Modernism is an interesting genre of literature as it is presented not only through the themes and subjects of a text but also in the actual way in which it was written. Indeed, the focal point of any modernist work of fiction is a clash of the traditions and innovations, the subjectivity vs objectivity of reality, and the biases which deny the existence of the objective truth. But it is also a genre that goes against the tradition in its very form: modernist stories are rarely written in a classical fashion, where the chronology of the events mirrors the beats of the story. The cuts, flashbacks, and time displacement are all traits inherent to modernist literature. William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily is ultimately a textbook example of modernist fiction as it utilizes all the elements mentioned above to tell a story about a woman who had clung to the past so much that she had lost touch with objective reality. Despite her delusions and insanity, Faulkner manages to convince readers to empathize with her through the means of non-linear storytelling.
At the core of this tale is the endless battle of old vs. new. The story opens with an announcement of the death of the main character - Emily - who is called an 'Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town (Faulkner). From the get-go, Faulkner set-ups a conflict between the modern people and Emily who is a product of the past. Even her house is a relic, which stands out like a sore thumb among the modern buildings of the industrialized era: 'But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps...' (Faulkner). All in all, the first chapter paints a picture of a stubborn, old lady who refuses to accept the new era, to the point of rejecting reality, as she vehemently believes that she does not need to pay taxes.
Her refusal to see the future is not simply a product of senility, but of a much more deeply ingrained trauma. Emily's father died when she was still relatively young. When the people from the town offered to share their condolences, she refused to accept this fact, claiming that her father did not die: 'with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will (Faulkner). This is another trait of modernist literature, a conflict of realities. Emily was not in denial but legitimately thought, to the very end, that her father was alive and well, creating a version of reality where that is true.
The structure of the story also makes it easier for readers to empathize with Emily. The short story sort of loops back as it starts with the very end - the death and the last days of Emily - and recalls her history from the beginning, from how she lost her father and met Homer. That structure makes readers pay more attention to the events which turned Emily into an old lady that they meet at the beginning of the story, thus explaining how she becomes as miserable as she is. This structure also presents an idea about the non-linearity of time: while for most people it flows directly, people like Emily are stuck in one particular point of time (before her father's death). The almost cyclical structure of the story reflects the endless loop in which Emily's mind is stuck.
The Rose for Emily is a prime example of modernist literature because it demonstrates and describes the conflicts most commonly associated with this literary genre. The conflict of traditions vs modernity, the subjectivity of reality, and the relativity of time. It also utilizes an unconventional story structure, which is told through flashbacks and not chronologically, a typical trait of modernist literature. Faulkner utilizes those characteristics to make readers emphasize more with Emily, more and not treat her as an oddity or simply an insane person.
- Faulkner, William. A Rose For Emily And Other Stories. Random House Publishing Group, 2012.