Plot summary

The story opens with a brief fourth-person account of the funeral of Emily Grierson, an elderly Southern woman whose funeral is the obligation of the town. It then proceeds in a non-linear fashion to the narrator's recollections of Emily's archaic, and increasingly strange, behavior throughout the years. Emily is a member of a family of the antebellum Southern aristocracy. After the Civil War, the family falls into hard times. She and her father were the last two survivors of that branch of the family. Emily's father refused to allow her to marry. Her father dies when Emily was on the cusp of her 30th birthday, which takes her by surprise. For several days, she refuses to give up his corpse, insisting he is not dead. The townspeople write it off as her grieving process. They pity Emily for losing her father but also for his not having allowed her to marry. Emily depended heavily on her father, believing he would never leave her; he was all she had.

After her father's death, the only person seen moving about Emily's home is Tobe, a black man serving as Emily's butler. He is frequently seen entering and exiting the house for groceries. Although the reclusive Emily did not have a strong relationship with the town, she opened her home to give art lessons to local children, doing so out of need for an income. She taught until she was 40. With the acceptance of her father's death Emily somewhat revives, even changing the style of her hair, and becomes friendly with Homer Barron, a laborer from the North who comes to town shortly after Mr. Grierson's death. The connection surprises some of the community while others are glad she is taking an interest. However, it is stated that Homer "liked men, and it was known that he drank with younger men at the Elks' Club — that he was not a marrying man", which draws attention to Homer's sexuality but it is inconclusive if he was homosexual or had more interest in drinking and carousing than he did in marrying Emily. Emily buys arsenic from the town's druggist. When the druggist says the law requires him to ask customers why they want poisons Emily refuses to disclose it; the druggist chalks it up to a rat infestation in her home. Some townspeople are convinced that she will use it to poison herself. Emily's distant cousins are called into town by the minister's wife to supervise Miss Emily and Homer Barron. Emily is seen in town buying wedding presents for Homer, including a monogrammed toilet set. Homer leaves town for some time reputedly to give Emily a chance to get rid of her cousins, and returns three days later after the cousins have left. After he is observed entering Miss Emily's home one evening, Homer is never seen again, leading the townsfolk to believe he ran off.

Despite these turnabouts in her social status, Emily continues to behave mysteriously as she had before her father died. Her reputation is such that the city council finds itself unable to confront her about a strong smell that has begun to emanate from the house. They believed Tobe was unable to maintain the house and something was rotting. Instead, the council decides to send men to her house under the cover of darkness to sprinkle lime around the house, after which the smell dissipates. The mayor of the town, Colonel Sartoris, makes a gentleman's agreement to overlook her taxes as an act of charity, though it is done under a pretense of repayment towards her father, to assuage Emily's pride after her father's death. Years later, a new generation has come to power in the county. Having no ties to Colonel Sartoris or Mr. Grierson, they approach Emily about being subject to taxation. Emily insists on maintaining this informal arrangement, flatly denying she owes any taxes, stating "I have no taxes in Jefferson."[4] After this, the council declines to press the issue due to her obduracy. Emily has become a recluse: she is never seen outside of the house, and only rarely accepts people into it. The community eventually comes to view her as a "hereditary obligation" on the town, who must be humored and tolerated.

The funeral is a large affair: Emily had become an institution, so her death sparks a great deal of curiosity about her reclusive nature and what remains of her house. After she is buried, a group of townsfolk enters her house to see what remains of her life there. Tobe walked out of the house and was never seen again, giving the townspeople access to Miss Emily's home. The door to her upstairs bedroom is locked. Some of the townsfolk break down the door to see what has been hidden for so long. Inside, among the gifts that Emily had bought for Homer, lies the decomposed corpse of Homer Barron on the bed. On the pillow beside him is the indentation of a head and a single strand of gray hair, indicating that Emily had slept with Homer's corpse. The house is an indicator revealing how Emily struggled to keep everything the same, in a frozen time period, avoiding change.

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