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Emily is the subject of the intense, controlling gaze of the narrator and residents of Jefferson. In lieu of an actual connection to Emily, the townspeople create subjective and often distorted interpretations of the woman they know little about. They attend her funeral under the guise of respect and honor, but they really want to satisfy their lurid curiosity about the town’s most notable eccentric. One of the ironic dimensions of the story is that for all the gossip and theorizing, no one guesses the perverse extent of Emily’s true nature.
For most of the story, Emily is seen only from a distance, by people who watch her through the windows or who glimpse her in her doorway. The narrator refers to her as an object—an “idol.” This pattern changes briefly during her courtship with Homer Barron, when she leaves her house and is frequently out in the world. However, others spy on her just as avidly, and she is still relegated to the role of object, a distant figure who takes on character according to the whims of those who watch her. In this sense, the act of watching is powerful because it replaces an actual human presence with a made-up narrative that changes depending on who is doing the watching. No one knows the Emily that exists beyond what they can see, and her true self is visible to them only after she dies and her secrets are revealed.
Read more about the motif of watching in Albert Camus’s The Stranger.
A pall of dust hangs over the story, underscoring the decay and decline that figure so prominently. The dust throughout Emily’s house is a fitting accompaniment to the faded lives within. When the aldermen arrive to try and secure Emily’s annual tax payment, the house smells of “dust and disuse.” As they seat themselves, the movement stirs dust all around them, and it slowly rises, roiling about their thighs and catching the slim beam of sunlight entering the room. The house is a place of stasis, where regrets and memories have remained undisturbed. In a way, the dust is a protective presence; the aldermen cannot penetrate Emily’s murky relationship with reality. The layers of dust also suggest the cloud of obscurity that hides Emily’s true nature and the secrets her house contains. In the final scene, the dust is an oppressive presence that seems to emanate from Homer’s dead body. The dust, which is everywhere, seems even more horrible here.