A Rose for Emily" discusses many dark themes that characterized the Old South and Southern Gothic fiction.

The story explores themes of death and resistance to change. Also, it reflects the decaying of the societal tenets of the South in the 1930s. Emily Grierson had been controlled by her overbearing father for the first 30 years of her life and she had never questioned it. Once her father had passed, Emily, in denial, refused to give his corpse up for burial—this shows her inability to functionally adapt to change. When the present mayor and aldermen insist Miss Emily pay the taxes which she had been exempted from, she refuses and continues to live in her house. Miss Emily's stubborn insistence that she "pays no taxes in Jefferson" and her mistaking the new mayor for Colonel Sartoris brings into question whether her acts of resistance are a conscious act of defiance or a result of decayed mental stability. The reader is only shown Emily from an external perspective, we can not ascertain whether she acts rationally. The death of Homer, if interpreted as a murder, can be seen in the context of the north–south clash. Homer, notably a northerner, is not one for the tradition of marriage. In the framework that his death was not an accident, but a murder on the part of Emily, Homer's rejection of the marriage can be seen as the North's rejection of Southern tradition. The South ends its relations with the North in retaliation. Emily continuing to sleep next to Homer's body can be seen as the south holding on to an ideal that is no longer feasible.

Control and its repercussions are a persistent theme throughout the story. Emily's father was an intimidating and manipulative figure, keeping her from experiencing life on her terms. She was never able to grow, learn, live her life, start a family, and marry the one she truly loved. Even after Emily's father died, his presence and impact on his daughter were still apparent. Discussing Emily and her father, the townspeople said "We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip,the two of them framed by the back-flung front door".Emily is portrayed as small and powerless, placed behind the overbearing frame of her father. She wears white, a symbol of innocence and purity. Emily falls victim to the ruling hand of her father and her place in the society: she has to uphold the noblesse oblige into which she was born. In this way, her father's influence remains after he has passed. This control leads to Emily's isolation, both externally and internally imposed. Emily is alone, yet always being watched by the townspeople; she is both apart from and a part of the community.Her position prevents her from ever finding happiness

The power of death is a consistent theme throughout the story. Emily herself is portrayed as a "skeleton" that is both "small and spare" which is representative of the fact that she emanates death. When it comes to death itself Emily is in denial, most of that feeling has to do with her loneliness. After her father dies, she keeps his corpse for three days and refuses to admit that he is dead before surrendering his body for burial. The reader also sees this with the corpse of Homer Barron, except she is the one who inflicts death upon him. She poisons him and keeps him locked away in her room; she did not want to lose the only other person she had ever loved, so she made his stay permanent. These examples show that the power of death triumphs over everything, including "poor Emily", herself.

Due to this inevitability in the portrayal of death, "A Rose for Emily" is seen as a tale based on determinism, making the short story part of the naturalism literary movement. Here, a character's fate is already determined no matter how much the individual struggles to change it. There are impersonal forces of nature that prevent him or her from taking control. As the very universe itself appears indifferent, this character descends into an inevitable death and decay. The case of Emily is the same. Insanity ran in her family and it is possible her father's motives for keeping her from marrying were to end this genetic blight. This is a more charitable interpretation of Mr. Grierson (and his actions) than is normally imputed to him. No matter what she did, there was the implication that she would ultimately go mad. There was also the depiction of a cursed land due to slavery and the class structure based upon it. No matter how those who clung to the glorious past soldiered on, it was a tarnished way of life that led to ruin to those who clung to it

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