In Faulkner's short story "A Rose For Emily," what could Miss Emily's ticking watch symbolize?
In Faulkner's "A Rose For Emily," things are rarely as they seem. Time falls into this category because of its unusual presentation in the story's structure, and what it comes to symbolize in the story.
Miss Emily Grierson is something of a permanent fixture. To those residing in the same town, it seems that she has always been there. This makes sense in that most of her contemporaries have passed on well before she does.
The reference to the watch may quite literally refer to the time that she is willing to allot to the men who come to her home to speak with her about her back taxes. The image created by "the invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain" provides sensory details: it is gold, it has a long chain and it is ticking. However, the physical sense that the detail impacts more than any other is that of sound. The watch can be heard in the complete silence in the room.
She did not ask them to sit. She just stood in the door and listened quietly until the spokesman came to a stumbling halt.
The sound of the watch could simply emphasize how awkward this meeting is for the men. It speaks to their sense of propriety—how difficult it would be for Southern gentlemen to visit a woman, alone in the world, to discuss something as distasteful as money. Traditionally this was something men discussed between themselves, but Miss Emily's father has been long dead. The ticking in the silence may make the men that much more conscious, also, of Miss Emily's powerful and intimidating presence. She is immovable.
The ticking of the watch sets the mood of this particular scene. It also accentuates the nervousness of the men in the silence—the struggle with the absence of sound, and perhaps a strong desire to fill it and be gone!
However, in terms of symbolism, I believe that the watch is pulling "double duty," in not only allowing the men to know that their time speaking with Miss Emily will be brief and is flying to its conclusion, but also that time is an important element in Faulkner's style and Miss Emily's perceptions of life.
Time is introduced in the smooth transition between the story's beginning, which reports Miss Emily's funeral and the more distant past when the Board of Aldermen sent a deputation to her home about the tax bill.
Shortly thereafter in another flashback, in section two, the author once more changes the setting of the story, moving back approximately thirty years before the visit of the deputation, when a terrible smell was reported coming from the Grierson home.
If the men who had visited Miss Emily about her taxes had been reticent to appear boorish with Miss Grierson, the aldermen thirty years before were even more concerned about acting appropriately. When one suggests they tell Miss Emily to clean up the smell, Judge Stevens replies:
Dammit, sir...will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?
Section three moves back in time yet again, and this shifting in time makes it difficult to follow the years' progression. The reader learns that Miss Emily has been sick for quite a while, but the unnamed narrator also reports that contractors have arrived to pave the sidewalks. With the others comes "Homer Barron, a Yankee." Before long Miss Emily is seen stepping out with him, creating quite a stir among the ladies of the community. Rumors begin to spread that Miss Emily is a "fallen woman." Female members of her extended family arrive—and then depart. Homer leaves and returns...and then he is never seen again.
Time advances forward. Miss Emily "had turned fat and her hair was turning gray." Again the years pass and her hair gets grayer still, until it remains a "pepper-and-salt, iron-gray." We learn that somewhere in this period of time Miss Emily opened her house and welcomed students for china-painting lessons. This lasted six or seven years, and then it stopped. It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when it occurred.
By now, the irregular shifting of time has become an expected—though difficult—pattern to follow. By the end of the story we realize that the first paragraph of Faulkner's tale was also a flashback, the first in a series of flashbacks. The story's end has at last brought the reader to the present day. Everyone has gathered to enter Miss Emily's house, which no one but a servant has seen in a very long time.
The climax of the story takes place when the men have to break down the door to a room that has been shut for forty years. The "pervading dust" can attest to the long passage of time that the room has been shut up. On the dresser lay a man's set of toiletry items (a man's brush, perhaps a comb) all backed in monogramed silver, too tarnished to read. Then there are a man's collar, shirt, pants, socks, and shoes...
The man himself lay in the bed.
For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love...had cuckolded him.
Shockingly, this body that had once been Homer Barron, has been resting here and decaying for many years. However, because of the shuffling of the timeline, it's nearly impossible to comprehend how long it has been. However, time (once again) has an enormous impact upon the reader's understanding of what is really being seen in this room:
Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward...we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.
The author shuffles the story's chronolgoy in order to keep the reader off-balance and unable to form a direct timeline of events; in this way he is able to shock the reader at the story’s end by exposing the horror of Homer Barron’s fate.
If it is not bad enough that Miss Emily obviously murdered Homer with the poison she had purchased years ago, the final paragraph reveals that Miss Emily slept beside Homer's dead body many years after his death, as indicated by the color of her hair on the pillow.
The special significance time plays for Miss Emily is that it stopped advancing for her. Miss Emily was willingly lost in the past. We can infer that she believed Homer was still alive and still with her. Time is symbolic of Miss Emily's inability to move forward with news of Homer's impending departure. Once the sidewalks were finished, he was ready to go. We can infer that the only happiness she had ever enjoyed was found in the hours and the days spent with the Yankee contractor. To battle the passage of time, Miss Emily killed Homer—who, in her mind, remained forever young and with her. The shuffling of time symbolizes Miss Emily's inability to deal with its precise and measured progress forward. In her mind, time had become subjective based on her perception of it...in Miss Emily mind, time had stopped.
The watch ticking on the chain foreshadows the importance of time in the story and the battle with time that Miss Emily fought until the day she died. It symbolized Miss Emily's inability to leave the past.