Summary and Analysis: "That Evening Sun" Section I


The opening of "That Evening Sun" emphasizes the differences between the past and the present, much like the opening section of "A Rose for Emily." Quentin is 24 years old, and laundry is now delivered in automobiles. There are electric line poles and paved streets; even the black women who still take in laundry have their husbands pick it up and deliver it in cars. But 15 years earlier, the streets would have been filled with black women carrying bundles of clothes balanced on their heads. Nancy was one of the women whom the Compson children liked to watch carry laundry on her head because she could balance her bundle while crawling through fences or walking down in ditches and then up out of them. Sometimes, the husbands of the washing women would fetch and deliver the clothes for their wives, but Jesus, Nancy's husband, would never stoop to this servitude for her.

The emphasis on washing both in the first and last sections unifies the story. The opening paragraphs describe the children's interest in Nancy as a washerwoman; the story ends with Quentin's accepting Nancy's death and wondering, "Who will do our washing now, Father?" Likewise, the opening emphasizes how Jesus is different from other husbands; at the end, he is likely outside Nancy's shack, waiting to kill her.

This first section provides much background information. When Dilsey, the Compsons' cook, is sick, Nancy has to cook for the family, and the children, always thinking that she is drunk, have to go to her cabin to wake her. However, when Nancy is arrested, the children come to believe that her problem isn't alcohol, but drugs. On the way to jail, Nancy passes Mr. Stovall, a deacon in the Baptist church, and she begins to plead with the white man: "When you going to pay me, white man? It's been three times now since you paid me a cent — " The Baptist deacon knocks her down and kicks out several of her teeth, and Nancy is taken to jail. There, she tries to hang herself by removing her dress and using it as a noose. The jailer reports that it is not whiskey that is the cause of Nancy's problems; rather, it is cocaine, because "no nigger would try to commit suicide unless he was full of cocaine, because a nigger full of cocaine wasn't a nigger any longer."

Several of Nancy's teeth are kicked out because of a Southern racial distinction that allows a white Baptist deacon, such as Mr. Stovall, to use Nancy as a sexual object, regardless of whether he pays her or not. But a black man could be hanged immediately if he even spoke familiarly with a white woman. Mr. Stovall, of course, knows that he will not be punished for striking Nancy. At the time the story takes place, a white man could harm a black person without the least fear of recrimination.

This episode also highlights the theme of small-town mentality. Quentin reports the encounter between Nancy and Mr. Stovall, but he himself didn't witness it. Instead, he knows about the incident because it soon becomes the talk of the town: "That was how she lost her teeth, and all that day they told about Nancy and Mr. Stovall, and all that night the ones that passed the jail could hear Nancy singing and yelling." In a small town, this event would provide a great deal of gossipy enjoyment.

Pregnant likely with a white man's child, Nancy attempts suicide; the jailer finds her "hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little, like a little balloon." This suggestion of her being pregnant leads Quentin to recall a conversation between Nancy and Jesus. He and his siblings overheard them talking about Nancy's swelling under her apron, and Jesus said that it was a "watermelon." When Nancy retorted, "It never come off your vine, though," Jesus responded, with a hint of future violence, "I can cut down the vine it did come off of." Quentin merely reports these sexually charged innuendoes, including his sister Caddy's questioning the two adults about their statements. Again, we have a double vision: The adults discuss a subject that belongs to the adult world, and the young listeners misunderstand the sexual nature of that discussion.

So far, Faulkner has presented only background information. At this point, the main plot, narrated by 9-year-old Quentin, begins with his announcing that Nancy has finished washing the supper dishes, but that she remains sitting in the kitchen. After speaking to Nancy, Mr. Compson tells his wife that he is going to escort Nancy home because she fears that Jesus is back in town. She is afraid that he will kill her for being pregnant with someone else's child, especially a white man's. Mrs. Compson accuses her husband of being more concerned with Nancy's safety than with her own. Her objection is a ridiculous complaint: In the Southern culture in which she lives, no black person, not even the feared Jesus, would break into the Compson mansion or threaten Mrs. Compson.

The children quickly decide to go with Nancy and their father. Nancy explains that Jesus was always good to her, but now nobody can protect her from his wrath. Listening to Mr. Compson tell her that this would never have happened if she had "let white men alone," Nancy is adamant that Jesus is close by. She can feel him, and she knows that she will see him only one more time, immediately before he cuts her throat with a razor. Mr. Compson tries to assure her that Jesus is most likely in St. Louis with another woman by now, to which she responds that if she ever finds out that Jesus is cheating on her, she will cut off his head and slit the woman's belly. Her response is ironic given that this murderous violence is exactly what Nancy fears from Jesus.

However, we should be aware that, essentially, Nancy is not blaming Jesus for wanting to kill her. Because she would decapitate Jesus for fooling around, she knows that Jesus is justified in using a razor on her for cheating on him. Nevertheless, she fears having her throat cut, all alone, in the darkening night.

The children are ignorant of and unconcerned about Nancy's mounting anxieties. Walking to her cabin, they prattle constantly about which one of them is more scared. Caddy begins to tease Jason that he is a "scairy cat," which he fervently denies. By teasing each other, the children are clearly unaware of the abject terror that Nancy is feeling. None of them — particularly the inquisitive Caddy — understands the crux of Nancy and Mr. Compson's conversation. For example, when Mr. Compson tells Nancy that Jesus would not be upset if only Nancy had "let white men alone," Caddy immediately wants to know, "Let what white men alone?. . . How let them alone?" Later, when Nancy threatens to slit the belly of whichever woman Jesus is with, Caddy again wants to know, "Slit whose belly, Nancy?" Although Quentin never joins in the teasing between Caddy and Jason, his narrating their childish play without commenting on how inappropriate it is, given Nancy's predicament, suggests that even Quentin sees nothing wrong with his siblings' banter. He is a child relating what he sees and hears.

Nancy does not feel in control of her own fate. She constantly reiterates, "I aint nothing but a nigger. . . . It aint none of my fault." This response is not surprising when we consider that the Southern aristocratic society castigated blacks as worthless. Nancy has internalized this condemnation to so great an extent that she believes her life is without value.