The Concept of Time in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”
Hu?nh Hoài An
Student of British and American Short Storie, Faculty of Foreign Languages, Ho Chi Minh University of Technology
Tel: 0909 663 525
E-mail: [email protected]
Instructor: Nguyen Thi Thanh, Dr.
Completed: 23/09/2017

This study is primarily concenrned of time to the study of William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. This study aims to provide insights. Furthermore, ‘time’-the main focus of this paper-will be elaborated on and then identified in A Rose for Emily based on ‘story time’ and ‘discourse time’. These theoretical discussions are taken into consideration while analysis of A Rose for Emily.

1. Introduction
William Faulkner’s tale A Rose for Emily was first published in 1930. A brief historical review of this period provides the links between tale and history and lets us glimpse at Faulkner’s brilliancy. The narrative encloses a period of around 40 years related to the historical period previous to its publication. A Rose for Emily deals with the economic decadence of the south as well as the decadence of its cultural and social values. Emily’s character comes to represent this state of painful change in this society. Both the decadence of traditional values and Emily’s personal and economic ruin confirm the vision of a present that disregards once valued customs and tradition. The last representative of a traditional family of the South, Emily becomes the depositary of Southern values. Her majestic figure becomes fundamental in the maintenance of their traditional values and their way of living. Emily is charged not only with her expectancy but also the citizens’ hope for the maintenance of traditional behaviors of the southern society. The burden of these charges gives rise to the instability of Emily’s position that eventually leads her to the act of killing. This point of view, indeed, has been a common assertion in the criticism regarding Faulkner’s short story (Dilworth, 1999, Fang, 2007).
The notion of time in Faulkner’s short story: “A Rose for Emily”, is challenging in that Faulkner has manipulated “time” in his distinctive and unique way. He does not rely on a conventional linear approach in this short story, but what we, as readers, perceive is the continuous shifting, stretching, and breaking the linear order of time. The present study is relies on the two concepts of ‘discourse time’ and ‘story time’. ‘story time’ emerges from ‘the interplay of space, events, characters, and plot structure (Scheffel et al., 2013). What follows, is a review of the main concepts and theories concerning the issues of narratology, narrative, and their inseparable component: ‘time’.

2. Literature Review:
Time and Temporal Shifts
In “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner does not rely on a conventional linear approach to present his characters’ inner lives and motivations. Instead, he fractures, shifts, and manipulates time, stretching the story out over several decades. We learn about Emily’s life through a series of flashbacks. The story begins with a description of Emily’s funeral and then moves into the near-distant past. At the end of the story, we see that the funeral is a flashback as well, preceding the unsealing of the upstairs bedroom door. We see Emily as a young girl, attracting suitors whom her father chases off with a whip, and as an old woman, when she dies at seventy-four. As Emily’s grip on reality grows more tenuous over the years, the South itself experiences a great deal of change. By moving forward and backward in time, Faulkner portrays the past and the present as coexisting and is able to examine how they influence each other. He creates a complex, layered, and multidimensional world.
Faulkner presents two visions of time in the story. One is based in the mathematical precision and objectivity of reality, in which time moves forward relentlessly, and what’s done is done; only the present exists. The other vision is more subjective. Time moves forward, but events don’t stay in distant memory; rather, memory can exist unhindered, alive and active no matter how much time passes or how much things change. Even if a person is physically bound to the present, the past can play a vibrant, dynamic role. Emily stays firmly planted in a subjective realm of time, where life moves on with her in it—but she stays committed, regardless, to the past.

2. The Concept of “Time”
Narratology is made up of many elements and facets. As a framework, narratology includes different genres and levels, which analyses different characteristics of a narrative such as story, action, tellability, focolization (mood), narration (voice), time, tense, narrative modes, narrative situation, discourse, and characters. Among these elements, ‘time’ is considered in this study.
The concept of time is one of the components of narratology.
Together with spatial parameters of height, width, and depth, time is the fourth dimension which makes it possible to locate and measure occurrences (Scheffel et al., 2013). Besides, time is seen and interpreted differently by different people and cultures. Thus, time is a culturally constructed concept, and it varies as a result of historical evolutions (Scheffel et al., 2013) or maybe cultural changes.
Time is a complex phenomenon and is not understood unless in a coherent and tangible framework. Due to its elementary quality, time is widely discussed in philosophy, physics, and aesthetics. St Augustine claims that “time is hard to grasp even though one has an intuitional notion of it” (Augustine, 1992, p. 154). Lessing (1962) believes the art of speech (poem and fiction), as opposed to visual art, takes place within time. In particular, narratives, understood as representations of event-sequences, are defined and differentiated by their temporality.
