in appearance. (Although the image of Miss Emily carrying her head high is a quietly grisly foreshadowing of the discovery of her hair on a pillow next to Homer's corpse—the horrifying place where her head goes when she lowers it, as it were.) 

The townspeople themselves prey on Miss Emily's fall and endurance despite everything. They take pleasure in the penny-pinching shame she suffers after her father dies and she is reduced to poverty, which suggests their resentment of the aristocrats they (ironically) idealize. Here, they express a seemingly contrary feeling—a kind of wonder and collective pride that Miss Emily should endure her social fall with so much dignity. The townspeople are ambivalent about Southern culture, its inequalities and glories, and they express this ambivalence in their conception of Miss Emily.

The even deeper irony is that Miss Emily is anything but dignified and impervious, at least outside of the public gaze. She is mentally unstable, as we know from her denial of her father's death and eventual murder of Homer. The people project so much onto Miss Emily that she becomes, as a real human being, invisible to them.

Section 5 Quotes

For a long time 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.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Homer Barron
Page Number: 58-59
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes during Miss Emily's funeral. The townspeople politely wait for Miss Emily's corpse to be buried before they force their way into Miss Emily's room, and there they discover the corpse of Homer Barron, described here at length.

The phrase "profound and fleshless grin" adopts the dark, chilling, grotesquely ironic tone and diction of Gothic novels, which Faulkner often alludes to in his work. Faulkner relies on these technical means here in order to express the townspeople's shock and horror at discovering what Miss Emily has so long repressed. Homer's corpse is also an image for all the moral decay and ugliness of the Southern heritage which the townspeople repress through nostalgia and idealization. Miss Emily has slept with Homer's corpse for years, it would seem, just as the townspeople embrace their dead traditions.

A "cuckold" is a husband whose wife sleeps with another man. Homer Barron, the collective narrator says, has been cuckolded by death, in the sense that now Miss Emily sleeps with death and only with death—no longer with Homer, as time and death have wasted him away and replaced him altogether. The sexual freedom Miss Emily seemingly desired but was prohibited from in life she achieves, in a grotesque parody, after life. 

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 irony-gray hair.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Related Symbols: Miss Emily’s Hair
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes during Miss Emily's funeral, after the townspeople discover the corpse of Homer Barron in Miss Emily's room.

The indentation on the second pillow and the "strand of iron-gray hair" (presumably Miss Emily's) are evidence that Miss Emily did indeed sleep with Homer's corpse. This is what Aristotle in his literary criticism would call the "anagnorisis," or the scene of recognition, where the townspeople and the reader at least see just how horrifically oppressed and deranged Miss Emily was (and where the mysteries presented previously in the story are resolved). Earlier Miss Emily had denied her father's death, and here she goes further and lives with a corpse as though it were alive. The image of Miss Emily sleeping next to the corpse is also one the story associates with the relationship between the townspeople and their dead Southern heritage.

Dust is a common image in Faulkner's work; here, as elsewhere, it suggests stasis (for dust only settles on what doesn't move), humiliation, and mortality. Recall also that dust appears earlier in the story, when the Aldermen visit Miss Emily's house about the taxes, for example. The image accumulates a sense of fatality and despair as the story unfolds.