Emily is the classic outsider, controlling and limiting the town’s access to her true identity by remaining hidden. The house that shields Emily from the world suggests the mind of the woman who inhabits it: shuttered, dusty, and dark. The object of the town’s intense scrutiny, Emily is a muted and mysterious figure. On one level, she exhibits the qualities of the stereotypical southern “eccentric”: unbalanced, excessively tragic, and subject to bizarre behavior. Emily enforces her own sense of law and conduct, such as when she refuses to pay her taxes or state her purpose for buying the poison. Emily also skirts the law when she refuses to have numbers attached to her house when federal mail service is instituted. Her dismissal of the law eventually takes on more sinister consequences, as she takes the life of the man whom she refuses to allow to abandon her.
The narrator portrays Emily as a monument, but at the same time she is pitied and often irritating, demanding to live life on her own terms. The subject of gossip and speculation, the townspeople cluck their tongues at the fact that she accepts Homer’s attentions with no firm wedding plans. After she purchases the poison, the townspeople conclude that she will kill herself. Emily’s instabilities, however, lead her in a different direction, and the final scene of the story suggests that she is a necrophiliac. Necrophilia typically means a sexual attraction to dead bodies. In a broader sense, the term also describes a powerful desire to control another, usually in the context of a romantic or deeply personal relationship. Necrophiliacs tend to be so controlling in their relationships that they ultimately resort to bonding with unresponsive entities with no resistance or will—in other words, with dead bodies. Mr. Grierson controlled Emily, and after his death, Emily temporarily controls him by refusing to give up his dead body. She ultimately transfers this control to Homer, the object of her affection. Unable to find a traditional way to express her desire to possess Homer, Emily takes his life to achieve total power over him.
Homer, much like Emily, is an outsider, a stranger in town who becomes the subject of gossip. Unlike Emily, however, Homer swoops into town brimming with charm, and he initially becomes the center of attention and the object of affection. Some townspeople distrust him because he is both a Northerner and day laborer, and his Sunday outings with Emily are in many ways scandalous, because the townspeople regard Emily—despite her eccentricities—as being from a higher social class. Homer’s failure to properly court and marry Emily prompts speculation and suspicion. He carouses with younger men at the Elks Club, and the narrator portrays him as either a homosexual or simply an eternal bachelor, dedicated to his single status and uninterested in marriage. Homer says only that he is “not a marrying man.”
As the foreman of a company that has arrived in town to pave the sidewalks, Homer is an emblem of the North and the changes that grip the once insular and genteel world of the South. With his machinery, Homer represents modernity and industrialization, the force of progress that is upending traditional values and provoking resistance and alarm among traditionalists. Homer brings innovation to the rapidly changing world of this Southern town, whose new leaders are themselves pursuing more “modern” ideas. The change that Homer brings to Emily’s life, as her first real lover, is equally as profound and seals his grim fate as the victim of her plan to keep him permanently by her side.