Putting Together the Petals: A Chronological Analysis of “A Rose for Emily”

I’ve been getting a ton of traffic on this post recently. Please leave comments if you have any questions or found it hard to read in this format on WordPress. I’d like to learn a little more about why you’re reading it. Doing a term paper? Just a fan of William Faulkner?

As the sleepy reader saunters through the meadow of Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, he may make his way through its many different paths. Most power-walk their way on a straight path, the most efficient and timely. They see the Old South juxtaposed to the New, the dilapidated cotton gins absorbed by gas stations, the antiquated mansions and Emily Grierson, the loner; all the fundamentals of a Southern Gothic. Others take the long road and discover the forest is scattered, telling its story with convoluted minutia easy to trip over and not easy to see. Faulkner, in his true style, has written a story in a way never thought possible of a literary scholar, mathematically. What are the motives in making the recollection of time scattered about like leaves on a lawn? From an author’s point of view, it could be to confuse the reader and persuade him to criticize the text more and more until the puzzle is solved. Thinking as a narrator, it could be to obscure the events into a story more convenient for their purposes. The possibilities of both the intentions and the methods are endless. To me, the author and the narrator come to a point of agreement as to what the intention of the story is when speaking of the confederate soldiers at Emily’s wake. The soldiers were said to recall the times 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…” (Faulkner 34). I believe Faulkner, ultimately, demonstrates that a memorable artifact has been lost and it will soon be forgotten by a progressing society.

Most of us, hopefully all, live in a linear manner. We progress throughout the day one second at a time. We do not exist in Thursday before we do Tuesday. However, it is not against the law of nature to recall memories, events, and their development towards a larger story out of chronological order. Faulkner achieves this brilliantly by scattering events throughout the story and delaying the implications of said events. For example, though Emily buys poison in paragraph thirty-four, future events transpire in paragraph four, five, and fifteen. This happens in most of the story; in fact most events such as when Emily’s taxes were reinstated; when the Alderman came for their second visit, and when Emily’s China-painting lessons ceased were all mentioned within the first four paragraphs; yet they occurred in the latter half of her life. Minute details, such as using discreet mentions of difference in times, serve as bridges to other events. The only firm date we are given is 1894, when Colonel Sartoris remitted Emily’s taxes due to a debt, financial or moral, that was owed by the town to her and her father. Once the reader has analyzed the story closely enough, he can conjure up enough evidence to not only conclude how much of her life the story covers, but what years in which the story takes place. Clues such as when the the narrator mentions that Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years; that she had vanquished the Alderman’s predecessors thirty years ago, which was two years after her father died give indisputable evidence that besides the vague mention of the time period between the last time she was ever seen alive and her death, the story covered thirty-two years of her life.

I’d like to take it even further and suggest in what years the story took place. As mentioned before, the only concrete date we are given is when Sartoris remits Emily’s taxes in 1894. Faulkner, by design, gave vague details throughout the story. The largest one, save the 1894 event, was the age of Emily when she passed; seventy-four. By analyzing the times in which the events take place and using context clues within the text, we can determine in what years all of the events happened. One can assume that Emily’s taxes were remitted around the same time she emerged from roughly fourteen years of solitude and started giving China-painting lessons. The narrator’s regard for Emily is similar in both events; the regard being that Emily is a “tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation…” ( Faulkner 29). What implies that her painting lessons and tax-exempt status coincided was the text “…daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris’ contemporaries were sent to her with the same regularity and in the same spirit that they were sent to church on Sunday with a twenty-five-cent piece for the collection plate. Meanwhile her taxes had been remitted. (Faulkner 33)” There’s an undeniable similarity in the wording that reinforces a sense of duty to Ms. Emily. To be accurate, it is important to recognize clues within the text that tie what seems like separate events into the same year. With the help of a white paper titled “Using Constraint Logic Programming to Analyze the Chronology in ‘A Rose for Emily’” I was able to verify some of my data, though there seems to be a discrepancy (Burg 387). The authors claim that three years had passed between when the new Aldermen stripped Emily of her tax-exempt status and when the Aldermen visited to try to persuade her to pay (Burg 387). The text clearly indicates these two events happened within the same year. Starting in paragraph 4, we see the Alderman sent a tax notice the first of the year, wrote her a formal letter in February, which was followed a week later by a letter from the mayor, and after receiving a refusal to visit from Emily the Aldermen sent a group of men to confront her. All of this took place within the same year.

To bring the last big piece of the puzzle into focus, the reader should know that most likely the painting lessons ceased very shortly after Sartoris died. As the text suggested, it was the daughters and granddaughters of Sartoris who were going to her house with as much enthusiasm as going to church. Depending on what one believes to be implied, one may conclude that after Sartoris died, so did the feeling of obligation to the old institution he preserved. This would imply they ceased learning how to paint China, at least from Emily, shortly after the Colonel’s death. After understanding these events took place within the same year, the reader can look at some of the constraints offered by the text. I mentioned earlier that Emily was in solitude for roughly thirteen or fourteen years. This was calculated by deducting the other events from the amount of time the story covered, thirty-two years. We find that that less the two years between her father’s death and the inspection of “the smell,” the six to seven years she gave China lessons, and the ten Sartoris had been dead, we were left with thirteen or fourteen years. Therefore, working from beginning to end, the reader can see that her father died in 1878, and she met Homer in 1879, allegedly murdered Homer in 1880, went into solitude between 1880 and 1894, then began giving China lessons until Colonel Sartoris passed in 1900 or 1901, and Emily had been last seen alive in her house in 1911.

What does it all mean? It means Faulkner may have reached a peak in realism unmatched by many authors. “A Rose for Emily” was merely a drop in the Yoknapatawpha River. He was said to have revised a couple of dates in early editions of the story in order to correct any errors in the progression of the time (Moore). He’s known for his mastery of chronology as demonstrated on larger scales with stories such as The Sound and the Fury (Burg 387). Despite the impressive use of realism, a bit of romanticism gives a different perspective to the intentions of this concoction of events. Perhaps this portrayal of the passing of time and events provides “A Rose for Emily” a higher meaning than a murder mystery. The allegory being reinforced in paragraph 34 shows that some live life and constantly progress along a straight path, remembering much of what they just saw, but losing most of what they saw shortly before as it fits itself into a tiny fragment of their vision. Perspective, though a key element to depth, also shortens our sight of what lies beyond. Some explore life, their paths and their memories, unchanged by time or social paradigms. They do not care to progress but care only to reflect on their decisions with no regret. I believe Emily was the latter because she believed she was the last of her kind. With her gone, the old slave was free, and thus Jefferson would move on along the road, leaving the old aristocracy behind.

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing 5th Edition. Ed. X.J. Kennedy, Dana Gioia. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. 290-301. Print

Moore, G.M. “Of Time and its Mathematical Progression: Problems of Chronology in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (1992), 195–204.

Jennifer Burg, Anne Boyle and Sheau-Dong Lang.“Computers and the Humanities: Using Constraint Logic Programming to Analyze the Chronology in `’A Rose for Emily’” The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers ,34 (2000), 377–392.

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