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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.
Read more about narrative structure that utilizes flashbacks with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.