Summary and Analysis: "That Evening Sun" Introduction


"That Evening Sun" first appeared in the March 1931 issue of American Mercury. The remainder of its publishing history is identical to "A Rose for Emily": reprinted in These Thirteen (1931); in Faulkner's Collected Stories (1950); and in the Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (1961). For anyone reading Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, "That Evening Sun" provides an excellent introduction to the novel: Every character in it retains the same characteristics they have in the longer work.

The title of "That Evening Sun" refers to a popular black spiritual that begins, "Lordy, how I hate to see that evening sun go down," which implies that once the sun sets, death is sure to follow. Thus, at the end of Faulkner's short story, although some characters are not convinced that Nancy's husband, Jesus, is waiting outside her cabin to kill her, we suspect that he is close by, and that he will likely slit Nancy's throat with his razor before the night is over. The setting sun is feared by the singer of the spiritual and Nancy alike.

Many critics refer to "That Evening Sun" as one of the finest examples of narrative point of view. The story is told by Quentin Compson, whose voice Faulkner utilizes at two distinct times in the boy's life. First, we have 24-year-old Quentin remembering a 15-year-old episode concerning Nancy's fear of Jesus. This introductory point of view is then followed by the narrative voice of 9-year-old Quentin, who recalls the episode as he experienced it at that time. Within this narration, we have the emotionally contrasting adult voices of Nancy and Mr. Compson, Quentin's father.

Because Quentin presents the story's details as he experienced them when he was 9 years old, his impressions are those of a child. Limited by his young age, his perceptions of Nancy's troubling circumstances reach horrendous significance at the end of the story, when he finally understands enough to know that Jesus is probably going to kill Nancy. His main concern, however, is not with Nancy's fate; rather, he is more anxious about his own personal welfare, worrying over such a mundane problem as who will do the family's laundry after her death. His selfishness indicates his acceptance of her death as insignificant. Likewise, he and his sister, Caddy, and their younger brother, Jason, do not understand the significance of most of the story's events, including why Nancy gets several of her teeth knocked out by Mr. Stovall, the Baptist deacon; why Nancy tries to hang herself; and what the "watermelon" is under her dress. Most important, the children will never comprehend the abject horror that she suffers.

The dual points of view are best illustrated by Faulkner's brilliantly contrasting Nancy's and the Compson children's fears. Nancy's sense of impending doom and her debilitating fear in the face of her imminent death are strikingly dissimilar to the Compson children's playing their games of "scairy cat." Nancy is terrified by premonitions of her rapidly approaching death, whereas the children try to frighten each other by using such insignificant things as darkness.

Faulkner uses these disparate voices to weave themes that contribute to the story's richness. Included in these themes is the implied dissolution of Southern aristocracy. The Compson family is on a personal and social decline that loosely parallels Nancy's decline. Mr. Compson is cold and detached; Mrs. Compson is whining and neurotic; 9-year-old Quentin is calm and rational; 7-year-old Caddy is inquisitive and daring; and 5-year-old Jason is unpleasant and obnoxious. As is always true of Faulkner, we have the distinction between the rich and the poor, and, more important, the inequality and the prejudice found in the treatment of blacks by their white counterparts. For example, Nancy is often a sexual object for some of the town's white men, and she assumes that the child she is carrying has a white father. We hear that her husband, Jesus, is not allowed to come even to the back doors or kitchens of white houses, to which he remarks, "But white man can hang around mine. White man can come in my house, but I cant stop him. When white man want to come in my house, I aint got no house." Such is the prejudicial double standard that still existed at the time of Faulkner's writing this short story.