The Chronology in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"

Seminar Paper 2005 10 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Problems of Chronology
2.1 Part I
2.2 Part II
2.3 Part III
2.4 Part IV
2.5 Part V

3. Conclusion

4. Appendix

5. Bibliography
Primary Literature:
Secondary Literature:

1. Introduction

”At the heart of the modernist aesthetic lay the conviction that the previously sustaining structures of human life, whether social, political, religious, or artistic, had been either destroyed or shown up as falsehoods or fantasies” (Norton 1814). Thus literary features such as sequence or unity turned out to be only “expressions of a desire for coherence”. This “false order” had to be renovated to express the new interpretation of the world as a broken image. As a consequence, modernist literature abandons former traditional ideals. Instead of the tyranny of chronology, it is the construction out of fragments that now becomes a key formal characteristic. Without showing any linear sequence of events, Faulkner’s narrative technique in ”A Rose for Emily” mirrors exactly this modernistic ideal. By avoiding the chronological order of events, Faulkner gives the reader a puzzle consisting of fragments. Nevertheless, he gives hints that make it possible to put these fragments together and thus reconstruct the chronology of the life of Miss Emily Grierson. In order to find out “what dates are carved on [her] tombstone” (Moore 196) the reader has to become active which is a common attribute in modernist texts.

“A chronology of ‘A Rose for Emily’”, as stated by McGlynn, “is useful for at least two reasons: it makes the plot more easily comprehensible, and it helps clarify the function of time in the story” (461).

2. Problems of Chronology

“A Rose for Emily” is an assemblage of fragments representing the flow of associations of an anonymous narrator. The story is written in the first person plural indicating a community point of view. The narrator (he or she?) can be specified as a citizen of Jefferson who has in fact observed parts of the events in person and has acquired others through gossip, speculations, or legends of the town.

The narration is divided into five parts. It starts and ends with the death of Miss Emily, the other sections in between consist of flashbacks concerning her life time that are recollected by the narrator. Even though the last three parts assume a more or less forward chronological movement, they are presented in the stream of consciousness. They record the random flow of memories through the narrator’s mind. Since there is no objective chronometry, it is the subjectively experienced mind time of the narrating inhabitant that determines the story and that scatters the chronological data the reader has to analyze.

“Faulkner gives the story a chronology, but as with so many of his stories, we have to sort it out” (McGlynn 461); we have to date the major events of Miss Emily’s life “by means of internal or external evidence” (Going, cited in Moore 196). Although “it is often difficult to distinguish ‘internal’ from ‘external’ evidence” (Moore 196), I will concentrate mostly on evidence given in the text (internal) and will leave out external information such as “references occurring in other works by the same author (canonical evidence), or what we know about the author’s life (biographical evidence)” (Moore 196).

2.1 Part I

First of all, the story begins in medias res with Miss Emily’s funeral. Her death is the first information given in the text. In the following sentences the reader learns that no one has ever seen the inside of her house, which was built in the “heavily lightsome style of the seventies” for “at least ten years” (2160). Secondly, a reference to the “anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson” (2160) embeds the story in the post Civil War era. Later on, when the narration moves backwards, this assumption is corroborated by mentioning the exact date 1894, “when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor […] remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity” (2160). This is the only date that is revealed throughout the entire story and therefore the only “absolute” reference (Moore 196) in the text. It forms the basis for the establishment of a chronology of Emily Grierson’s life. All other dates have to be deduced from this year – its exact position in Miss Emily’s life, however, is not certain. The connection between the tax exemption and the death of Emily’s father does not include a temporal parallel, it only “means, at the least, that her father died not later than 1894” (Moore 197). Some chronologists[1] such as McGlynn, however, have taken the connection as indicative of simultaneity. This assumption will be exploded later (cf. 2.2, 2.4).

His memory of the tax deputation leads the narrator to another associated flashback dealing with the efforts to repeal the tax privilege by “the next generation, with its more modern ideas” (2160). The deputation of the Board of Aldermen “knocked at the door through which no visitor had passed since she ceased giving china-painting lessons eight or ten years earlier” (2160). The reader learns as well that by this time Colonel Sartoris “had been dead almost ten years” (2161).

Although there are several clues given in this first part of the story, it is not yet possible to connect them and to relate them to the date of birth or death of Emily Grierson.

2.2 Part II

The second part shows again numerous flashbacks reaching from the time just before the death of Emily’s father “when she got to be thirty and was still single” (2162) to the smell occurring “two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart […] had deserted her” (2161). Furthermore, the text reveals that the appearance of the smell was thirty years ago since the visit of the aldermen.

At this point the reader can infer that residents of Jefferson complained about the odour to their mayor, “Judge Stevens, eighty years old” (2161). Now, if one takes the view of McGlynn, Emily’s taxes are remitted in the same year her father dies, “when she got to be thirty” (2162). The dispensation, however, is arranged by mayor Colonel Sartoris in 1894. It would be very improbable to assume that another mayor took up office in the next two years until the smell occurred, especially at such an old age. Although the age of Judge Stevens seems casually introduced at first reading, it helps falsifying the opinion of McGlynn. It can be concluded that Emily’s father died many years before her taxes were remitted.


[1] Moore names McGlynn (1969), Nebeker (1970), Wilson (1972), and Woodward (1966).


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University of Wuppertal
Chronology William Faulkner Rose Emily Grundlagenseminar Amerikanische Literatur




Title: The Chronology in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"