In Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner writes, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Much of his work, including this short story, offers a meditation on the past, and the narrative structure reflects that. As a Modernist, Faulkner also tends in his work to explore non-linear time.
In "A Rose for Emily," it is somewhat misleading to think of this story as a story about Emily Grierson. It is much more about the act of narration and the implied audience of the story. The narrator is unfolding this horrific story about a town's legendary character, and the reader stands in for that auditor. A reader response critique can explore that more fully, but as is the case in any dramatic monologue, the implied experience of the teller and the hearer adds a depth. This is especially true as the story is past tense and the "unspeakable" ending has been awaiting discovery all along.
Without the framing device in which we enter the past from the present time, the disturbing brilliance of the story would be lost. Like the South who knew its own decay but denied it, Emily and the town also live amidst its rotten past. The story brings that vividly to the reader, who must reconstruct the story's time line but then realizes that the grim truth of Emily's life should have been obvious to anyone not actively seeking to deny it.
The following order of the story maps out Emily's life chronologically.
1. Emily is a young girl/woman with a father who parades her around town and denies her opportunity to marry.
2. Her father dies and she is unwilling to acknowledge the fact or deal with the dead body for three days.
3. Emily has an independent maidenhood, indulged by the elders of the city who remember an earlier grandeur. This period includes a brief stint giving china painting lessons and a brief romantic attachment to Homer Barron, which seemingly leads to a marriage proposal (hence the silver toiletry set).
4. The town and her cousins express scandalized horror at the thought that Emily might marry a Northerner; Homer leaves.
5. Homer returns.
6. Emily buys rat poison despite being unwilling to offer a good reason for her need to do so.
7. There is a terrible smell that the town attempts to deal with.
8. Emily dies.
9. The town discovers that Emily had slept in the same bed on which the corpse of Homer was lying.
Faulkner's decision to tell this story retrospectively, rather than in chronological order, supports his purpose for several reasons. To begin with, his decision to use a kind of collective point of view puts the reader alongside the townspeople. We know as little about Emily as those who go to her funeral out of "curiosity" do, and, like them, we are eager to learn. Emily is presented as a figure of intrigue, which would not be the case if the story began with Emily as a young woman. Faulkner's decision to begin the story at the end, as it were, allows him to unpeel layers of Emily's history until the reader, eventually, learns the truth.
The actual order of events is:
1. Emily grows up in the town with her father, a formidable man. She is thought likely to end her days as an old maid, until a man comes to town, Homer Barron.
2. Emily begins to court Homer Barron.
3. Emily is seen at the chemist buying poison.
4. Homer Barron disappears and is believed to have left town.
5. A strange smell is detected at Emily's home. The townspeople attempt to deal with it themselves, with lime, and never breach the subject with Emily.
6. Emily dies, and the whole town attends the funeral.
7. After the funeral, the body of Homer Barron is found in Emily's home.
Flashing back in time is used by authors to produce a desired effect. In this story, not telling the story in the time order that events happened is much like how our human memory works.Throughout the story, the narrator goes back and forth through the events in the life of Emily and the town. One memory prompts the narrator to remember a different memory. I'm sure we all know someone who tells a story this way. We don't always remember everything at the same time, but as we recall one event in our past, it reminds us of something that triggers a memory of another part of the story. Our memory of what happened is sometimes haphazard.
Because Faulkner wants us to understand the full culpability of the town in Emily's isolation, loneliness, and eventual death. Her story and the town's responsiblity is best realized in retrospect.
The story begins with her funeral; the entire town attends, making us think that this is a caring community. But soon recounted events tell the real tale. We learn of Emily's life before her father died, of her illness, and of the one beau she manages to acquire. Then we learn of his abrupt departure and of the onset of her isolation from the town. All the events culminate in the discovery of the body of her former lover and the indentation of her head upon the pillow next to the corpse, a stray gray hair clinging to the fabric.