The story of "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, is written with the influence of traditional ways and attitudes of the old South with true insight. Faulkner, a writer brought up in the South, displays the upbringing and lifestyles of people in a town called Jefferson. The story reflects the life of Emily Grierson who too, is a southern woman. Her upbringing by a stern father leads to her slow journey through a secluded life to her death and shows how following the traditions of her father leads her to a life of pain. Faulkner's theme then is how clinging on to the past can harm you when all other surrounding aspects of life are changing.
To understand Faulkner's theme, one must understand the characters. As the female protagonist, Emily is an example of a bygone era. She is from an upper class where family name is venerated and is to be maintained at almost any cost.
Faulkner emphasizes this many times by saying "She carried her head high enough... as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson."(469) and "...and the high and mighty Griersons."(467) In the end of the story officials do not pursue her lover's disappearance for the exact reason that they do not force her to pay taxes which is also the reason Emily does not rebel against her father and his wishes. This is all due to the fact that she is a Grierson. Faulkner also states that "none of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such." (468) Her father, under the appearance of protection which is actually control, chases away all of her suitors, not because they are not good enough, but so that he may keep her for his own housekeeper. Faulkner gives a description of Emily and then says "...and about the eye sockets as you imagine a light house-keeper's face ought to look."(469) Emily still clings to her father and his customs long after his death. She did not handle his death well as he was the only entity she had. For three days she denied that her father was dead and only after persuasions of doctors and ministers did she let the body be disposed of. "We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her..."(468) Emily had never rebelled against her father's wishes and now was left alone with no suitors and a vague understanding of the society which had changed so much around her. Her father left her with nothing but what used to be a important ornate house on a fashionable street, which is now an eyesore as the town has matured around the home. Her behavior towards the taxes and her "archaic" (466) letter written in "flowing calligraphy in faded ink"(466) begins to demonstrate how outdated she is. She tells the "next generation"(466) mayor and aldermen to speak to Colonel Sartoris while little does she know that he has been dead almost ten years. Also Miss Emily is harming herself when she "refused to let them (the newer generation) fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it."(471) as she is not keeping up with the times. Faulkner makes many references to "members of the rising generation" (467) and the "newer generation" (471) which makes us recall how outdated Miss Emily in fact is.
To further cling to the past, when Emily's last opportunity of matrimony is deserted, she poisons Homer Barron to preserve the only life that her father allowed her to experience. She also coheres to the past while sleeping with a rotting corpse for decades until her own death, not knowing any better. This is evidently a result of her binding to the tradition so deeply rooted in her father's customs. She is never seen out in public which was to be expected "as if the quality of her father which had thwarted her woman's life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die." (471) Miss Emily's lifestyle never changes with the times and she grows tremendously obese and her hair a "vigorous iron-grey "(471) color while her Negro servant grew "grayer and more stooped while his voice had grown harsh and rusty from disuse."(472) until she finally dies in "a heavy walnut bed"(472). Even when she lays at the funeral, her father and his traditions are still close to her "with the crayon face musing profoundly above the bier."(472) After her father's death, Miss Emily is left to continue life in future generations with the same opinions and attitudes about society that her father had left with her. She has been kept from the outer world and is a prisoner of time thus her clinging to her past has harmed her to the extent that it ruined her life. "The whole town went to the funeral, the men through sort of a respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house."(465) It was only after her body had been properly buried, that Faulkner gives us complete insight to Miss Emily's failed attempt at life and lets us see the degree to which her father's outdated traditions ruin her life and tarnish her family name.