William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" paints a compelling portrait of a small town's fascination with their local "aristocrat," Miss Emily Grierson. The plot is engrossing in part because it is non-linear. It begins with Miss Emily's funeral, then meanders through different periods of her life in no particular order before returning to her funeral and what the townspeople find when they enter Miss Emily's house.
It's necessary for the reader to understand what Miss Emily means to the people of Jefferson so that the impact of their discovery can be fully appreciated. The Griersons were once a powerful family, but after the death of her father, Miss Emily fell upon hard times, so that, in Jefferson, she was seen as "a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town." She was cold and antisocial, and nobody really knew her, but the townspeople pitied her enough to accept her eccentricities.
Faulkner puts the reader in the same position, providing glimpses of Miss Emily without any sustained interaction. She was always removed from the people who saw her, behind a door, a window, a curtain, or her father. Any attempt by the townspeople to connect with or confront her was coldly and dispassionately rebuffed. Who was Miss Emily? What did she care about; what did she want for her life? This woman was an institution in the town of Jefferson for three generations, and in all that time, nobody ever got close enough to her to learn anything about her. The nearest they came to understanding her was in the aftermath of her father's death:
The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body. Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly.
We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.
When Miss Emily had a whirlwind romance with a Yankee builder, Homer Barron, the town was baffled by his unsuitability as a partner. When Homer Barron disappeared, everyone assumed he had jilted Miss Emily. The plot tracks backward and forward in Miss Emily's life to build up a sense of how she might have reacted to this disappearance—she couldn't accept her father's death, after all, and she had never been allowed to court anyone when he was alive. On the other hand, she was always a solitary person who kept no company. The townspeople felt sorry for her, being unlucky in love, but she showed no emotion that they could discern. She was absolutely inscrutable from first to last, providing no explanation or justification for her actions at any point in her life. The inner mind of Miss Emily Grierson was as mysterious to the people of Jefferson as the inside of her house.
The glimpses Faulkner provides of Miss Emily only heighten the mystery around her, and his roundabout manner of exposition raises more questions than it answers. The reader must keep moving forward with the narrative through its loops and tangents in the hopes of gaining some kind of satisfaction. When the truth is revealed in the final sentences of the story, all the fragments of knowledge the town has gathered about Miss Emily over her lifetime come together in an instant, and the effect is deliciously macabre.