In discussions about sequentiality and eventfulness, time, along with causality, is considered by some theoreticians to be a necessary condition for narrativity. From what scholars say, it seems that ‘time’ plays a crucial role in determining the narativity of a work and thus is a unified concept which should be carefully studied and examined. The study of time, thus, needs some frameworks.
In the discussion of time, the sequence and order of events are important features of stories. There exist some discrepancies between story time and discourse time. This feature should be taken into careful consideration when analyzing a story. Thus the same “time”, can be reconstructed is different ways by different writers.
The two concepts of story/ narrated time and text/ discourse/ narrating time are distinguished. Story time refers to the actual duration of events in the story. It is the sequence of events and the length of time that passes in the story. Discourse-time, on the other hand, covers the length of time that is taken up by the telling (or reading) of the story and the sequence of events as they are presented in discourse. In narrative analyses of time, the relationship between these two concepts are examined.

3. The Analysis of time in “A Rose for Emily”
In the following, the short story”A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner is to be analyzed from the perspective of narratological time. This study considers A Rose for Emily as a piece of narrative which can be put under study and analysis from narratological perspective. Although narratology encompasses many tools (components) by which a narrative can be analyzed, this study is to treat the narratological time in this short story. Admitting time as a broad concept, Genette’s model of time is adopted to put time into a limited manageable framework.
In “A Rose for Emily”, Faulkner does not rely on a conventional linear approach to present his characters’ inner lives and motivations. Instead, he fractures, shifts, and manipulates time, stretching the story out over several decades. We learn about Emily’s life through a series of analepsis (flashbacks). The story begins with a description of Emily’s funeral and then moves into the near-distant past. At the end of the story, we see that the funeral is an analepsis, as well. This short story is a beautiful mixture of analepsis, i.e. within one broad analepsis there is another analepsis and within the second, a third instance can be found; therefore, it can be said that a sort of layers of analepsis is created.
In the analysis section, those parts of the story which deviate from the chronological order or generally speaking, have instances of ‘time manipulation’, are brought in this paper and then analyzed.
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years (para. 1, p. 1).
This is the very opening of the story. It talks about Emily’s death which has not happened at the present state of the story, but it is recounting the death of Emily which had happened some years ago. This is a shift in the order of the story, i.e. the normal sequence of event is scrambled by the very opening and readers are taken to some past years, to Emily’s death. In this analepsis, an instance of pause is evident in the second paragraph:
It 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 that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson (para. 2, p. 2).
In the above passage, six lines are allocated to the description of Miss Emily’s house. This in-detail description is an instance of “pause”. Here, the events in the story are interrupted and the static setting, Miss Emily’s house in this case, is being described. Many such other instances of pause occur throughout the story which will be identified in the coming analysis.
In paragraph 4, there are two phrases that guide us to a better analysis and to indicate the type of time duration/ speed in it. It starts as:
February came, and there was no reply. They wrote her a formal letter, asking her to call at the sheriff’s office at her convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her himself, offering to call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice was also enclosed, without comment (para. 4, p. 1).
These lines are an instance of “summary”, in which the events of the story are speeded up. “February came” and “a week later” show that discourse time is summarizing/ speeding up the story time. Within one line, a week passes, i.e. it takes the reader some seconds to read whereas the events in the story have actually happened in a much larger scale of time. All the events, as it was said earlier, are within the domain of the major analepsis. There is a line (italicized) in paragraph 5 which shows another analepsis which is surrounded by its previous and later lines:
They called a special meeting of the Board of Aldermen. A deputation waited upon her, knocked at the door through which no visitor had passed since she ceased giving china-painting lessons eight or ten years earlier. They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow (para. 5, p. 1).
The next paragraph is another example of pause that describes the setting, i.e the house, the darkness and the smell in the house. Miss Emily’s appearance is also described in this pause.
The 7th paragraph is a dialogue between Miss Emily and visitors which is about taxes that she avoids paying. This dialogue can be categorized as “scene” according to Genette’s model:
Her voice was dry and cold. “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and satisfy yourselves.”
“But we have. We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn’t you get a notice from the sheriff, signed by him?”
“I received a paper, yes,” Miss Emily said. “Perhaps he considers himself the sheriff . . . I have no taxes in Jefferson.”
