That Evening Sun Nancy Analysis Essay

Narrating racial identity and transgression in Faulkner's "that evening sun".

Article Type:

Critical essay


Ethnicity (Analysis)


Bollinger, Laurel


Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139


Date: Spring, 2012 Source Volume: 39 Source Issue: 2


NamedWork: That Evening Sun (Short story)


Named Person: Faulkner, William


Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:


Full Text:

Critical responses to Faulkner's "That Evening Sun" often assume the story deals not with its central black figure, Nancy; but with the developing sensitivities of the white narrating children. Such a reading implicity confirms Toni Morrison's identification of a suppressed "Africanist" presence in the work of white writers. Yet in contrast to Morrison's claims, readers tend not to accept the suppression of Nancy's story, but to be frustrated by its lack of resolution. Close examination of the story's structure and revision history suggests that Faulkner creates such frustration through an opening that establishes Nancy as a figure of transgressive power, and then traces the shifting locus of power that silences her in favor of the white children, with revisions accentuating both her initial position and her eventual voicelessness. The story thus both reflects the the era's silencing of black voices, and resists that silencing through creating readerly discomfort with its implementation.

Although among Faulkner's most frequently anthologized stories, "That Evening Sun" represents a special challenge for both scholars and students. The story, narrated by Quentin Compson, describes the situation of the Compson family's substitute cook, Nancy, whose husband Jesus may or may not intend to kill her--a threat that remains unresolved by the story's conclusion. Indeed, the story ends as the Compson family walks away, leaving Nancy alone in her home awaiting the death she believes to be imminent, with no indication from Quentin about what actually happens to her. While the story is often praised as perhaps Faulkner's best, such lack of resolution where Nancy is concerned frustrates experienced and novice readers alike; even critical responses to the story have often centered on efforts to solve the mystery of Nancy's fate, and alongside it the mystery of the story's central focus. (1)

One pattern of response has been to argue that by resisting an ending that resolves Nancy's situation--indeed, by editing out an early paragraph that more explicitly implied an outcome--Faulkner produces a story that turns less on Nancy as an individual than on Nancy as the object against which the subjectivities of the white children develop. Indeed, for critics such as Fdmund Volpe, the development of Quentin's interpretive sophistication becomes the story's meaning, with Nancy as the catalyst for Quentin's development; Volpe argues that "Faulkner focuses upon an image of Nancy and Quentin's reaction to that image to dramatize [Quentin's] increasing consciousness" (2004, 79). Hans Skei would concur; describing Faulkner's revision process, he insists that "[f]rom being primarily Nancys story, it becomes much more the narrator's story, and, by implication, the Compson family's story" (1999, 179). Such interpretations, whether explicitly or imphcitly, connect Faulkner's story with what foni Morrison sees as an inherent element of an "Africanist" presence in white fiction; in words she writes about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but which also apply to "That Fvening Sun," the text "may indeed be 'great' because in its structure, in the hell it puts its readers through at the end, the frontal debate it forces, it simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom" (1992, 57), and by extension white identity That is, if Faulkner's story deals primarily with the development of the Compson children's identities, then Nancy's story is incidental, and its lack of resolution may reflect broader literary patterns in which white writers figure blackness only as a component in the construction of whiteness.

Morrison's paradigm offers an avenue into understanding Nancy's structural absence from the ending, but cannot address our readerly frustration with that absence. Indeed, Morrison's exploration of such a submerged Africanist presence assumes that the use of blackness as integral to whiteness depends at some level on the supplementary quality of blackness for white writers. I luck can gallivant along the shore, for instance, while Jim is submerged in the swamp awaiting I luck's departure from the Grangerfords or lies abandoned on the raft as a "sick Arab " a pattern that culminates in Jim s subordinate role in the conclusion's "evasion" sequence. Jim functions at Fluck's convenience, rather than as a wholly-realized self whose circumstances must also be taken fully and fairly into account. And significantly the novels conclusion all but overlooks his needs--his wife and children still in slavery--in its celebratory evocation of Fluck's future plans. In contrast, I will argue that in "That livening Sun," Nancy remains so central to the story's focus that her disappearance from the end does not confirm comfortable white stereotypes so much as induce readerly discomfort. Indeed, it requires critical sleight-of-hand to redirect us toward the Compsons. And arguably, this reading is borne out by the fact that many readers and critics side with Dirk Kuyk, Betty Kuyk, and Andrew Miller, who argue that "[cjritics today should try to see the story as it must have been for the readers for whom Faulkner wrote it--as Nancy's story" (1986, 38). Recent attention to the text as "Nancy's story" has explored its evocation of the Blues, sometimes positing Nancy as an embodiment of a Blues experience or even of a Blues consciousness (see Gartner 1996, Peek 2004, and Gussow 2002). While such readings offer productive insights into the story, and certainly return the focus to Nancy by highlighting her vulnerability and the Compsons' response (or lack of response) to it, this approach is less able to address the structural problem of an ending that excludes her.

