A Rose for Emily

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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.
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon

Even as white Southerners in the short story cling to their pre-Civil War traditions, ideals, and institutions, the world around them is quickly changing. Agriculture is being supplanted by industry, and aristocratic neighborhoods with their proud plantation-style houses like the Grierson’s are being encroached upon by less grandiose but more economically practical garages and cotton gins. Likewise, the post-Sartoris generation of authorities in Jefferson—those men who belong to the Board of Aldermen that governs the town—are increasingly moving away from their forbears’ aristocratic and chivalric ideals toward “more modern ideas” and practical, progressive governance—hence their decision to try to exact taxes from Miss Emily after all (even if unsuccessfully). While many years earlier, the gallant old Judge Stevens balks at the idea of telling a lady to her face that her property stinks, the authorities from this newer generation, we might imagine, would have fewer qualms about doing so.

The principal figure of progress in Jefferson is Homer Barron, who has not only been contracted to pave the sidewalks in town—thereby making the town more accessible to all members of society, in what is a small act of both technological progress and a small act of democratization—but who also becomes a great favorite in town despite being from the North. It seems like the North and South, torn apart during the Civil War, are becoming reconciled to one another and reintegrated once more. However, the townspeople’s conflicted attitude toward Homer—they think him a fine fellow, yet don’t think he is good enough to court Miss Emily—is indicative of their broader ambivalence about progress in Jefferson. They are perhaps prepared to industrialize and modernize their infrastructure and methods of governance, they are even prepared to socialize with Northerners, but they are not yet prepared to part with the last vestige of the Old South or its rigid social hierarchy and culture of honor and sexual propriety.

Miss Emily herself is perhaps the character in the short story most conflicted over tradition and progress, and most victimized by her society’s cultural paralysis. She retains her aristocratic manner even after sinking into poverty, she refuses eligible suitors as beneath her even as she passes from the prime of her youth, and she even bizarrely denies her father’s death, as though incapable of psychologically surviving the financial and social change his death entails for her. But, just as a future of spinsterhood seems imminent, Miss Emily almost miraculously adapts to the times by becoming romantically involved with Homer, a man not only from a lower social class than she but a Northerner to boot. Financial necessity no doubt influences her change in standard and manner, but also a genuine human need for companionship. However, the townspeople, who are charmed and friendly with Homer, nonetheless think this a step too far in the direction of progress, and are at first piteous of Miss Emily’s fall, and later scandalized by the possibility that she is having physical relations with a man not serious about marriage—progressive behavior indeed. It is her society’s inability to commit wholly to progress, to adaptation, that in part compels the already mentally unstable Miss Emily to create with poison and dusty secrecy a private world safely frozen in the past, unchanging.

Tradition vs. Progress ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in A Rose for Emily related to the theme of Tradition vs. Progress.
Section 1 Quotes

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the woman mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson, Tobe
Related Symbols: The Grierson Family House
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes at the very beginning of the short story, even though chronologically the event it narrates comes after most of the story's other events. By beginning the story at its end, the townspeople who act as communal narrators repress the painful events of their past and focus instead on the monumental memory of the pre-Civil War South that is so important to them. And yet as the story moves back from this moment into the past, and then back again to what the funeral-goers discover in the house, the horrors of the past prove inescapable, both in Miss Emily's personal story and in the larger story of the slave-owning South.

Miss Emily, like her once grand house, is "a fallen monument" in the sense that she represents for her community a glorious aristocratic past, but this past has been rendered painful and shabby after the Civil War and modernization. One irony of this passage is that this Southern community is so committed to preserving its idealization of the past that it never investigates that past from the inside—the inhumanity and injustice of slavery in the South, the psychological damage done to masters and slaves alike—just as no one has entered the Grierson family house in years. 

Notice also the different motives men and women have for visiting the house. The men dehumanize Miss Emily by treating her as merely a monument of their Southern heritage, while the women violate her posthumous privacy out of curiosity, even nosiness. In idealizing Miss Emily, the townspeople ironically neglect and even violate her humanity.


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It [the Grierson family house] 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 the neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps…

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Related Symbols: The Grierson Family House
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrating townspeople give this description just after telling how they've come to the Grierson family house for Miss Emily's funeral.

The house, built in the 1870s, during or just after Reconstruction, once embodied Southern pride. With its aristocratic grandeur, it defiantly recalls the plantation houses of the Old South where slaves were forced to labor before the Civil War. The house is also a conspicuous sign of luxurious wealth.

