A Rose for Emily

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Themes and Colors
The Post Civil-War South Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Patriarchal Authority and Control Theme Icon
Time and Narrative  Theme Icon
Gossip, Social Conventions, and Judgment Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Rose for Emily, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Time and Narrative  Theme Icon

“A Rose for Emily” is not a linear story, where the first event treated brings about the next, and so on—rather, it is nonlinear, jumping back and forth in time. However, there is a method to this temporal madness: the story opens with Miss Emily’s funeral, then goes back in time, slowly revealing the central events of Miss Emily’s life, before going back forward in time to the funeral. There, in the story’s final scene, the townspeople discover in Homer’s corpse and the strand of Miss Emily’s hair the facts that make sense of all the events described before—for example, that Miss Emily bought arsenic from the druggist while in her thirties not to commit suicide as the townspeople suspected, but rather to murder her defective sweetheart.

So, why does Faulkner structure his story like this? Toward the end of the story, its narrator makes a generalization about time that can be brought to bear on this question: for old people “all the past is not 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.” Looked at in this light, doesn’t the non-linear nature of the story present the past it describes less as a “diminishing road” and more as a “meadow”, in which one might meander backward toward a glorified past? It is almost as if the townspeople’s nostalgia for the Old South, their desire to go back to a time they remember or mythologize as better, infects their storytelling practices. Perhaps—at least for now—it would be better if Jefferson got back onto the road of time, paved and lined with garages, and left their increasingly irrelevant social conventions in the dust. If only the past had been a diminishing road for Ms. Emily, rather than a huge rose-colored meadow where only corpses and the dust grow.

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Time and Narrative ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Time and Narrative appears in each section of A Rose for Emily. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Time and Narrative Quotes in A Rose for Emily

Below you will find the important quotes in A Rose for Emily related to the theme of Time and Narrative .
Section 1 Quotes

It [the Grierson family house] was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of the neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps…

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Related Symbols: The Grierson Family House
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrating townspeople give this description just after telling how they've come to the Grierson family house for Miss Emily's funeral.

The house, built in the 1870s, during or just after Reconstruction, once embodied Southern pride. With its aristocratic grandeur, it defiantly recalls the plantation houses of the Old South where slaves were forced to labor before the Civil War. The house is also a conspicuous sign of luxurious wealth.

However, only the memory of the house remains intact; in reality, it is in decay, doomed for obliteration, like many reminders of the Old South (including "the august names of the neighborhood"). Progress, technology, and industry, represented in this passage by garages and cotton gins, are encroaching on what was once a slave-based, aristocratic, agricultural society. The garages and the vehicles they house threaten to render the gallantry of horse and carriage obsolete. The cotton gins (machines that separate cotton fibers from seed) had previously made cotton extremely profitable and expanded the plantation economy of the South, but ironically they now encroach on and obliterate the very neighborhoods they once made so grand.

Throughout the story, the townspeople ascribe Miss Emily's qualities to her house, as though the two were one and the same. Here the house is described as "stubborn and coquettish," qualities a house can't literally have but which Miss Emily does seem to exhibit to some extent. This is consistent with the townspeople's idealization of Miss Emily, which ironically reduces her to the status of an inanimate monument.


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Section 2 Quotes

She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days… We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. 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, as people will.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson, The townspeople, Miss Emily’s father
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Emily's father was a proud, controlling man, and he rejected many of his daughter's potential suitors out of this pride, and despite his daughter's wishes. When he dies, he leaves to his daughter only the family house, leaving her poor and unmarriageable, as this quote reveals.

However, Miss Emily insists that her father is not dead at all—that is, she insists that the passage of time is not real, that there is no such thing as change. This is indeed a kind of madness, and it is telling that the townspeople do not think of it as such—yet. This is because the townspeople themselves deny the reality of time and change, albeit in a subtler way. They live as though their glorious Southern heritage were a living tradition, and not what time has revealed it to be: dead, unrealistic, and ultimately repellent. The townspeople's madness in this respect is very similar to Miss Emily's, and Homer Barron's corpse becomes, in one sense, an image for what the South has become.

