The ambiguity of the timeline in A Rose for Emily was meant to show
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The ambiguity of the timeline in "A Rose for Emily" was meant to show that the changing of the Old South into the New South happened gradually. It did not happen in the span of a few short years, but rather it took many decades for the change to completely ingrain itself into both the society Jefferson and the society of the south as a whole. The ambiguity of the exact time in which the story takes place gives the reader a wide range of years in which to interpret for himself when the Old South finally died, and the New South took over.
The narration starts out simply with the passing of Miss Emily Grierson, an Old South spinster. It then follows a complex and winding path through the approximately 40 years leading up to her death. This wandering story line has led many critics to accuse Faulkner of destroying all sense of time in the story. They charge that he distorts time by deliberately using "a complicatedly disjunctive time scheme" (G.R. Wilson, cited in Moore 465) and "twist[ing] chronology almost beyond recognition" (Ruth Sullivan, cited in Moore 465). While this accusation of distortion is correct, Faulkner uses the confusion as a tool to allow each reader to relate the material to the period of time when they personally feel the New South arose from the ashes of the Old. Faulkner allows each reader to decide for himself when the events of the story actually took place.
The lone definitive date in the story, "that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris … remitted her taxes," serves only as a marker to the reader; a signpost used guide him to a general period in history, but leave plenty of room for interpretation of when other important events in the story occur (432). Many of the events in the story vaguely reference time via relational phrases such as: "thirty years before the smell" (433), "two years after her father's death" (433), and "for almost six months" (436). These chronological cues do little to help the reader fix a definitive date to when the story takes place. The reader must reach into the recesses of his own mind in order to decide what date to affix to the changing of the Old South to the New.
The transformation of the South in the story clearly takes place gradually. When a strong smell begins to emanate from Emily's house two years after her father's death, the Board of Aldermen only has one member of the New South, or younger generation on it. And although it is related first, it is not until much later, chronologically, that the next generation takes over the leadership of the town as they slowly become mayors and aldermen, with "more modern ideas" (432). Eventually, the new generation becomes the "backbone and spirit of the town" and is supported by all of Jefferson, except for Miss Emily (436). When the new leadership brings free mail delivery to Jefferson, Miss Emily is the only resident who refuses to allow a modern mailbox on her home. Of course, we can hardly blame her for refusing, she is simply trying to hang on to the past, where the people were "honorable, graceful, and above all, dignified" (Bronson 439). Because they readily accepted the new conveniences, it is clear that the other residents have either gradually become accustomed to the New South or, as many of them were, born into the new society.
Near the end of the story, you can readily see that the Old South is dead when the townspeople use a "mass of bought flowers" on her bier (emphasis added, 437). The fact that the flowers are bought suggests a modern society, rather than the antebellum times when self-sufficiency was emphasized. By the end, the reader is sure that the Old South is dead and the New South has risen to take the helm. However, because of the ambiguity of the timeline it is hard to pick out exactly when the New rose to overpower the Old.
Bronson, Daniel. "Like Sand of the Hourglass…" The Norton Introduction to Literature: Shorter Seventh Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1998. 439-43.
Moore, Gene M. "Of Time and Its
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A Rose for Emily, William Faulkner, Emily Grierson, Emily, Sartoris, Narration
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