To address that structural element, we need to look at the story differently. Critics and readers have tended to see the story as a single unit, and thus to generalize Nancy's powerlessness and terror at the end across the text as a whole. If instead we see the story as a series of discrete but interrelated units, we can recognize that the story actually opens with Nancy as a powerful figure who threatens to disrupt white male hegemony. Similarly, the children's role in the narrative shifts, section by section, from baffled powerlessness to the reassertion of authority through their move into the conventional modes of identity their world establishes for them. Far from constructing a single vision, then, Faulkner's masterfully subtle double structure permits both stories--Nancys and the children's (including Quentin's)--to intersect and balance against one another despite their opposing trajectories. Nancy begins the story with transgressive force, but ends by being silenced; the Compson children, on the other hand, struggle to position themselves in a world bifurcated by race and gender, and to articulate the story's final words. By recognizing this dual structure, we can see how carefully "That Evening Sun" enacts the two conflicting attempts at subject development, while revealing the effect of white hegemony on both Nancy and the children. Such a reading allows us to make use of the insights we glean from explaining Nancy's absence from the conclusion without relegating her to a supplementary role that cannot account for the readerly experience of her centrality to the majority of the story's action.

The process by which Faulkner comes to the innovation of this double structure is complex, as the story exists in four separate iterations with different structural elements, granting us unusual access into Faulkner's compositional method.2 Four different versions are extant: an early draft manuscript of six pages entitled "Never Done No Weeping When You Win ted to Laugh," which was subsequently published in the Mississippi Quarterly in 1983; the typescript of "That Evening Sun Go Down" originally sent to H. L. Mencken, prompting him to request a series of revisions; the version published in American Mercury in 1931 with Mencken's editorial demands met; and the final form in These Thirteen that selects among Mencken's revisions, rejecting many and which is virtually identical to the story as it appears in Faulkner's Collected Stories (1977), the final version most frequently used in anthologies. Among other things, Mencken asked for a sexually suggestive conversation about watermelons and vines to be removed and for Nancy's husband not to be named Jesus, revisions Faulkner undid when his own editorial judgment regained priority3 While Mencken's "best editorial judgment" has been criticized for forcing Faulkner to compromise artistic integrity in order to avoid offending his audience, as Hans Skei notes, we must^not overlook the fact that Menken proposed a number of new paragraph divisions and added the roman numerals to arrange the story in sections" (1999, 179), divisions that Faulkner not only kept, but actually increased for the (Collected Stories version, adding in a sixth division near the end of the story. The divisions generally do not emerge out of gaps in narrative time. Rather, each section traces a step in the shift from a beginning, in which Nancy functions as a disruptive force, to an ending that reasserts the white male power structure, while simultaneously tracing the children's incipient efforts to chitn subject positions within that reassertion of control. Although the same basic movement of the story's emphasis appears even in the early fragmentary manuscript, the structural emphasis of the roman numerals offers clear stages in the discussion, revealing more clearly how the structure of the story participates in its construction of meaning. By examining the six sections of the final version, we can see how the structure of "That Evening Sun" reveals the story's doubled interrogation of power and identity.

In the story's first section, Nancys disruptive potential emerges at first rather subtly, in that Nancy refuses the story's construction of time--both time as controlled by the narrator, and as controlled by the figures within the story The story's opening paragraphs use references to time to establish the narrator's interpretive authority contrasting the narrator's present moment in the first paragraph ("Monday is no different from any other weekday") with the time of the story itself signaled by the second paragraph's "Bat fifteen years ago" (haulkner 1977, 289). (4) Such a passage of time constructs Quentin as a figure with sufficient distance and authority to render him an interpreter of the events he relates, a detail on which critics have hung their assertions that the story actually deals with his growth, rather than with the specific tale he tells The fact that the initial manuscript does not include this retrospective introduction suggests a shift in Faulkner's plan for the story (1983, 462).

