In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the passing of time is a major theme illustrated through an abundance of symbols and their underlying meanings. The main character, Emily, undergoes changes unwillingly and her reactions of carelessness end up backfiring and creating negative effects. Her home contains several symbols of deterioration connecting back to the theme, and Emily herself serves as a symbol, as well, because she goes through self-deterioration. While trying to resist personal change in order to cope with tragic events that occurred, the changes around her actually appear to be even more drastic. Her ignorance ends up causing her to lose the respect of her peers that had been built up by her family for so many years and she is too stubborn to realize she needs to be mindful of change and accept it like everybody around her in order to actually be in control. Therefore, she is forced to discover that avoiding the issue creates a more intense problem later.
William Faulkner utilizes symbols in “A Rose for Emily” to depict a significant and progressive passing of irreplaceable time that causes Emily to rebel and force herself into isolation. Faulkner adopts symbols to contrast the Old and New South. The contrast between time periods in the South creates a a clear visualization of the distinct differences the area has undergone over time. The description of Miss Emily’s house exposes the value she places in Old South customs: “It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies…” (Faulkner 628).
The house is a symbol for the passing of time because it ‘had once been white’, revealing that it is aging and deteriorating, just like old customs. The decay exhibits the effects of time while serving as a reminder of the past and a landmark of what is left of the Old South. It is obvious Emily has not taken care of her house in some time due to the dirty description, which allows for the assumption that no updates have been done. The listed features such as cupolas, spires, and scrolled balconies are only notable because they are not common among her neighbors since the style was from centuries ago. The trademark of old architecture that her neighbors have transitioned from juxtaposes her passion for tradition and how distinct the passing of time was.
New systems and innovations began to take over Emily’s neighborhood: “But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood…” (Faulkner 628). ‘August names’ is an old term for an old concept, explaining that industrialization has fully taken over all old things, except for her house. The vast changes the neighborhood is undergoing is a part of time passing and is shown heavily when compared to Emily. Traditions have been lost for all except Miss Emily: “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral…” (Faulkner 628). Faulkner uses flashbacks present juxtaposition that allows for a coherent comparison between the eras. Even Emily’s name is revealing of the Old South because ‘Miss’ is a southern tradition to show respect to a woman who is not married. Emily is a perfect parallel for her house because she embodies tradition and the effects of fleeting time.
Symbols in “A Rose For Emily” depict the resisting of change by Emily. Miss Emily clearly does not like change and wants to avoid it, however, that is not always possible: “Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps–an eyesore among eyesores” (Faulkner 628). Although she lives in a way as if time stops, time doesn’t stop around her, meaning her face and hair will age, her house will decay, and people around her will not stop reforming. She cannot hide from the passing of time or stop the effects of it. Emily’s desire to live in a way where time does not change causes her to refuse modernity and any sort of arising change. She resists putting a mailbox or even numbers on her house like the rest of the neighborhood, even when a postal official offer to install it. While her intentions are perplexing, her hope to revive tradition makes her stick out. Her hesitance to adhere to arising modernity leads to an extreme resistance in change, causing her to not leave her home.
She became isolated and estranged from all life outside of her home and servants: “When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray” (Faulkner 629). The servant is continuously referred to as ‘Negro’ throughout the story, reminding the reader of the time period and how drastically times have changed. The cracked leather symbolized aging, deterioriation, and death, just as old traditions are aging, deteriorating, and dying. Similarly, the dust rising reveals visitors have not been in her house or sat down in decades which exemplifies the quick passage of time. Furthermore, the singe sunray displays an attempt of Emily to isolate herself from the town.
Emily’s pursuit to seclusion causes stubbornness when contacting others: “The mayor wrote her himself, offering to call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink” (Faulkner 629). Her refusal to connect herself with people outside of her house other than with the traditional paper affirms obstinacy. She unchangingly desires the preservation of tradition and the formality expected in the Old South, as she remains constant in her intentions despite the radical change in the community. To Emily, time is relative and she views it as sustained, as she is committed to the past. Emily’s behavior is unusual to the common person, which emphasizes the passing of time because most people do not notice the distinct changes until comparing it to an extreme case of rebellion like Emily.
Emily eventually faces repercussions from her stubbornness. When confronted about change, she rebels and becomes extremely difficult to deal with: “Her voice was dry and cold. ‘I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and satisfy yourselves.’” (Faulkner 629). She became bitter about being responsible for paying taxes because it used to be her father’s duty. During the time her father was living, sexism was accepted, so she likely was not able to get a job to support herself, forcing her father to pay for her. In spite of her father’s death, she remains convinced that she should not be responsible for paying taxes, however, times have changed and the government needs her to become responsible for new things. Emily becomes careless about all things new and unknowingly selfish by not considering the post-civil war reconstruction that must go on. She grants herself a sense of entitlement to not participating in citizen obligations: “‘See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson.’ ‘But, Miss Emily–’” (Faulkner 629).
Emily becomes a burden because the officials are just trying to do their job but she is caught up in her own desires and is oblivious to how it affects others. She also addresses Colonel Satoris even though he has been dead for almost a decade, exposing how disinvolved she is in the town outside her home. This small detail discloses that Emily is extremely withdrawn from society and it likely created intense confusion and judgment among the government officials who used to be under his control. Through the passing of time, views of Emily have drastically changed: “Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town…” (Faulkner 628). The flashback explains that she was once respected, but her stubbornness and unwillingness to change shaped peoples’ view towards her. The effort to keep contact with a woman who is trying to shut her self out from the outside world as a coping method must have been frustrating, especially when she is stuck in one phase of life, refusing to move past struggles she faced. There was only so much neighbors and friends can do to reach an impervious lady lost in a bygone era.
In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” symbols display an everchanging passage of time that incites Emily into a commitment to the past. The transitioning in tenses juxtaposes the new style of the South with Emily and the time period that she derives her existence from. Time is put into a thought-provoking perspective when compared to Emily’s unique way of life because people tend to follow trends and mindlessly adopt new things, but Emily’s character introduces a new perspective and illustrates the results of refusing to accept common culture. Her extremist actions cause her to be reclusive and perform haughty actions when confronted which gives her an intimidating reputation, destroying her once esteemed prestige.
Emily is a direct parallel to the symbol of time, although she avoids it because her appearance is changing, her friends, family, and house are changing, and even she herself is changing because she is transforming into a pitiable, lonely, and mysterious woman for denying herself of reality and turning away so many people. Change is the main driver behind all human progress, but at the same time, people can be so resistant to it.