So Miss Emily vanquished the town authorities in the matter of her taxes, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before—two years after her father’s death, and shortly after her sweetheart (later identified as Homer Barron) had deserted her—in the matter of a bad smell issuing from her house. Miss Emily had become reclusive. When the smell developed, some women suspected that it was because Tobe, her only servant, did not know how to keep a kitchen properly.
The second narrative leap back in time. The bad smell goes unexplained till story’s end, thereby generating suspense. The gossiping women here both pity Miss Emily for being single and alone, but also seem to take some pleasure from the fact that they keep tidier homes than this former aristocrat who is left with just a single insufficient servant.
Soon enough, a female neighbor complained about the smell to the then-mayor, old Judge Stevens. Judge Stevens placated the complainant, only to receive two more complaints the next day. That night, the Board of Alderman met to discuss the matter; the youngest member proposed that Miss Emily be given a deadline by which to clean up her property, but Judge Stevens cursed and asked, “Will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”
So as not to humiliate her, no one speaks to Miss Emily directly about the smell—another “genteel” act meant to protect her, which, ironically enabling her to get away with murder and sink into madness. As is typical in Jefferson, the younger generation proposes the no-nonsense if tactless solution to a problem, while the older generation upholds propriety to a fault.
So the next night, after midnight, four men went to Miss Emily’s house in secret to investigate the smell and to attempt to neutralize it by sprinkling lime on the property, in both the cellar and all the outbuildings. As they moved back across the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted, and the men saw Miss Emily motionless in silhouette. “After a week or two the smell went away.”
Part of solving problems in Jefferson means hiding them under the rug—the townspeople neutralize the bad smell (after two weeks!) only to overlook entirely whatever is generating it. The window here anticipates the final scene of the story, as Miss Emily is looking out of her “secret” room.
The narrator recalls that this was when the townspeople had begun to feel sorry for Miss Emily. Remembering how her great-aunt Wyatt had gone mad, they came to believe that the Griersons “held themselves a little to high for what they really were.” When she was young all Miss Emily’s suitors were rejected as being beneath her, but, at the age of thirty, she was still single, indicating that no chances to marry had materialized. Consequently, the town felt vindicated in believing Miss Emily to be too proud. When her father died and she was left with only the house, the town could at last pity her, humbled and humanized as she was by her relative poverty.
The third narrative leap back in time. Mention of Wyatt suggests that Miss Emily’s madness is not an aberration, but inherited, even caused in part by the nostalgic and repressive culture in which both women live. Note how the townspeople both value Miss Emily as a monument to their past, yet hypocritically criticize her for acting the part despite her poverty. They want her to be a Southern ideal but also take perverse pleasure in watching her fall to earth.
The day after Miss Emily’s father died, the ladies of the town visited Miss Emily and, as was the custom, offered condolence and aid. Without a trace of grief, Miss Emily told the ladies that her father was not dead. She did that for three days while ministers and doctors called on her, “trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body.” She only capitulated upon the threat of law and force. The townspeople did not say that she was crazy then, on the grounds that, since she was unmarried and impoverished, “she would have to cling to that which had robbed her,” namely, her father’s corpse.
Miss Emily’s insistence that her father is not dead is the first sign we have of her deeply disturbed relationship to time, or to reality—she takes control of her life simply by denying change—and also the first sign that this effort extends to a delusional capacity even to deny the reality of death. Yet, as crazy as Miss Emily’s behavior is, it differs only in degree, not in kind, from this Southern town and its people’s relationship to time, which is also marked by a paralyzing nostalgia and a resistance to progress.