ENGLISH READING CIRCLE – SHORT STORY OF THE MONTH ANALYSIS: “THAT EVENING SUN” BY WILLIAM FAULKNER
This month’s story is William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun,” first published in 1931, two years after The Sound and the Fury and five years before Absalom, Absalom! These two novels share a common denominator with “Evening Sun”: all three relate incidents in the lives of the Compson family, and are narratively guided by Quentin Compson, the oldest of the three Compson children (the fourth Compson child, Benjy, is not mentioned in the story, either because he is as yet unborn or only an infant). While it is of course unnecessary for you to have read these other works in order to appreciate the story, some background gleaned from The Sound and the Fury in particular will help us to locate the story more firmly in history. We know that Quentin is nine at the time of the story; we know too, from The Sound and the Fury, that he was nineteen in 1910. That means he narrates the story at the age of twenty four (which contradicts some of the implications of the novel’s conclusion, but so be it), looking back at life in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi, as it was at the turn of the 20th century.
It is interesting and insightful to read this story as the documentation of a formative childhood event in the lives of characters (Quentin, his younger sister Caddy, and their younger brother Jason, as well as their parents and Dilsey, to a lesser extent) we will see grow into mature adulthood in other works. Indeed, we can isolate, if we are so inclined, specific declarations in the story that point towards central flaws and governing ideas that lay at the root of these characters’ later, mature identities. Caddy is obsessively curious about male-female relations; Jason knows how to yield what power he has for his own selfish ends, and consistently marks his enmity with Caddy, who returns it in kind; Quentin is quiet, pensive, observant, and profoundly sensitive to the doom that pervades the story’s action. We are introduced to the childhood anxieties and impressions that will later harden into character traits and flaws, and then flower into the tragedies of the longer works.
But if we were to solely focus on this aspect of the text we would be doing the story a grave disservice, since this story isn’t really about the Compsons. The story is about Nancy, the Compson’s substitute cook, called into service when the housekeeper, Dilsey, is taken ill. It is about the brutal realities of life as an African-American woman in the Deep South of this time, and about what it meant to be a “nigger,” then and there. The answer Faulkner seeks to this question (perhaps the central question for Southern identity, white and black) is so deeply driven into the social, historical, and cultural fabric of Yoknapatawpha County (metonymically representative of the broader South) that it requires a narrator for whom the ways of the world, and this world especially, are still in large part a mystery. That is to say, a child. Quentin’s poetic apprehension makes him capable of detecting and articulating perceptions that exceed and distort what adults might accept as normal; he can remark upon the sound that Nancy makes, call it “not singing and not unsinging,” in a way that would be impossible for an adult whose perception of blacks has been fully informed by a lifetime of prejudice. The children’s innocence, already in doubt in the case of Jason (“I ain’t a nigger”), serves as the perfect contrast to reveal the cruel indifference of their parents to Nancy’s plight, and, more broadly, the horrific strangeness of collective oppression, here filtered through the senses of a young child.
As always, the story’s title deserves our attention. Here the allusion is quite clear. It’s lifted from the famous St. Louis Blues, and its first stanza:
I hate to see that evening sun go down
‘Cause my lovin’ baby done left this town
Obviously the reference is presented as an ironic commentary on Nancy’s situation. Her fear of the dark is not due to the loneliness that comes from a missing love. Quite the contrary: Jesus, whose name should also give us plenty to talk about, is preparing to return, much to Nancy’s dismay. But beyond this, there is another interesting corollary in regard to the title, one drawn from the text itself. As Nancy makes a noise the night she sleeps in the children’s room, Quentin remarks that it was impossible to recognize as a known word, and sounded as if no one had made it, as if “it came from nowhere and went nowhere, until it was like Nancy was not there at all; that I had looked so hard at her eyes on the stairs that they had got printed on my eyeballs, like the sun does when you have closed your eyes and there is no sun.”
I would like to address the question of what a “nigger” (fully accepting the horrible weight of that term, as I believe this story does, and well) is in the context of this story in our next session, giving the excerpt above some special attention. Let us remember, as we ask ourselves these and other questions, that a child is taught to say a thing before he or she really understands its meaning. I think this story is Quentin’s attempt at understanding what the word “nigger” means, and what using it says about himself, his family, and his world.