It's funny that a story as out of sequence as "A Rose for Emily" ends at the end – with the discovery of the forty-year-old corpse of Homer Barron. Readers and critics often feel that if the story were told linearly, in sequence, it wouldn't be much of a story. Some people feel that all the power lies in the discovery of the rotting corpse of this fellow.
We disagree with this opinion. For example, if we already knew that the corpse of Homer Barron was up in the bedroom, we would have been creeped out to read that Emily was giving painting lessons to kids in the parlor (or wherever such lessons are given). The story could have been just as creepy, and just as tragic, if told linearly.
So maybe "A Rose for Emily" had to be told this way to mirror the experience of the town, to mirror their surprise at finding the corpse. Obviously, the town didn't know about Homer Barron until Emily died, otherwise, they sure as heck wouldn't have let their kids go to her house for painting lessons, and they would arrested her for murder.
Or maybe not. Check out this moment from the ending:
Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced. They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it. (5.3)
The town must have known all along. Maybe this is the real surprise of the ending, the realization that the town has long ago pieced together the puzzle. While we can be fairly sure that most townspeople had talked the matter to death and figured out what went on before the end of the story, we can't be sure precisely when it became the consensus. Probably the night the lime was sprinkled (we're talking about the white powder here, and not the citrus fruit!).
Thirty years later, those people's children had heard the story in bits and pieces (the way it's told to us), all the while seeing her house grow more and more decayed, seeing her in the window, almost a ghost already, wandering the halls of her haunted house. The town knew her story by heart, because it was also their story, down to the last detail.
As such, the following passage takes on new significance:
Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town, and the painting pupils grew up and fell away and did not send their children to her with boxes of color and tedious brushes and pictures cut from the ladies' magazines. (4.8)
The "newer generation" wasn't going to charge in and arrest Miss Emily, but they weren't about to leave their kids with her. If they had arrested her, she probably would have ended up in an institution or worse. And this is where the theme "Compassion and Forgiveness" comes into the picture. One question the story asks is whether the town's hiding of Miss Emily's crime is an act of compassion, or yet another crime against her.
To see how hard the question is, we can remember what we are told very early in the story, "Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town" (1.3). She is family. What would you do?