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Important Quotations Explained

1. Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town . . .

This quotation appears near the beginning of the story, in section I, when the narrator describes Emily’s funeral and history in the town. The complex figure of Emily Grierson casts a long shadow in the town of Jefferson. The members of the community assume a proprietary relationship to her, extolling the image of a grand lady whose family history and reputation warranted great respect. At the same time, the townspeople criticize her unconventional life and relationship with Homer Barron. Emily is an object of fascination. Many people feel compelled to protect her, whereas others feel free to monitor her every move, hovering at the edges of her life. Emily is the last representative of a once great Jefferson family, and the townspeople feel that they have inherited this daughter of a faded empire of wealth and prestige, for better or worse.

The order of Faulkner’s words in this quotation is significant. Although Emily once represented a great southern tradition centering on the landed gentry with their vast holdings and considerable resources, Emily’s legacy has devolved, making her more a duty and an obligation than a romanticized vestige of a dying order. The town leaders conveniently overlook the fact that in her straightened circumstances and solitary life, Emily can no longer meet her tax obligations with the town. Emily emerges as not only a financial burden to the town but a figure of outrage because she unsettles the community’s strict social codes.

2. Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.

These lines end the story. Emily’s secret, finally revealed, solidifies her reputation in the town as an eccentric. Her precarious mental state has led her to perform a grotesque act that surpasses the townspeople’s wildest imaginings. Emily, although she deliberately sets up a solitary existence for herself, is unable to give up the men who have shaped her life, even after they have died. She hides her dead father for three days, then permanently hides Homer’s body in the upstairs bedroom. In entombing her lover, Emily keeps her fantasy of marital bliss permanently intact.

Emily’s excessive need for privacy is challenged by the townspeople’s extreme curiosity about the facts surrounding her life. Unsatisfied with glimpses caught through doorways and windows, the townspeople essentially break into the Grierson home after Emily’s death. Convincing themselves that they are behaving respectfully by waiting until a normal period of mourning has expired, they satisfy their lurid curiosity by unsealing the second-floor bedroom. There is no real moral justification for their act, and in light of their blatant violation of Emily’s home and privacy, Emily’s eccentric, grotesque behavior takes on a layer of almost sympathetic pathos. She has done a horrible, nightmarish thing, yet the confirmation of the townspeople’s worst beliefs seems sad, rather than satisfying or a cause for celebration.

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