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The story is divided into five sections. In section I, the narrator recalls the time of Emily Grierson’s death and how the entire town attended her funeral in her home, which no stranger had entered for more than ten years. In a once-elegant, upscale neighborhood, Emily’s 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 believed Emily was 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 Emily, remembering how 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, Emily 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 and increases the condescension and pity they have for Emily. They feel that she is forgetting her family pride and becoming involved with a man beneath her station.
As the affair continues and Emily’s reputation is further compromised, she goes to the drug store to purchase arsenic, a powerful poison. 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 Emily. 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. Because Emily orders a silver toilet set monogrammed with Homer’s initials, talk of the couple’s marriage resumes. Homer, absent from town, is believed to be preparing for Emily’s move to the North or avoiding Emily’s intrusive relatives.
After the cousins’ departure, Homer enters the Grierson home one evening and then 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. Emily’s 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 by the townspeople. 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 as well, in an advanced state of decay. The onlookers then notice the indentation of a head in the pillow beside Homer’s body and a long strand of Emily’s gray hair on the pillow.