What is the most important element of fiction in "A Rose for Emily"?
Widely considered one of the greatest of American authors, William Faulkner is superb in his employment of all elements of fiction. In his "A Rose for Emily" Faulkner's unique use of several narrators, the significantly Gothic tone with the influence of the Southern milieu, the characterization of Emily, and the plot itself are all skillfully rendered.
Most skillful is the author's use of time (part of setting) in the plot of his short story. For, it is the shifts of time with the narrator's flashbacks that prevent readers from "putting all the pieces together" and that help to create the Gothic horror of the discovery at the end. "A Rose for Emily" is divided into five sections, with the first and last dealing with the present, the now of the narrative, while the three middle sections detail the past. The story, thus, begins and ends with the death of Miss Emily Grierson; the three middle sections cover the time from soon after her father's death and shortly after her "beau," Homer Barron, has deserted her, to the time of her death.
In the fourth section, Faulkner writes of Emily,
Thus she passed from generation to generation--dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.
These adjectives describe each section of "A Rose for Emily." Critics argue that these descriptions of the times of each section are a metaphorical characterization of the differing states of mind that the townspeople pass through in their evaluation of Emily. For instance, in his essay, "'A Rose for Emily': Another View of Faulkner's Narrator," William V. Davis correlates the two present sections with the adjectives that fall to them, giving Miss Emily to the reader as the paradox she has become in death: "dear" and "perverse," while before her death, she was inescapable, impervious, and tranquil." Thus, during her life, the woman who has been a mystery and an inscrutable and impenetrable is finally clarified by the shifts of time. Another look at the first death section reveals the foreshadowing of Emily's final portrait: Her house is an "eyesore among eyesores" in "coquettish decay," there is a "tarnished gilded easel," and Miss Emily looks "bloated, like a body submerged.
Skillfully arranged, the shifts in time of William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" serve to develop the Gothic horror and explicate the narrative; as part of the plot they are key to the understanding Faulkner's magnificent story.
In addition to the wonderful answer above...
It's Point-of-View. Faulkner is a master of the modernist stream-of-consciousness narrative shifts. In "A Rose for Emily," we have a collective narrator (1st person plural):
WHEN Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant--a combined gardener and cook--had seen in at least ten years.
It is difficult to determine the gender of the whole town: are they mainly men, mainly women, or both?
Early in the story, it seems the narrator is male, or at least comes from the patriarchal culture of law and authority:
Colonel Sartoris, the mayor--he who fathered the edict that … the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity.
We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn't you get a notice from the sheriff, signed by him?
When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Baron … When we next saw Miss Emily… ...Now and then we would see her in one of the downstairs windows.
Early in the story we have the male confrontation with Emily regarding the taxes. Later in the story, they confront her about the smell. All told, she is the object of the male gaze. Men, both young and old, are amazed at her as spectacle and a pillar of grotesqueness. The men objectify her:
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town
We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground…
From the male point-of-view, she is not regarded as a woman. She is an institution beyond reproach, much like the South herself. She is a tragic memory of the lost cause and the Southern debutante.