Nancys first appearance, however, resists the narrator's controlling understanding of time. We first see her followed by children amazed at her ability to keep laundry balanced on her head even as she crawls under a fence, her "high, sad face sunken a little where her teeth were missing" (Faulkner 1977,290). But the missing teeth complicate the event's placement in time, because she loses the teeth two episodes later in the narrative when, on her way to jail and already visibly pregnant, she suffers Mr. Stovall s attack. While the loss of teeth is anchored to a specific textual moment in all iterations of the story, Faulkner evidently revised the extent to which Nancy's pregnancy would be visible several times before settling on the version in the Collected Stories, where her pregnant belly is "already swelling out a little, like a balloon" by the time she reaches the jail (1977, 292). In the initial manuscript edition, the pregnancy has already been highlighted several times by this point in the story, making chronology even less clear, although all references to the pregnancy are withheld in the American Mercury version until the conversation where the watermelon (but not the vine) is mentioned. In the Collected Stories version, the "Httle balloon" becomes a "watermelon" a paragraph later, as if tracing the development of the pregnancy itself, but this shift also complicates our ability to identify when Mr. Stovall's attack occurs relative to the initial description of Nancy carrying laundry with her teeth already missing. Faulkner's revisions thus unmoor Nancy from the narrative's chronology, a matter already explored in the earliest extant manuscript. Does the episode where the children follow her occur after the attack but before she assumes the role she plays in much of the story as the Compson family's substitute cook? If so, do they simply not notice her pregnancy, which is surely advancing? Or does this episode occur after the story's ending, perhaps providing an answer to her fate? Although the rest of the story appears in roughly chronological order, the moment of Nancy's first appearance floats like the laundry itself, "steady as a rock or a balloon" (1977, 290), with no anchor to the narratives structuring time sense. The initial description thus emerges in conflict with the narrator's presumed chronological authority, and so constructs Nancy as a disruptive force for the process of narration.

Within the narrative, Nancy also contests authority over time.(5) Even when she substitutes for Dilsey as the Compsons' cook, Nancy insists that she will decide what time to arrive at the Compson household: '"I aint studying no breakfast,' Nancy said/I going to get my sleep out,'" a decision, that delays the children to the point where Quentin announces "it was too late for me to go to school" (Faulkner 1977,290-1). Her rejection of wrhite male time--for the children relay Mr. Compson's demand, saying "Father says its over half an hour now; and you've got to come this minute" (1977, 290)--thus reflects an inversion of Dilsey, whose kitchen she temporarily inhabits. In both the text and the critical literature addressing The Sound and the Fury, Dilsey functions to support and sustain patriarchal time, even when the family itself can no longer do so:"[W]hile [Dilsey] stood there the clock above the cupboard struck ten times. 'One oclock,' she said aloud" (Faulkner 1990,301). The Corapsoils' eventual degeneration renders even the clock in their kitchen unable to record time accurately but in her support of tbe final members of the Compson family, Dilsey remedies the clocks failure through what Radloff labels her connection to "the wholeness of times three dimensions" (1986, 57). By contrast, Nancy's refusal to abide by the demands of patriarchal time threatens the Compsons1 survival; her insistence on her own time-sense interrupts Quentin's capacity to move into the controlling position that his education would afford him, a matter evoked in the story but made clearer still by the extended focus on time and education in the Quentin section of The Sound and Vie Tury In the novel, Mr. Compson gives Quentin a watch as preparation for Quentin's studies at Harvard, its unbroken transmission from father to son for three generations suggesting a similar inheritance of white patriarchal authority. In the story, however, it is not Quentin's but Nancy's "studying" that takes priority, all but laying claim to the authoritative position Quentin should be preparing to occupy while simultaneously denying him access to that position. Nancy's refusal to comply with a white male construction of time thus threatens the transmission of power both as narration and as social authority

Beyond her connection to time, a more obvious construction of Nancy's disruptive force emerges in her rejection of Jefferson's hierarchy of social authority in that she refuses the position of silence and compliance expected from a person of her race and gender. This refusal is particularly evident in her response to Mr. Stovall, "a cashier in the bank and a deacon in the Baptist church" (Faulkner 1977, 291), whose over determined position relative to money and religion makes him an iconic figure of white male authority. By publicly challenging him for payment, Nancy gives voice to the unspeakable sexual relations they have presumably shared, and is therefore met with violent reaction, wherein Stovall "knockfs] her down" and "kick[s] her in the mouth with his heel" (1977, 291). This reaction connects closely with what Adam Gussow characterizes as "disciplinary violence," the violence intended to "terrorize black southerners, particularly men, into submitting to an emergent system of racial segregation and remaining a captive and exploited source of agricultural [or for women, domestic] labor" (2002, 3-5). (6) Yet even the violence reveals her disruptive capacity; the marshal is forced to extend to her the protection he ostensibly offers the white community, as he "caught Mr. Stovall back" to stop the attack (1977, 291). Moreover, the violence fails to subdue her; Nancy laughs even as she spits out teeth, suggesting her refusal to be cowed even by the physical violence she has endured. Indeed, in the manuscript fragment we can see that Faulkner works to enhance that perception, as he adds in 'laughing" above the original line (1983,263), presumably to clarify that her lying in the street is not to be understood as a moment of defeat. Her resistance to control is accentuated when her loud unruly behavior continues in the jail meant to enforce her compliance. Elsewhere in the section she resists other forms of social control as well: she taunts her husband Jesus with her own infidelity, but offers murderous violence in response to the infidelity Mr. Compson imagines her husband committing; and she usurps Mrs. Compson's expectation of Mr. Compson's paternalistic protection--"You'll leave these children unprotected, with that Negro about?" (1977,294)--by soliciting his presence as bulwark against the threat Jesus comes to represent. Bank, church, jail, marriage: Nancy cannot be contained by any of the institutions expected to silence her.

