That Evening Sun
"That Evening Sun" is a short story by the American author William Faulkner, published in 1931 on the collection These 13, which included Faulkner's most anthologized story, "A Rose for Emily". "That Evening Sun" is a dark portrait of white Southerners' indifference to the crippling fears of one of their African-American employees, Nancy. The story is narrated by Quentin Compson, one of Faulkner's most memorable characters, and concerns the reactions of him and his two siblings, Caddy and Jason, to an adult world that they do not fully understand. The African-American washerwoman, Nancy Mannigoe, fears that her common-law husband Jesus is seeking to murder her because she is pregnant with a white man's child. The title is taken from the song Saint Louis Blues, originally composed by W.C. Handy, but popularized by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in 1927. Faulkner first came across Handy's music when the latter played dances in Oxford, Mississippi. Though the song is never explicitly referenced in the text, Faulkner employs a number of blues tropes to structure the plot and develop racial stereotypes.
Quentin narrates the story in the turn of the century, presumably at age twenty-four (although in The Sound and the Fury he commits suicide at age nineteen), telling of events that took place fifteen years before. Nancy is an African-American washerwoman working for Quentin's family since their regular cook, Dilsey, is taken sick. Jesus, Nancy's common-law husband, suspects that she is pregnant with a white man's child and leaves her. At first Nancy is worried about going home at night and running into Jesus, but soon she is paralyzed with the fear that he will kill her, and having delusions of him being hidden in a ditch outside her house.
Quentin and his siblings witness all of this, given that they are present for every major conversation between their father and Nancy. Mr. Compson tries to help her up to a certain extent, first by taking her home at night despite the fact that Mrs. Compson mother feels jealous and insecure that her husband is more worried about protecting some "Negro woman" than herself. He puts her up one night at Quentin and Caddy's room when she is too afraid to stay alone in the kitchen. The kids, however, have no idea of what's going on, and cannot understand Nancy's fear.
As the narrative progresses, Nancy becomes crippled by her fear. One night she feels so impotent that she talks the kids into going home with her. There, she is not able to attend to them, tell them proper stories or even make them some popcorn. Jason, the youngest, starts to cry. Their father arrives and tries to talk some sense into Nancy, who fears Jesus will come out of the darkness of the ditch outside as soon as they go away. The story ends as the father walks the children back—not the least bit affected by Nancy's situation, the kids still teasing each other and the father scolding them.
It is left ambiguous as to whether Nancy survives the night. However, in Sound and the Fury, Benjy refers to Nancy's bones lying in the same ditch that plays a key role in "That Evening Sun."
This story appears as "That Evening Sun Go Down" in The Best American Short Stories of the Century by John Updike, Katrina Kenison. In this version of the story, Nancy's husband is called "Jubal", not Jesus, although a frightened Nancy whispers the word "Jesus" three times in Part II when Caddy is interrogating her. The substitution of Jubal for Jesus likely was made for censorship reasons.
J.D. Salinger, in his 1964 essay "A Salute to Whit Burnett" (the editor of Story Magazine, Burnett was Salinger's mentor whose class in short story writing at Columbia University he attended in 1939 and who was the first professional to publish one of his stories), said that it was Burnett's use of "That Evening Sun Gone Down" in the class that taught him the importance of the author's relationship with his "silent reader".
Nancy's bones appear in Sound and the Fury, but she is resurrected entirely as a Nun in Requiem for a Nun. Faulkner responded to a question about the story and the novel in Charlottesville by saying Nancy was “the same person, actually” in both texts, though he qualified his comment by adding, “These people I figure belong to me and I have the right to move them about in time when I need them” (FU79). To what extent and in what ways we ought to read Nancy, Quentin, and the others as “the same” from appearance to appearance thus remain issues open for debate.
Salinger, J.D. "A Salute to Whit Burnett", Fiction Writers Handbook (New York: Harper & Row, 1975)
- BookRags (commercial) Study Guide on That Evening Sun
- Anthology of Thirties Prose Variant text That Evening Sun Gone Down