“But there is nothing on the books to show that, you see. We must go by the—” “See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson.”
“But, Miss Emily—”
“See Colonel Sartoris.” (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.) “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Tobe!” The Negro appeared. “Show these gentlemen out” (para. 7, p. 2).
In this a dialogue, discourse time corresponds to story time meaning that the events in the story consumes the same time as one is reading this story.
In this dialogue and in the line before it, Miss Emily is 70 years old. After this dialogue there is a sentence that little by little leads the story to another analepsis which is thirty years earlier. This shift is created artistically immediately after the dialogue:
So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell. That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her—had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all. A few of the ladies had the temerity to call, but were not received, and the only sign of life about the place was the Negro man—a young man then—going in and out with a market basket (p. 2).
Paragraph 9, again a dialogue between the neighbors and Judge Steven, the mayor, takes place which is another instance of scene. The next paragraph in page 3 is:
“So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the house like burglars (…)”
which is again another case of summary. The phrase “next night”, determines and attest to this fact.
There are some beginning lines in paragraph 15 starting with “she was sick for a long time”, which is a case of summary and ellipsis. It is summary because this long time has not been felt by readers and this long time passes as soon as a single second passes. It is an ellipsis since the reader did not read anything about the difficulties and concerns that Miss Emily had. Her sickness was a part with no detail, i.e. the details are deleted.
She was sick for a long time. When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows—sort of tragic and serene. (para. 15, p. 3).
This very case, i.e. summary and ellipsis takes place in this passage as well:
Whenever you heard a lot of laughing anywhere about the square, Homer Barron would be in the center of the group. Presently we began to see him and Miss Emily on Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched team of bays from the livery stable (p. 4).
Nothing is said about the relationship between Homer and Ms Emily, neither in this passage, nor in any other parts of the story, as if this part is deleted.
In the above paragraph (para. 15, p. 3), there is a point about the italicized word “hair”. It is repeated throughout the story for 3 or 4 times and it is a case of repetitive narration. It is believed that this case of frequency in narration happens when an event is of special importance or when it is emphasized. There are other cases where such references to “hair” and its “color” are done. They are in pages 5 and 7:
When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man (p. 5).
And in:
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 iron-gray hair (p. 7).
In the last paragraph of this story (p. 7) the importance of “hair” becomes evident, in that it is repeated three times and it is a case of repetitive narration. The third point is that this paragraph is a pause since the story events are interrupted and some descriptive statements appear on the page: “making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows…….sort of tragic and serene” (para. 15).
There is a part in the story where Miss Emily decides to buy poison. This event, i.e. “buying” is narrated just once in the story, thus is a singulative narration from the view point of frequency. In this part:
Like when she bought the rat poison, the arsenic. That was over a year after they had begun to say
“Poor Emily,” and while the two female cousins were visiting her (p.4).
‘Summary’ technique is manipulated since we see a year has passed in this small paragraph.
In the next paragraph of the same page, there is a mixture of “scene” and “pause”. I have italicized such parts. Pause, appears between the textures of scene:
“I want some poison,” she said to the druggist. She was over thirty then, still a slight woman, though thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples and about the eye-sockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face ought to look. “I want some poison,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I’d recom…” “I want the best you have. I don’t care what kind.”
The druggist named several. “They’ll kill anything up to an elephant. But what you want is…” “Arsenic,” Miss Emily said. “Is that a good one?”
“Is . . . arsenic? “Yes. But what you want…” “I want arsenic.”
The druggist looked down at her. She looked back at him, erect, her face like a strained flag. “Why, of course,” the druggist said. “If that’s what you want. But the law requires you to tell what you are going to use it for.”
Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up. The Negro delivery boy brought her the package; the druggist didn’t come back. When she opened the package at home there was written on the box, under the skull and bones: “For rats” (p. 4).
This dialogue can be in the category of scene because the story and discourse time are nearly the same. But there are some sentences which appear in some parts of this dialogue, like when the narrator describes her appearance and like the way Miss Emily looks at the druggist. These italicized parts are a kind of pause, as well, since the events of the story are stopped. An evident case of ellipsis can be identified in:
Then some of the ladies began to say that it was a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young people. The men did not want to interfere, but at last the ladies forced the Baptist minister—Miss Emily’s people were Episcopal—to call upon her. He would never divulge what happened during that interview, but he refused to go back again. The next Sunday they again drove about the streets, and the following day the minister’s wife wrote to Miss Emily’s relations in Alabama (p. 5).
