“A Rose for Emily” is narrated by a plural “we” voice, which stands in for the memory of the collective town. In this way, the story can be read as the town’s collective, nostalgically tinged, darkly disturbed memory. And yet that collective voice has a darker edge than a simple collective memory. Because of that collective narrator, “A Rose for Emily” is also a collection of town gossip centering on Miss Emily, generated by decades of intense scrutiny on her life.
The townspeople watch Miss Emily very closely, both because their own nostalgia for the pre-Civil War South makes her necessary to them as a representative of their aristocratic heritage, but also because, as an individual, she is eccentric, pitiable, exciting to watch and exciting to judge behind closed doors. Indeed, the “we” narrator almost seems sometimes aware that they have darker motives for scrutinizing Miss Emily’s life, like taking a pleasure in her fall to poverty, a feeling of social superiority over her when she begins to court Homer and the like. But it is also through scrutiny and gossip that the society in Jefferson enforces its social conventions: for example, it is the gossip of “ladies” that leads the Baptist minister’s wife to write to Miss Emily’s cousins, who themselves come to Jefferson to scrutinize and oversee Miss Emily’s conduct with Homer, whom, not serious about marriage, the town implicitly judges a danger to Miss Emily’s virginity (and her ability to uphold the lost social conventions the town requires her to). It is almost as if the town needs Miss Emily to be the representative of its lost, mythologized past, and hates her for it.
Ironically, for all that the townspeople watch and judge Miss Emily, for all that they intervene to make sure that she doesn’t violate the social conventions of Jefferson, they nevertheless fail to realize—despite her buying the arsenic, despite the bad smell issuing from her place—that Miss Emily has in secret committed a dreadful and horrifying crime, nor do they realize just how damaged a woman she is prior to committing the crime itself. The implication is that close scrutiny does not a close community make; social bonds consisting solely of gossip and judgment are not enough for people living together to truly know and care for one another.
Gossip, Social Conventions, and Judgment ThemeTracker
Gossip, Social Conventions, and Judgment Quotes in A Rose for Emily
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.
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…
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”
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.
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.
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.