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In a once-elegant, upscale neighborhood, her house is the last vestige of the grandeur of a lost era. Colonel Sartoris, the town’s previous mayor, had suspended Emily’s tax responsibilities to the town after her father’s death, justifying the action by claiming that Mr. Grierson had once lent the community a significant sum. As new town leaders take over, they make unsuccessful attempts to get Emily to resume payments. When members of the Board of Aldermen pay her a visit, in the dusty and antiquated parlor, Emily reasserts the fact that she is not required to pay taxes in Jefferson and that the officials should talk to Colonel Sartoris about the matter. However, at that point he has been dead for almost a decade. She asks her servant, Tobe, to show the men out.
In section II, the narrator describes a time thirty years earlier when Emily resists another official inquiry on behalf of the town leaders, when the townspeople detect a powerful odor emanating from her property. Her father has just died, and Emily has been abandoned by the man whom the townsfolk thought she was going to marry. As complaints mount, Judge Stevens, the mayor at the time, decides to have lime sprinkled along the foundation of the Grierson home in the middle of the night. Within a couple of weeks, the odor subsides, but the townspeople begin to pity the increasingly reclusive woman, recalling that her great-aunt had succumbed to insanity. The townspeople have always believed that the Griersons thought too highly of themselves, with Emily's father driving off the many suitors deemed not good enough to marry his daughter. With no offer of marriage in sight, she is still single by the time she turns thirty. The day after Mr. Grierson's death, the women of the town call on Emily to offer their condolences. Meeting them at the door, Emily states that her father is not dead, a charade that she keeps up for three days. She finally turns her father's body over for burial.
In section III, the narrator describes a long illness that Emily suffers after this incident. The summer after her father's death, the town contracts workers to pave the sidewalks, and a construction company, under the direction of northerner Homer Barron, is awarded the job. Homer soon becomes a popular figure in town and is seen taking Emily on buggy rides on Sunday afternoons, which scandalizes the town. They feel she is becoming involved with a man beneath her station. As the affair continues and her reputation is further compromised, she goes to the drug store to purchase arsenic. She is required by law to reveal how she will use the arsenic. She offers no explanation, and the package arrives at her house labeled “For rats.”
In section IV, the narrator describes the fear that some of the townspeople have that Emily will use the poison to kill herself. Her potential marriage to Homer seems increasingly unlikely, despite their continued Sunday ritual. The more outraged women of the town insist that the Baptist minister talk with her. After his visit, he never speaks of what happened and swears that he'll never go back. So the minister's wife writes to Emily's two cousins in Alabama, who arrive for an extended stay. Emily orders a silver toilet set monogrammed with Homer's initials and talk of the couple's marriage resumes. Homer, absent from town, is believed to be preparing for Emily's move or trying to avoid her intrusive relatives.
After the cousins' departure, Homer enters the Grierson home one evening and is never seen again. Holed up in the house, Emily grows plump and gray. Despite the occasional lesson she gives in china painting, her door remains closed to outsiders. In what becomes an annual ritual, Emily refuses to acknowledge the tax bill. She eventually closes up the top floor of the house. Except for the occasional glimpse of her in the window, nothing is heard from her until her death at age seventy-four. Only the servant is seen going in and out of the house.
In section V, the narrator describes what happens after Emily dies. Her body is laid out in the parlor, and the women, town elders, and two cousins attend the service. After some time has passed, the door to a sealed upstairs room that had not been opened in forty years is broken down. The room is frozen in time, with the items for an upcoming wedding and a man's suit laid out. Homer Barron's body is stretched on the bed in an advanced state of decay. The onlookers then notice the indentation of a head in the pillow beside Barron's body and a long strand of Emily's gray hair on the pillow.
Tropes from this work:
- Affair Hair: The story ends with a strand of gray hair found next to a body that's been dead for decades.
- Expository Hairstyle Change: Emily's hair changes at important points in the story.
- Important Haircut: Emily cuts her hair after her Overprotective Dad dies.
- I Love the Dead: The title character murders the man she wishes to marry, then lies next to him (long ago enough in the past for dust to settle, but recent enough that the hair on the pillow is gray); the corpse is also said to have been in an embracing position.
- Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: The story is comprised of five parts which are mostly out of order. For those who don't pick apart and reassemble the events, whether Emily killed her beau, and why, is an perplexing matter. The fact that the narrator (implied to be the townspeople) has a severely limited understanding of Emily's personal life and occasionally relies on conjecture to guess at her actions doesn't help much either.
- Love Will Lead You Back: Subverted, It is strongly implied that Emily murdered her lover and spent her time in "mourning" sleeping next to his corpse.
- Mummies At the Dinner Table: Mummies in bed, even.
- Noodle Incident: A clergyman is persuaded to call on the reclusive title character. "He would never divulge what happened during that interview, but he refused to go back again." Considering that Emily was harboring the decomposing corpse of a prospective husband, this is not surprising.
- Overprotective Dad: The story paints the image of Emily in the background, and her father at the door with her back to her, bullwhip in hand. It is implied this is why she never got engaged.
- Personal Effects Reveal: The inhabitants find her husband's possessions (she bought for him for their wedding) after her death. The long deceased owner is still present...
- Rose Tinted Narrative: Deconstruction of this trope applied to the antebellum southern US.
- Yandere: Of the posessive variety, the eponymous Emily Grier fell in love with Homer Barron, a workman far below her (perceived) class. One day, he went in Emily's house and was never seen leaving. When Emily eventually passes away, her house is searched and it turns out she killed Homer with arsenic, dressed him in a suit, and kept the corpse on her bed.