In this part, the reader does not know what happened between the Baptist and Miss Emily. The reader neither knows what kind of talk was exchanged between the two. The reader is provided with no information on the content of their interview, so a case of ellipses has occurred.
In the last parts of the story, the paragraphs are more devoted to “pause” and a paragraph to “stretch”. In this part:
The two female cousins came at once. They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talking 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 (p. 6).
The funeral is being described. The women, the uniforms of old men, their talk with Miss Emily, and their memories of the dances they had with her. This is actually a rich and meaning full paragraph that should be considered more in details. The concept of “time”, as a general term (which may include aging, passage of time, and the inability to stop it or even fight with it), is stressed in the last lines of this paragraph by the elders who are almost the same age as Miss Emily.
Their view of time is not that they are at one end and the “past” at another. But they see “past” as a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touché. They do not see past diminishing, but see it as an inseparable part of their present. I think, for these old people, time is like a circle and their past is not far from them. It is like a dot on this circle and it can be reached easily. They have not lost their past and to them, their past is as near as the present.
After this paragraph, another instance of “pause” can be seen. To this point, readers experience a sort of suspense and this suspense is intensified more and more by this “pause”:
The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust. A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man’s toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured. Among them lay a collar and tie, as if they had just been removed, which, lifted, left upon the surface a pale crescent in the dust. Upon a chair hung the suit, carefully folded; beneath it the two mute shoes and the discarded socks (p. 7).
These descriptions make the reader curious about what is going on in that mysterious room. There is some evidence that suggest a catastrophe. The room furnished as for a “bridal” and then a “collar” and “tie” make the reader ready for what will occur later in the story, i.e. in the last paragraph. These descriptions can be said as a kind of implicit prolepsis since they result in a curiosity which leads to a sort of guess of what have happened. By this “pause”, events are frozen and the reader is eager to know what is happening, until he reads the last paragraph of this story in which every question is answered and no enigma exist anymore:
The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while 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. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust. 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 iron-gray hair (p. 7).
In the above passage, the instance of time duration, i.e. “pause”, is evident. The story events are frozen. They are interrupted to make room for more narratorial discourse. The narrator describes a static setting. This last pause is so crucial to the significance of the whole story. It is a pause without which no completion and no result would be achieved. By this pause, the reader through his/ her process of understanding the story, finds out what Miss Emily has done and what has happened to Homer, her lover. This last passage can be interpreted as “stretch” of time, as well. “Stretch”, as a factor added by Prince (1982) to time category, is close to “pause”. In some passages, like the above one, their borders are so close that identifying each, needs careful analysis and consideration. For example, in this part: “The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin” the description of Homer’s grin can be counted as stretch because the grin that we see, takes less than a second; but what we as readers read actually takes more time. Homer’s grin, if in a film, could function as a slow motion. This part continues as: “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”. Here, Homer’s eternal sleep is described and his sleep is slowed down to create a feeling of empathy and love and also to emphasize his death.
4. Conclusion
Time, with all its complexity, can be put in a framework to be studied and analyzed as what had been done in the present study. This study of “time” in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” has arrived a number of findings.
Firstly, understanding and grasping the “time” of a story leads to a deeper and better understanding of the content (events and plot) of that story. Knowing the principles of time, preferably in a framework (like Genettes model that was just presented in this study), will let readers access the deep structure of the story and also to be able to come to a wider and multiple interpretations of stories.
Secondly, analepsis and prolepsis, as two main narrative techniques in the category of “time” and specifically the sub-categories of “order”, can be perplexing enough to make readers exhausted of reading a story.
So the ability that an individual achieves in identifying analepsis and prolepsis, will give him/her a better and a more clear understanding of a story.
Furthermore, these two techniques can make clear the borders of the past, present, and future in a story.
Therefore, readers will not be lost in ‘time’ when they are reading a story. Because being lost in time means the inability of coming to a cohesive understanding of what is going on in the story.
The Importance of Time in “A Rose for Emily” In “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner, the author gives the reader a finished puzzle, and then allows the reader to put the pieces together and examine the puzzle piece by piece. George L. Dillon writes, “it seems possible to establish a chronology of the story that orders all of its major incidents, though it is very difficult to do so” (551) refering to Faulkner’s style of randomizing the events of Miss Emily’s life. By doing so, he uses the element of time to enhance the details of setting and Miss Emily’s life. Faulkner begins the story with Miss Emily’s funeral, where the men see her as a “fallen monument” and the women are anxious to see the inside of her house.
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