The past versus the present is the story of Miss Emily's life and, as shall be argued in this analysis, her hold on the past and her rejection of the present ultimately condemn her to a life of loneliness and culminate in psychological disorder.
The past assumes various symbols in "A Rose for Emily," with the most predominant being the past as the Old South. As Watkins (1954), a professor of American literature, argued in his interpretation of this story, "A Rose For Miss Emily" may be interpreted as a narrative about the Old South, a South which has been battered and defeated by the North and by abolition. It is, however, a South which stubbornly and quite illogically insists on clinging to its former glories and, indeed, one which refuses to accept the passage of time or confront the changes which have been wrought upon it. The South is Miss Emily, personified in her refusal to pay taxes and her failure to acknowledge the new reality which surrounds her, culminating in her dismissive treatment of the town's authorities and her rejection of the very concept of the mailbox/postal services:
The South is also the decaying mansion; the mansion which is fal...
The implication here is that the past, as represented in this story, is personified in Miss Emily and her servant and symbolized in the house. She is, as the unnamed narrator insists, "tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town." She is, therefore, in the narrator's own words, something that was inherited from the past.
In his symbolization of the South as the old, isolated and alienated woman and her "coquettishly decaying" mansion, Faulkner depicts the old South as, not only dying and decaying but, as a horrific and horrifying anomaly to the present and to the norm. The stated is evident in a long list of descriptors and incidents. In one passage, for example, the unnamed narrator describes Miss Emily's "skeleton" as "small" while, at the same time, paints an image of an obese, "bloated," figure with a "pallid hue." The skeleton descriptor gives the impression of thinness; an impression immediately dismissed by the subsequent depiction of Miss Emily as "bloated." When readers put the two together and recall Miss Emily's "pallid hue," the image which comes to mind is that of a dead body; a pale and bloated figure whose flesh will soon decay and leave behind nothing but a skeleton. This, as the tale seems to symbolically suggest, is that which the Old South left behind it (Perry, 1979).
Within the context of the above interpretation, Miss Emily is akin to the un-dead, or death in living. This impression is only solidified by the later horrifying revelation, not only of how she murdered Homer Barron but of how she slept with his decaying corpse, then grotesque skeleton. In the days following