A Rose For Emily: Clashing Temporal Lenses as Past and Progress

A Rose For Emily: Clashing Temporal Lenses as Past and Progress


Marion Comi-Morog

ENG 220: Final Research Project

May 11, 2018

In William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” time is examined from two clashing lenses. One, in which the present is moving relentlessly and persistently forward towards the future, one which is seen in the linear structure of upwardly-inclining roman numerals and a ticking watch at the end of a gold chain. The other sense of time is stuck behind the bottleneck of past and present, a meadow lacking linearity and structure, in which every moment coexists as a singular, permanent event. However, instead of discussing past, present, and future directly as structures of time, Faulkner creates physical representations in order to investigate the material ways in which they coexist and intersect within the oppressive society of the American South. In manifesting the properties of time within the characters and physical elements of his story, Faulkner is able to illustrate the clashing and integration of these two temporal views.

The audience is exposed to Faulkner’s world through the perspective of the town, opening the curtain to Emily’s life and death in the performance which the town displays at her funereal scene and continuing throughout the tale with their perspective of the events which unfold. However, the use of the communal “we” as a narrative voice is ambiguous in its temporal placement in relation to the events of the story and to the audience existing within the present moment. When the narrator opens with the phrase, “our whole town went to her funeral,” is the audience included within the “we,” displaying a narrative voice within the present moment, or does the audience take the perspective of an outsider looking in, peering into these time frames as one would from a history lesson? Does the narrative voice of the town exchange hands as the story progresses through time, or is this a “we” which exists outside of linear time, a town mentality as opposed to a certain voice? At once, the town can be seen as both stagnant and shifting throughout time, a progressing and unchanging mindset. From the opening sentence of the text, time exists both with and without linearity and structure.

Quickly, the attention of the narrator shifts from Miss Emily’s death to the house which stood through it all, an imposing yet decrepit force, both dated in appearance and stubbornly resisting the passage of time. All around, the signs of progress are evident: in the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps, in the garages and cotton gins, which “had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood.” The house remains as a final monument, a past which has somehow managed to infiltrate the present moment. Here, the house represents time as an unchanging concept, seen as motionless and immovable in the “faint dust (rising) sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray.” In the same way, however, the dust and disuse of the house can be seen as a direct measurement of how much time has passed. The cracked leather and disrepair of Miss Emily Grierson’s house stand equally for its resistance and succumbing to time. Here, the home represents an intersection of two temporal views: time as simultaneous and permanency and time as a continual passage of events.

Like the house which she spent her years within, the portrayal of Miss Emily Grierson’s physical representation is also one of resistance and submission to the wear of time. Described by the narrative voice as “motionless as that of an idol,” a “tradition” of the town as permanent as all traditions are, Miss Emily is given the image of durability throughout the years. Yet her age manifests itself in her appearance, marking the passage of time on her body in the folds and gray hairs accumulated with age. The audience’s first impression of her physical description is that of a skeleton, a permanent and irreversible state of being regardless of time yet also a direct reference to the future and past of the narrative: her death which we see at the beginning of the story and the discovery of the skeleton which we see at the end. The skeletal image of Miss Grierson both accepts and resists a linear timeline and its effects. Within this initial description, Miss Grierson is seen as possessing a ticking watch worn at her belt, representing both the invisibility of time in her life and its constant presence, a persistent ticking which the narrator admits all hear with the exception of Miss Emily Grierson herself. Here, she represents both past and present, an unmoving and unstoppable force yet also one which succumbs to time.

The structure of Miss Emily’s narrative is one which defies and imposes a linear timeline, creating a text in which every segment exists in the present moment and one which chronology is highlighted in its form. The story itself is told from a perspective which dips in and out of linearity, a text which is told in chunks organized by subject material rather than order of occurrence. While the plot is not ordered sequentially, however, roman numerals aligning with segment chunks impose a linear sequence to the narrative. In this way, the story is told with and without linearity, resisting the flow of time and yet imposing a new flow in order to create a twisted chronology. The text creates a new sense of time as might have been viewed by Miss Grierson herself, a twisted sense of passing and returning to the past.

