William Faulkner’s fictional world of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, is one of the most familiar locales in all of world literature. The families who inhabit the county—the Sutpens, McCaslins, Snopeses, and Compsons, among others—have family lives more vivid and more well-documented than many real families. As in the South in which Faulkner himself grew up, in Yoknapatawpha the two dominant facts of life, even a century after they ceased to be, are slavery and the Civil War. The relations between black and white inhabitants of the county are always colored by the legacy of slavery, and the values and aspirations of the white citizens of the county are always understood in relation to “the War of Northern Aggression.” But the weight of history is not Faulkner’s only subject. Rather, Faulkner, perhaps better than any other American writer, examines how the pressures of history interact with the darker drives of each individual— drives for sex, violence, revenge, gain, selfishness.
Faulkner rarely hit upon a more effective combination of the dark side of history and of individual human drives than he did with “That Evening Sun.” In this story, the two combine, and a young boy who is rapidly approaching maturity must puzzle together what is happening and what his own place in the impending tragedy might be. Faulkner’s choice of narrators is crucial to the theme of the story, for had it been narrated by anyone besides Quentin, a boy on the cusp of understanding, the story would lose its ambiguity and its sense of a maturing awareness. Jason and Caddy simply do not understand the situation; Mr. Compson understands the situation completely; Mrs. Compson dismisses it out of her selfishness and racism; Nancy is fixated on her own terror. But Quentin, from his unique perspective, gives the reader simply information, not interpretation, for the majority of the story. However, he is not the age he seems for most of the story: he is in fact fifteen years older, and although readers forget it quickly after the story begins, he is old enough to have interpretations and explanations for all of the events he narrates.
This ironic disjunction between what Quentin the twenty-four-year-old knows and what Quentin the nine-year-old narrates is at the heart of the story. In a sense, it is the past—the past’s crushing weight, the past’s legacy—that is the main theme of the story, as it often is with Faulkner. The weight of the past can be felt from the first words of the story: ”Monday is no different from any other week day in Jefferson now.” But for the narrator, the past was better. The story begins with a comparison of the dismal present with a happier past. The power lines and poles bear ‘’clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes” and the laundry in the city truck “flees apparition-like behind alert and irritable electric horns.” The irony here is that the ordinary symbolic resonance of past and present is reversed: in Jefferson today, the accouterments of modern life are like ghosts, and the past is alive and vital.
The story provides more than enough explanation for why the present is viewed in ghostly images, but there is one other reason that few, if any, critics have noted: in Faulkner’s carefully constructed chronology of his characters’ lives, Quentin is actually dead when he narrates this story. In the appendix to Absalom, Absalom!, another novel in which Quentin appears, Faulkner gives Quentin’s birth date as 1891. If he is nine in this story, the story takes place in 1899 or 1900. Quentin dies by throwing himself into the Charles River in 1910, but this story must be narrated in 1914 or 1915 if he is looking back to the events of fifteen years before. Of course the present is ghostly, if the narrator himself is a ghost!
Ironic reversals characterize much of the story. Such names as Jesus and Jason are ironic—Jesus is a threatening character, and Jason, rather than being the brave captain of the Argo, is here a selfish child whose only desire is to gratify his desires. Even the title is ironic. “That Evening Sun” is part of a line from one of the most famous American songs, W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” In this song, which was published in 1914, presumably the year in which Quentin is narrating, a woman laments that when the sun goes down she begins to feel melancholy because her lover is not around. But in this story, the setting of the sun brings strong emotions to Nancy not because she misses Jesus but because she fears his return. Handy’s line “When that evening sun goes down” has found its way into any number of blues songs, American standards such as Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather,” and even a song by the Irish soul singer Van Morrison. Faulkner’s use of W. C. Handy is even more significant in retrospect, because Handy is a central figure in the history of American music. By inventing ragtime and popularizing the blues form, Handy brought African-American musical traditions to the mainstream of American popular music for the first time. For decades, music has been the most integrated arena of American life; Handy almost single-handedly brought that into being. Faulkner, writing seventeen years after Handy’s song was published, used this symbol of integration to tell his story of profound physical and psychic segregation.
Segregation, the legacy of slavery, is the condition that produces most of the ironies Faulkner uses in “That Evening Sun.” Segregation’s ironies are cruel and bitter: Mr. Stovall’s savage beating of Nancy lands her in jail, and when she is cut down from her suicide attempt she is beaten again. The irony of black-white sexual relations in the South always underpins the system of segregation, for sexual contact between white men and black women was common and, if not condoned, certainly tolerated, but sexual contact between black men and white women was a crime even more unspeakable than a black person murdering a white person. Nancy—though it is not clear whether the nine-year-old Quentin knows this—is pregnant by a white man, and this is the reason that Jesus leaves her and the reason she fears his wrath.
The central situation of the story, Nancy’s terror at Jesus’ threat, a situation that is itself a result of slavery and segregation (what in the South was not?) is treated only slightly ironically. The only real irony of that part of the story is the lack of understanding displayed by Jason and Caddy. Rather, Faulkner introduces the main plot of the story with the very ideology of the South expressed in the clearest terms. After Jesus has left town and Nancy is sitting in the Compson kitchen, having already cleaned up, the Compson family is ready for her to go home. But rather than leaving, Nancy just says, “I ain’t nothing but a nigger… it ain’t none of my fault.” It is not immediately clear why she has started to talk this way, but Mrs. Compson does not want to hear it, and once Mr. Compson decides to escort Nancy home she complains that she is really the one at risk.
As the story progresses, Nancy’s fear becomes just another part of the Compson children’s lives and of the Compson household. Jason separates the fear from himself, considering it an element of being black: “I ain’t a nigger,” he repeats. The noises she makes to herself—”it was like singing and it wasn’t like singing,” Quentin says—are meant to vent a little of that fear, but it is not enough: she must sleep upstairs with the children. When she is not allowed to do that any longer, she asks the children to come home with her, reasoning that Jesus would not attempt to kill her if there were white children in the house—such an action would merit an immediate lynching, one supposes.
Throughout this section the narration is utterly flat, reporting only what happens and interpreting nothing. Quentin reports every statement and reply of each conversation, just as a boy does. However, that very tone does hearken back to Hemingway’s, as does the undertone of experience, understanding, and painful growth, which moves the reader to seek for a greater understanding underneath the flat reportage. Faulkner has provided that source of greater understanding already, however: Quentin’s older consciousness.
Quentin’s older consciousness comes out again at the end of the story—not in the voice itself, but in the structure, in what the narrator chooses to relate. The Compson family walks back to their house, leaving Nancy sitting by her fire, resigned to her fate. Mr. Compson urges her to put the bar up but she is simply apathetic; she will not even close her door, so sure is she that death will find her that night. The children are agitated: Caddy wants to know what is going to happen, while Jason repeats again that “I’m not a nigger.” It is Quentin’s voice, however, that echoes in the reader’s head as the story ends: ”Who will do our washing now, Father?” Mr. Compson cannot take any more actions than he has without upsetting the delicate racial balance of the Jim Crow South, and he knows that Nancy is in real danger. Quentin feels that Nancy will die that night, but like his mother his only concern is for the tasks she does for the family. Given the Hemingway-esque tone of the narration, this last line is delivered with a bitter irony—the Quentin of 1914 spits it out, realizing that in retrospect he sounds selfish, like Jason. He wonders what he would have done had he been in his father’s place, musing on what remains the same in the South—the brutal reality of a system of segregation, neglect, and enforced racism—even as the outward trappings of his home grow gray and ghostly in the modern day of cars and electricity.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, William Faulkner, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on “That Evening Sun,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.