The possible meanings of both the title and the chronology of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” have been debated for years.
What is not under debate, however, is that the chronology deliberately manipulates and delays the reader’s final judgment of Emily Grierson by altering the evidence. In other words, what the chronology does is as important as when the events actually take place. In the same way, what the title does reveals as much as the debate over what the rose means. The only rose that Emily actually receives (putting aside symbolic roses for the moment) is the rose in the title, which Faulkner as the author gives to her.
Just as the story’s chronology is a masterpiece of subtle insinuations, so also is the title in its implications for the structure of the story.
Previous attempts to offer a single explanation for the rose in “A Rose for Emily” highlight how many possibilities exist. In one sense, Homer could be the rose (Fenson and Kritzer). A combination of the rose-colored bedroom and Homer as a dried rose could serve as “a relic of the past” (Weaks 12). Homer’s body could be like a rose pressed between the pages of a book, kept “tucked away in a seldom used, rose colored room which at times can be opened” (Kurtz 40). In another sense, it might be the narrator offering a rose to Emily: either “as a final tribute” by preserving the secret of Homer’s murder (Nebeker, “Emily’s Rose” 9); or, conversely, the narrator, “unwittingly, offers little more than ‘bought flowers’ in tribute to Miss Emily” by not recognizing the truth until the hair on the pillow is found (Garrison 341). If these various symbols in the story are petals in the rose, it is important to note that the “Rose” of the title gathers all of these references together in a way that moves beyond any one source. Rather than focusing the interpretation of the rose on any number of internal elements (Homer’s body, Emily’s state of mind, the narrator’s tribute, etc.), however valid as a piece of the puzzle, the focus should be on the impact of the titular rose itself.
The narrator’s ultimately limited understanding of what has been happening weakens the case for the “Rose” being a tribute by the narrator.
No critic claims that the narrator knew about the hair on the pillow, even if the narrator (and a significant percentage of the population) knew or guessed about the murder. The reassessment of the title by the reader (but not by the narrator, who technically does not know the title and remains oblivious to any outside commentary or literary allusions) must include more than a passing thought for the author, whose sleight of hand has brought about the surprise ending. The story is, after all, a literary construct, and it is constructed under the title, or in this case sub rosa:
According to legend, the Greek god of silence, Harpocrates, stumbled upon Venus while she was making love with a handsome youth, and Cupid [. . .] bribed the god of silence to keep quiet about the affair by giving him the first rose ever created. This story made the rose the emblem of silence, and since the fifth century B.C., a rose carved on the ceilings of dining and drawing rooms where European diplomats gathered enjoined all present to observe secrecy about any matter discussed sub rosa, or “under the rose” [. . .] The rose was also carved over the Roman Catholic confessional as a symbol of silence, and sub rosa became well known [. . .] as a term for “strict confidence,” “complete secrecy,” or “absolute privacy.” (Hendrickson 167–68)
Jack Scherting’s Freudian reading of “A Rose for Emily” uses the sub-rosa concept only to suggest that Emily’s attachment to her father had lasting repercussions: “The Oedipal desires expressed in Emily’s affair with Homer were never recognized by the people of Jefferson, and Emily herself was aware of them only as subconscious longings” (404). On the...