However, only the memory of the house remains intact; in reality, it is in decay, doomed for obliteration, like many reminders of the Old South (including "the august names of the neighborhood"). Progress, technology, and industry, represented in this passage by garages and cotton gins, are encroaching on what was once a slave-based, aristocratic, agricultural society. The garages and the vehicles they house threaten to render the gallantry of horse and carriage obsolete. The cotton gins (machines that separate cotton fibers from seed) had previously made cotton extremely profitable and expanded the plantation economy of the South, but ironically they now encroach on and obliterate the very neighborhoods they once made so grand.

Throughout the story, the townspeople ascribe Miss Emily's qualities to her house, as though the two were one and the same. Here the house is described as "stubborn and coquettish," qualities a house can't literally have but which Miss Emily does seem to exhibit to some extent. This is consistent with the townspeople's idealization of Miss Emily, which ironically reduces her to the status of an inanimate monument.

Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town…

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Here at Miss Emily's funeral, the townspeople recall what Miss Emily meant to their community while alive. She was "a tradition" in that she represented the survival of aristocratic Southern pride despite the South's defeat in the Civil War. She was "a duty, and a care" in that she was unable to care for herself after the death of her father and the loss of her fortune, and the townspeople, if they were to maintain her as a "monument" to their idealized past, needed to care for her. In the time of Colonel Sartoris, for example, Miss Emily is excused from paying taxes altogether, and parents in town also send their children to be taught china-painting by Miss Emily only for the sake of providing her with a source of income.

However, the townspeople of Jefferson also have a very different attitude toward Miss Emily, one that is revealed more and more as the story unfolds—an attitude that casts this quote in an ironic light. After all, they savor Miss Emily's fall into poverty as something that humanizes her, in their eyes; they stigmatize her for her relationship with Homer Barron; and the later generation of town leaders try (but fail) to exact taxes from Miss Emily after all. She may be a tradition and a duty, but only begrudgingly so, only ideally and not when it comes to the practical work of tolerating and maintaining her. This reflects a broader tension in the story between a nostalgia for the past and the needs of the present. 

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.

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

At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the ladies all said, “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.” But there were still others, older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige—without calling it noblesse oblige.

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

This quote comes after the death of Miss Emily's father, when Miss Emily begins to take a romantic interest in Homer Barron.

The division in Jefferson between the attitudes of the young and the old, the progressives and the conservatives, is complicated here. The younger people think it good that Miss Emily has a romantic interest, precisely because they don't think it is serious. The older people, those who fully experienced the South's defeat in the Civil War and its humiliations, know firsthand, however, that grief can override pride, and that Miss Emily may indeed be serious about Homer. "Noblesse oblige" means, literally, "nobility obliges"—in other words, that one's conduct should match one's social position. It was a concept at the heart of the Southern aristocracy, and perhaps the old people can't refer to it by name without bringing back painful memories of what they've lost.

In Jefferson, public opinion is fickle; for eventually most everyone in Jefferson comes to disapprove of Miss Emily's interest in Homer. This suggests how arbitrary and meaningless social conventions really are when it comes to judging conduct—and how dangerously oppressive they can be. Miss Emily is so repressed by social convention, after all, that she resorts to murder in order to achieve self-determination. 

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

…and the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talk[ed] of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote, from late in the story, returns to the point in time when the story begins and ends: Miss Emily's funeral. The old men are on the lawn, talking about Miss Emily "as if she had been a contemporary of theirs," even though she is from a younger generation. This confusion is significant: it shows that these old men, like Miss Emily in denying her father's death, deny that their Southern heritage is in steep decline. They act as though Miss Emily were a Southern aristocrat from their own generation, even though she was, in private at least, something quite different altogether, as evidenced by her poverty and her love for the day laborer Homer Barron. The irony is further intensified by the fact that the men believe they danced with Miss Emily, even though it was her lonely reality to live as an unmarriageable woman by the social conventions of the Old South.

The metaphor of time as a meadow presents in a single, concrete image the nostalgic idea of time that the story is so critical of. There is a faint allusion to the Biblical Garden of Eden here, from which Adam and Eve "fell" after disobeying God. So too have the Southern gentleman "fallen" from their plantations into the modern world. Of course, their nostalgic vision conveniently and insidiously conceals the true horrors of Southern slavery that built and supported the old plantation lifestyle. The only paradises are lost paradises, remembered from a future time that has forgotten or repressed their darker aspects. It's better to travel the hard road of progress than to dwell in a nostalgic and artificial past, the passage implies.