The troubled race relations that have characterized the South throughout its history are the backdrop for “That Evening Sun,” even if they are not the main concern of the story. Nancy, the main character in the story, is a typical African-American woman of the South in the Jim Crow era. “Jim Crow” was a name given to the system of laws, customs, and ideas by which the white South kept its black Southerners oppressed. In this era, which lasted from the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s until the relative success of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, black Southerners were denied most basic civil rights—including, but not limited to, the right to vote, to have a fair trial, and to have freedom of expression.
In addition, the Jim Crow system enabled white Southerners to take economic advantage of African Americans. Black Southerners did not have access to higher education, for the most part, but a few entered into the professions or succeeded in business. African Americans whose financial success became too obvious, however, were often the target of attacks by resentful whites.
But it was not only the successful black Southerners who were taken advantage of or attacked by whites. Nancy, in the story, is a washerwoman who takes in white peoples’ laundry. Mr. Stovall, who represents both the economic system (he is a cashier at the bank) and the religious institutions (he is a Baptist deacon) of the South, refuses to pay Nancy for her services. When she confronts him, he knocks her down and kicks her repeatedly in the face, causing her to lose her teeth. Mr. Stovall is not punished; rather, it is Nancy who is imprisoned. Quentin does not tell the reader on what charge she is jailed. Faulkner, who was always concerned with race, comments through his maturing narrator on the willing blindness of Southerners to the injustices of their society.
Coming of Age
One of the most familiar themes in Western literature is the “coming of age” or “loss of innocence” theme. In such stories, a young man (or, less frequently, a young woman) moves from childhood to adulthood through vivid and affecting experiences. Such twentieth-century classics as James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, and J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye are based on this theme. Faulkner also uses this theme, but he generally sets his characters’ comings-of-age against a backdrop of declining families and a changing South.
In “That Evening Sun,” Quentin Compson, the narrator, moves from childlike innocence toward a sadder but wiser adult experience in the course of the story. Faulkner’s narration is quite clever. The story is actually narrated by an older Quentin, a man fifteen years beyond the nine-year-old child who seems to tell the story. But even though the first voice of the narrator is that of an adult, a man with perspective on the events he describes, that voice soon reflects the world of a child, with the short attention span and limited vocabulary characteristic of children. Quentin rarely speaks in the story that dominates the action of “That Evening Sun,” the story of Nancy and her fear of Jesus. Instead, the voices one hears the most are those of Jason, Caddy, and Nancy herself Caddy, Quentin’s younger sister, is excited to play along with the adventures that Nancy promises. Jason, the five-year-old, is utterly and solely concerned with himself. Quentin’s feelings about the matters at hand are unexpressed.
It is this lack of expression that represents Quentin’s growing maturity. Unlike Caddy and Jason, Quentin can sense that Nancy is feeling a very profound fear—and he has some idea of the source of that fear. Whereas Caddy and Jason see Nancy’s troubles only as a sort of game that focuses on them—and Mrs. Compson feels essentially the same way—Quentin can sense a deeper feeling in Nancy, and he recognizes the potential danger that Jesus presents. Quentin’s essential silence in this story represents his dawning understanding of evil in the outside world. Unlike Jason, Caddy, and his mother, he refuses to turn Nancy’s plight into something that refers to himself. He is not yet old enough to disagree with his father on the right way to handle the problem, nor is he even old enough to explain to himself what is really happening, but the reporterlike tone of the story—one very similar to the tone used by Faulkner’s contemporary Ernest Hemingway—belies the deep emotional effect that Nancy’s terror is having on him.
Darkness and Violence
“I hate to see that evening sun go down,” W. C. Handy’s song “St. Louis Blues” says, because the singer’s lover is no longer around. In the song, the singer’s regret at sunset is because the darkness reminds her of her absent lover; however, for Nancy ”that evening sun” represents the danger that her absent lover presents to her. Jesus—whose name is likely an ironic joke on Faulkner’s part— represents danger and violence to Nancy, and he will wait until night has fallen to fall upon her. Jesus represents a stock figure in racist Southern folklore. He is the dangerous, violent black man who, after dark, attacks women with a knife or razor. In the Jim Crow era, in order to stir up prejudice against African Americans, newspapers and magazines played up, and often simply made up, crimes committed by black men against white women.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, William Faulkner, Published by Gale Group, 2001.