The narrator, speaking in the first person plural that represents the entire town, recalls that, when Miss Emily Grierson died, all the townspeople of Jefferson, Mississippi, attended the funeral held in her house, the interior of which no one save an old black servant (later identified as Tobe) had seen in ten years. This house had once been grand, located in a respected neighborhood, but both neighborhood and house have since fallen into decay. In death, Miss Emily has gone to join all the respected dead who used to inhabit this once-respected neighborhood, in the cemetery ranked with the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who perished in the battle of Jefferson during the Civil War.
The townspeople attend the funeral both out of respect for Miss Emily as a monument to their aristocratic heritage, and out of a kind of curiosity, even nosiness. The sense of the town as interested in, invested in—and always watching—Miss Emily is suggested by the odd third person plural narrative representing the entire town. The house is, like its owner, a monument on the outside and a curiosity on the inside, a building that resists modernization even as it decays. The mention of the cemetery, another monument to the past, reminds us that—as is often the case in Faulkner’s works—to understand the present, we must also understand the past.
When alive, Miss Emily had been respected and cared for by the townspeople. In fact, in 1894, the then-mayor of Jefferson, Colonel Sartoris—who made it illegal for black women to go into the town streets without an apron on—excused her from paying taxes, dating from the time her father died on into perpetuity. Miss Emily would not have accepted this excusal were she to think of it as charity, so Sartoris invented a story about how Emily’s father had once loaned money to the town, claiming the excusal of Miss Emily from paying taxes was the town’s preferred method of repaying the loan.
The first narrative leap back in time. Colonel Sartoris is a gallant Southern gentleman (and former Confederate Army colonel) who chivalrously, if condescendingly, excuses Miss Emily from paying her taxes as though she were a damsel in distress. He knows that Miss Emily is a proud woman of genteel upbringing, though, and that in her pride she would refuse charity, hence the story he invents. The narrator chauvinistically suggests that Emily believes the story because she, like all women, is naïve.
However, the next generation of town leaders came to find the tax arrangement with Miss Emily dissatisfactory; so one January they mailed her a notice of taxes due. By February, however, there was no reply. Miss Emily was subsequently sent a formal letter inviting her to the sheriff’s office, then a letter from the mayor himself. The mayor received a reply note from her explaining that she no longer went out at all; enclosed without comment was the tax notice.
A narrative leap forward in time. The chivalric traditions of the Old South become diluted as time passes; so it is that the newer generation of town authorities attempt to exact taxes from Miss Emily—these leaders are not gallant, but they are pragmatic and democratic. Miss Emily is so disconnected from the present that she ignores and evades these attempts, though (which also suggests how certain aspects of pre-Civil War Southern culture resisted change in the Cold War world).
In response, the authorities of Jefferson dispatched members of the Board of Alderman to Miss Emily’s house. Tobe showed the men into the dusty interior; a crayon portrait of Miss Emily’s father stood by the fireplace. Once Miss Emily entered—a bloated-looking woman leaning on a cane—the deputation’s spokesman informed her that her taxes were due; but Miss Emily countered that Colonel Sartoris excused her from paying taxes long ago, and that the town’s authorities should speak to him (though he had been dead almost ten years by this point). Miss Emily then instructed Tobe to show the dissatisfied gentlemen out.
The portrait of Miss Emily’s father anticipates the revelation that she denied his death years earlier. The portrait also suggests the extent to which Miss Emily is frozen in the past, just as her father’s image is forever frozen in the photograph. Emily’s father isn’t the only man looking down over her, either: by invoking Colonel Sartoris and the tradition he represents in Jefferson she succeeds in vanquishing the newer generation of authorities.