Robert Widdicombe
English 301, Virginia Commonwealth University
1 May 2000

Temporal Narrative Technique and Horror in "A Rose for Emily"

  William Faulkner’s "A Rose for Emily" is far more than merely a horror story, to the extent that it was intended as such,. Through the narrator, Faulkner creates an unpatterned, unsettling narrative chronology to help create the horrific effects of this story’s frightening surprise ending. Faulkner himself said that "it was a ghost story,"1 when fielding questions from University of Virginia students in the 1950s. Luckily for us, the story is rich, complex and literary in its many aspects, and thereby not limited to nor subject to strict classification under the horror genre. But insofar as "A Rose for Emily" is a tale of fright, there are some fascinating narrative techniques at play.

First, the entire text is imbued with horrific images and death. The very first sentence begins, "When Miss Emily Grierson died..." (32), thus fixing  the idea of death immediately in the reader’s mind. Her "skeleton" (33) is mentioned as part of a description of Emily when the deputation visits her regarding the tax issue, as is her body, which looks like one that has been "long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue" (34). In other words, Emily looks dead.

There are also sensual devices used in the narrative to contribute to the underlying sense of horror which pervades the story, particularly the smell of Barron’s fuming corpse. By attaching sensual descriptions, such as this one of Emily‘s house: "It smelled of dust and disuse--a close, dank smell," (33), the narration invites the reader into a physical atmosphere of the macabre. In Homer’s death/bridal chamber, there is "A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb." Clearly, the images of death and physical decay paint an effective backdrop as we are led up to the final horrifying image, made all the more effective by the twisted approach to time.

The narrative technique at work involves the use of an ever shifting temporal landscape to create a sense of confusion and tension in the reader. The particular order of the events in Miss Emily’s life is baffling to construe from the narrative as it constantly jumps around between different points in her history. At the beginning of each section of the story except the last one, there is a preoccupation with time, or a quick shift from some point in Emily’s life to another. This adds to the suspense which is essential to the making of this tale’s horrific climactic effect. In section I, we have several references to time, starting with the first word of the story, "When," (32). At the end of the first paragraph, we learn that no one had seen inside her house "in at least ten years," (32). On the first page alone there are references to three decades, the "seventies," (32), the Civil War, (32), and 1894  (32). At the beginning of the next section, we go from Emily vanquishing the city authorities just like she did "thirty years before," (34), to, in the second sentence of the section, that "That was two years after her father’s death," (34). The temporal points of reference always seem to be immediately followed by references to other points in time, especially at the openings of most of the story’s sections. As Paul D. McGlynn said, "For time is, of course, the unseen character that battles, defeats, and mocks everyone."2 It appears that in addition to Emily’s conflicts with time as it changes everything in Jefferson but her, there is an intended conflict between the reader and the confusing temporal flow of this story. Like the old Confederates, the reader is perhaps set up to confuse "time with its mathematical progression,"(42).

All of this chronological confusion, whatever else its intended structural purposes, adds to the intended horrible effect of the ending as it puts the reader in a state of subtle confusion and apprehension. Also contributing to the fright chronologically is that fact that Miss Emily’s purchase of the arsenic is not temporally placed to make it readily obvious that it might be intended for Homer: "Like when she bought the rat poison. That was a year after they had begun to say "Poor Emily," and while the two female cousins were visiting her." (38)

Already thrown by the constant shiftings in time, the reader does not readily associate the poison with Homer (as its possible recipient), because the event of her buying it is immersed in this chronologically cloudy swirl. This significantly adds to the surprise at the end when the terrifying image of Homer’s long-ago-poisoned corpse is revealed (42).

Despite its many literary merits,which cause it to transcend the stylistic strictures of the ordinary "horror story" genre, "A Rose for Emily" is in very many ways a carefully crafted "ghost story," designed to create suspense and an effect of climactic horror. As Ray B. West wrote, "All that has gone before [the surprise ending] has prepared us by producing a general tone of mystery, foreboding, decay, etc."3 Certainly the temporal layout and random chronological jumpings of this narrative add to the horrific nature of this tale as well, by putting the reader ‘on the edge of their seat.’


1. A Pocketful of Prose Vintage Short Fiction, David Madden. Harcourt Brace, 1992, 43. Page numbers refer to the text in this book also.

2. Paul D. McGlynn "The Chronology of ‘A Rose for Emily’ from"A Rose for Emily," edited by M. Thomas Inge (Columbus, Ohio, 1970), 90.

3. Ray B. West "Atmosphere and Theme in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily,’ ibid, 39.