The title of the work, “A Rose for Emily” is perhaps the most exclamatory occurrence of the text bridging the gap between temporal lenses. Here, Miss Emily Grierson’s final physical description is directly referenced, her most recent present, an image of her laying “beneath a mass of bought flowers.” However, also referenced are her past romantic pursuits in the image of a rose, a symbol of an idyllic love which never found her, and the men which stand around her body and reminisce as if they had been this love for her. Here, they talk “of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps.” This delusion, as stated by the narrator, exists in all who have acquired age. To them, the past is experienced “not (as) a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.” Here, time is referenced as a meadow, a final reference of flowers and bloom, acting as a symbol for Miss Emily Grierson’s experience of the world around her, a world without linear time progression where past events exist simultaneously and permanently. The title exists both within her present and the past, both within the linear structure of the plot and intersecting it.

Miss Emily Grierson and Faulkner’s world in which she lived portrayed the struggle between a rapidly-changing society and the simultaneous reluctancy to let go of tradition, the struggle between inevitable progress and the permanency of history. While the time period of the piece is never explicitly stated, one specific date is mentioned which explicates the reasoning behind Faulkner’s depictions of these two temporal lenses. The text states that, “in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor–he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron-remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity.” From this date is constant reference to the following ten years: that Colonel Sartoris “had been dead almost ten years”, that a room would be opened which no one save the man-servant “had seen in at least ten years”, that no one had visited “since she ceased giving china-painting lessons eight or ten years earlier.” These statements imply that Miss Emily Grierson lived within the turn of the century of the American South. In this time, women were fighting for autonomy in the political, employment, and social arenas. However, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton was writing the “Women’s Bible” and what would later be known as the National Women’s Party was being organized, many Southern women could not feel the effects.[1] The emerging suffrage movement fought the well-established traditions of the South for women’s rights and freedoms. In other words, the continual progress of time fought against the permanency of established tradition, linear time against the meadow. In many ways, the story of Miss Emily Grierson is one telling the story of the “bottleneck of the past decade,” the period of time separating the present from all of the unified traditions in the past, in which progress and linearity clash and coexist with the unstructured time of the meadow. Miss Emily Grierson herself stands as a representative of the women during this time, both oppressed and uncontrolled, succumbing to the influence of men and fighting to be free of it. In the initial interactions in which we see her, Miss Emily is portrayed as an object of man’s action rather than a subject, being affected by her father, Colonel Sartoris, and previous lovers, rather than causing an effect upon them. However, as the plot progresses, Miss Emily pushes against the men in her life, arguing against the druggist, “vanquishing” the tax collectors, and ultimately possessing Homer, the man she loved. Within her life, Miss Emily Grierson felt the effects of both past and progress.

What is gained through the use of such clashing temporal lenses as those of linear progression and time being as a meadow? While “A Rose for Emily” was being written, a period of temporal literary theory began to emerge called Non-Modern time. This era was dedicated to the idea of moving against a linear narrative which had been used in the past. Instead, writers used messianic time, or the “time of the now”, in which time exists within a singular moment, not “steady and progressive” but “revolutionary and explosive.”[2] When time is no longer steadily continuous, leaving every moment behind, it is possible to unearth and examine “the forgotten or suppressed past.” The women’s suffrage movement at the turn and beginning of the 20th century mirrored this literary theory in that it moved away from the popular and traditional linear narrative. Both movements asked critical questions about the traditions of the past and how the present moment could override such traditions. Eventually, Non-Modern Time would lead to the Postmodern Time in the 1960s, a period which has been labelled “the end of temporality” in which time is no longer referenced as a means to structure literature.[3] Non-Modern time exists as the bottleneck between these two periods, one separating our present from the past’s traditions. The focus upon the present moment and rejection of a linear past within the Non-modern temporal theory imply an authorial support for the progress made within the beginning of the 20th century that cannot be seen in the narrative voice nor directly within the text.

The characters, voice, structure and setting within William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” are vital in the interpretation of the text as historical commentary and an examination of temporal lenses. By creating intersections of these lenses within the characters and physical elements within the story, Faulkner is able to examine and exhibit their clash and coexistence. Through these two temporal views, we are placed within a bottleneck of the time period, able to view both past and progress of the women’s suffrage movement. Ultimately, we are able to view the piece as historical commentary on an outgoing tradition and the progress which will come to take its place.



[1]Woman’s Suffrage History Timeline.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/womens-suffrage-history-timeline.htm.

[2] Martin, Theodore. “Temporality and Literary Theory.” Literary Studies (20th Century Onward), Literary Theory and Cultural Studies, Postcolonial Literature and Studies, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, Dec. 2016, now2017.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2017/01/Temporality_and_Literary_Theory.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

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