The Impact of Faulkner’s Non-Linear Plot Structure in “A Rose for Emily”
William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is among his most famous short stories because of the interesting method of storytelling it employs. Faulkner uses a non-linear plot structure in this story, as opposed to the more often used, more simplified linear plot structure of most fiction. “A linear plot begins at point A, progresses through events which build towards a climax, and then finally reaches point B” (Malone). In contrast, “a non-linear plot typically presents the audience with multiple paths from point A to point B” (Malone). In other words, non-linear plot structures consist of back-and-forth storytelling, or flashbacks. Because of this non-conventional plot structure, “A Rose for Emily” has been described as an “emotionally complex and chronologically confusing narrative” (Petry 53). However, the story has also been cited as “one of Faulkner’s most carefully constructed stories” (Everett 165). The effectiveness of the disordered chronology can be likened to the preciseness of an equation. As Faulkner misdirected his readers through the use of flashbacks, he revealed Miss Emily’s disoriented mental state in her dealings with the passage of time.
Faulkner efficiently complicates the narrative situation by opening “A Rose for Emily” with the death of the main character. The first sentence captures the reader’s attention immediately, evoking a collective sympathy for the main character: “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral” (Faulkner 33). One paragraph later, the narrator explains: “Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (Faulkner 34). Before readers have time to digest the death of the main character, they are forced to return to the days when she was alive. The use of this flashback allows readers little time to feel much positive consideration for Miss Emily, and that was perhaps Faulkner’s intent. Although it seems from the first paragraph that we should feel some kindness toward Miss Emily, the paragraphs that follow quickly diminish our vision of a pitiful elderly woman.
Throughout the story, readers are hauled along this rocky, non-linear narrative. This narrative structure makes readers believe conflicting ideas about Miss Emily. In some sections of the story, Miss Emily appears worthy of sympathy and pity. In other sections, especially when the “long strand of iron-gray hair” (Faulkner 41) is found on the pillow, Miss Emily suddenly appears worthy of our contempt, disgust, and most of all, confusion. Readers cannot help being confused by their own emotions. They must realize how drastically their feelings toward this elderly woman change from the commencement of the story to the finale. Critic Laura Getty insists that Faulkner performed this method intentionally in order to affect readers on an emotional level. She writes: “The chronology deliberately manipulates and delays the reader’s final judgment of Emily Grierson by altering the evidence” (Getty 230). Faulkner’s plot structure technique is multifaceted: it not only muddles our understanding of the story, it also warps our initial view of Miss Emily.
Some critics believe that Faulkner’s purpose of the non-linear plot structure is to effectively emphasize the disordered psychological state of Miss Emily. The story provides examples of Miss Emily’s character abnormalities, most evident in her refusal to admit her father’s death. Upon Miss Emily’s refusal to surrender her father’s body, the narrator remarks: “We did not say she was crazy then” (Faulkner 36). However, readers, as well as the narrator, are not prepared for the idea that Miss Emily is a pathologically disturbed murderer who most likely participated in necrophilia with her lover’s corpse. Miss Emily’s severely disordered mental state renders her incapable of rational thought and judgment, turning her from a merely abnormal person to a pathological study. Faulkner’s use of a disordered plot structure is quite effective in that it lends another level of complexity to the story. For example, while readers try to discern Miss Emily’s motives and intentions, they also face the task of juggling the unbalanced plot structure. This technique further blurs the line between what readers expect and what is actually revealed, and therefore adds emphasis to Miss Emily’s unbalanced psychological state. Jack Scherting wrote of the psychological aspect in 1980: “We cannot, of course, unravel Emily’s convoluted psyche, and explain every aspect of her demented behavior. But it is evident that Emily perceives reality in a most peculiar way. She is unable to discriminate between a Southern gentleman and a Yankee laborer, between past and present, between sleep and death, between that which is vital and that which is decaying”.
In his paper, “In Search of Dead Time…” Paul Harris writes, “In both thematic and structural terms, time is out of joint in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The story is replete with evidence that Miss Emily is unable to submit to the passage of time and also that Miss Emily has rather rebelled against time itself. Time’s swift route is clear in the following section: “They rose when she entered—a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head” (Faulkner 34). Readers detect several hints to the passage of time, the most obvious words being “vanishing”, “tarnished”, and “thin”, a word which possibly alludes to the prospect of her finding happiness in her advancing age. References to the condition of Miss Emily’s house, which “had once been white” (Faulkner 34), her hair, “turning gray” (Faulkner 35), and her “bloated, corpse-like body” (Harris 180), all make clear that not only has Miss Emily been abused by time but that she has resisted it as well.
While the story references Miss Emily’s physical form in relation to fleeting time, Miss Emily’s pocket watch is most often cited as the symbol of passing time. The watch inside Miss Emily’s pocket cannot be seen, but it can be heard. The “invisible watch” (Faulkner 35) serves as an auditory reminder to Miss Emily that she has never been able to control or suspend time. The “ticking at the end of the gold chain” (Faulkner 35) reminds her that time marches on, and has escaped her grasp. Miss Emily’s resistance to change is a fundamentally important aspect of the story. Milinda Schwab explains how the chronology is tangled with the element of time: “[Miss Emily] resists change because for her change will always involve loss. She must prevent time from passing if she is to hold on to what matters to her. The consequence of [Miss] Emily’s attempt to keep time from changing is that time for her loses its mathematical progression, and becomes static and repetitive. The structure itself of the story underscores the stagnant, repetitive nature of [Miss] Emily[‘s] existence.”
Faulkner’s use of a non-linear plot structure in “A Rose for Emily” has a persistent, effective motive. This narrative method ensures that readers of the story walk away with both an emotional and psychological burden after discovering the horrors of Miss Emily’s actions. Through the use of a non-conventional plot structure, Faulkner provides us with a more complex narration that “can be seen as a set of nested containers and events that the reader must enter and traverse; in this sense, even the formal layout of the plot functions as a sign to be deciphered” (Harris 182). “A Rose for Emily” shocks readers with its narrative misdirection and startling conclusion, unveiling Miss Emily’s truly disordered state as she rebels against the passage of time, albeit unsuccessfully.
Everett, Walter K. Faulkner’s Art and Characters. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1969. Print.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 2010. 33-41. Print.
Getty, Laura J. “Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Explicator 63.4 (Summer 2005): 230-234. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 97. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.
Harris, Paul A. “In Search of Dead Time: Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’. KronoScope 7.2 (2007): 169-183. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Jan. 2011.
Malone, Michael. “Linear and Non-Linear Storytelling in Traditional Mediums.” PBworks.com. PBworks.com, n.d. Web. 24 January 2011.
Petry, Alice Hall. “Faulkner’s ‘A ROSE FOR EMILY’.” Explicator 44.3 (1986): 53. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Jan. 2011.
Scherting, Jack. “EMILY GRIERSON’S OEDIPUS COMPLEX: MOTIF, MOTIVE, AND MEANING IN FAULKNER’S ‘A ROSE FOR EMILY’.” Studies in Short Fiction 17.4 (1980): 397. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.
Schwab, Milinda. “A Watch for Emily.” Studies in Short Fiction 28.2 (1991): 215. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.