Ironically, Miss Emily most protects from the ravages of time the very father who denied her the full richness of life and self-determinatio—"that which had robber her," as the townspeople put it. But the townspeople cling to what robbed them, too: they cling to an aristocratic plantation economy that cut against the fundamental American values of democracy and equality, and they cling also to the moral evils of the institution of slavery.  

Section 5 Quotes

…and the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talk[ed] of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not 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.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote, from late in the story, returns to the point in time when the story begins and ends: Miss Emily's funeral. The old men are on the lawn, talking about Miss Emily "as if she had been a contemporary of theirs," even though she is from a younger generation. This confusion is significant: it shows that these old men, like Miss Emily in denying her father's death, deny that their Southern heritage is in steep decline. They act as though Miss Emily were a Southern aristocrat from their own generation, even though she was, in private at least, something quite different altogether, as evidenced by her poverty and her love for the day laborer Homer Barron. The irony is further intensified by the fact that the men believe they danced with Miss Emily, even though it was her lonely reality to live as an unmarriageable woman by the social conventions of the Old South.

The metaphor of time as a meadow presents in a single, concrete image the nostalgic idea of time that the story is so critical of. There is a faint allusion to the Biblical Garden of Eden here, from which Adam and Eve "fell" after disobeying God. So too have the Southern gentleman "fallen" from their plantations into the modern world. Of course, their nostalgic vision conveniently and insidiously conceals the true horrors of Southern slavery that built and supported the old plantation lifestyle. The only paradises are lost paradises, remembered from a future time that has forgotten or repressed their darker aspects. It's better to travel the hard road of progress than to dwell in a nostalgic and artificial past, the passage implies.

For a long time we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Homer Barron
Page Number: 58-59
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes during Miss Emily's funeral. The townspeople politely wait for Miss Emily's corpse to be buried before they force their way into Miss Emily's room, and there they discover the corpse of Homer Barron, described here at length.

The phrase "profound and fleshless grin" adopts the dark, chilling, grotesquely ironic tone and diction of Gothic novels, which Faulkner often alludes to in his work. Faulkner relies on these technical means here in order to express the townspeople's shock and horror at discovering what Miss Emily has so long repressed. Homer's corpse is also an image for all the moral decay and ugliness of the Southern heritage which the townspeople repress through nostalgia and idealization. Miss Emily has slept with Homer's corpse for years, it would seem, just as the townspeople embrace their dead traditions.

A "cuckold" is a husband whose wife sleeps with another man. Homer Barron, the collective narrator says, has been cuckolded by death, in the sense that now Miss Emily sleeps with death and only with death—no longer with Homer, as time and death have wasted him away and replaced him altogether. The sexual freedom Miss Emily seemingly desired but was prohibited from in life she achieves, in a grotesque parody, after life. 

Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of irony-gray hair.

Related Characters: The townspeople (speaker), Miss Emily Grierson
Related Symbols: Miss Emily’s Hair
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes during Miss Emily's funeral, after the townspeople discover the corpse of Homer Barron in Miss Emily's room.

The indentation on the second pillow and the "strand of iron-gray hair" (presumably Miss Emily's) are evidence that Miss Emily did indeed sleep with Homer's corpse. This is what Aristotle in his literary criticism would call the "anagnorisis," or the scene of recognition, where the townspeople and the reader at least see just how horrifically oppressed and deranged Miss Emily was (and where the mysteries presented previously in the story are resolved). Earlier Miss Emily had denied her father's death, and here she goes further and lives with a corpse as though it were alive. The image of Miss Emily sleeping next to the corpse is also one the story associates with the relationship between the townspeople and their dead Southern heritage.

Dust is a common image in Faulkner's work; here, as elsewhere, it suggests stasis (for dust only settles on what doesn't move), humiliation, and mortality. Recall also that dust appears earlier in the story, when the Aldermen visit Miss Emily's house about the taxes, for example. The image accumulates a sense of fatality and despair as the story unfolds.