Her resistance to social control culminates in the indecipherability she presents to the narrative as a whole throughout the first section, and with that indecipherability comes an implicit evasion of definitional language. As Laurence Perrine explains, throughout "That Evening Sun" readers are offered only innuendo and possibility where Nancy is concerned, never certainty (Perrine 1985, 297). She evades the classifications society would impose upon her. The Compsons initially assume they understand why Nancy is tardy, saying "So we thought it was whisky until that day they arrested her again" (Faulkner 1977,291). But the "until" immediately negates their assumed interpretations, leaving only the implication that prostitution, and not alcoholism, is the real cause of her sleepiness. Yet just as the sentence itself offers a negation of presupposition rather than a positive statement of explanation, even her words, "When you going to pay me, white man? It's been three times now since you paid me a cent," can only hint at prostitution, given that the narrative has fixed her as a laundress who might reasonably demand payment for those services as well. After her arrest, the jailer too struggles to lock her into a specific definition, particularly after her suicide attempt, but his efforts offer only a provisional explanatory power based on racist presuppositions: he insists that the cause of her actions must be cocaine, because "a nigger full of cocaine wasn't a nigger any longer" (1977,291). This explanation highlights Nancys initial distance from the categories that seek to confine her; while her refusal of social categories might of course have led to drug use, the jailer has no evidence to support his claim other than his efforts to explain why she does not, in fact, fit into the category he expects. She both is and isn't defined by his racist term, so that his explanation signals the subordinate role he anticipates for her alongside her refusal of that role. Syntactically, both his and the Compsons' interpretive efforts are proposed and rejected almost simultaneously, so that Nancys resistance to definition extends beyond the social problem she represents for the community and into the language of the narrative itself.

Nancy's disruptive function also challenges the story's narration. Her actions, and Mr. Stovalls response, take over the discourse of the town, in that "all that day they told about Nancy and Mr Stovall" and even the jailers efforts cannot silence her when she is imprisoned (Faulkner 1977, 291). Her sexual innuendos--telling her husband the "watermelon" under her dress "never come off of [his] vine"--challenge the boundaries of polite discourse in the presence of children (or elsewhere, as Menckens editorial demand that it be removed suggests). Yet she lays claim to propriety and protective white authority when she chooses to evade Jesus' threats of violence in response to her teasing, asking "You want Mr Jason to catch you hanging around his kitchen, talking that way before these chillen?" (292). And her voice disrupts both chronological sequence and narrative authority in the episode when the Compson family is gathered in the library, an episode in which she is not even present. When Mr. Compson goes to speak to her in the kitchen, her voice erupts into the conversation among the Compsons left in the library, explaining that Jesus has left her:

Nancys voice interrupts the discussion among the Compsons, insisting on her version of the story rather than permitting her story to be told for her, and again offering a challenge to the story's construction of time, in that we cannot identify when the exchange or Mr. Compson's response takes place. Her presence in the first section is thus invasive as well as transgressive, resisting the attempts of other characters, the narrator, or readers to achieve social or textual mastery over her.

The story's structure traces the shift of control from Nancy at the outset to the children at the conclusion; in the first section, Nancy is at her strongest while the children are at their weakest. Their relative power positions emerge through the story's emphasis on how bewildering the children find Nancy, with their role in the first section largely focused on efforts to understand her. Laurence Perrine establishes twenty-one specific questions the story raises without resolving, and while the questions span the entire story, some sixteen of them are evoked in the first section (1985,297). In each case, the children are the ones who raise the issue, sometimes simply through Quentins often-baffled narration, but sometimes through the children asking Nancy or other adults direct questions and not receiving answers. Indeed, out of approximately fourteen sentences the children address directly to Nancy in the first section, nine are constructed as questions, and three others imply questions that Nancy generally ignores; the other two relay commands from the adults, which Nancy also ignores. The syntax itself, then, reflects the children's confusion as well as their inability to resolve that confusion, establishing their inverse relation to Nancy's transgressive authority.

If the first section depends upon Nancy evading attempts to define her while highlighting the children's lack of explanatory ability, the second section begins the process of refusing Nancy the power her transgression seeks to claim although not yet empowering the children. While the section introduces Nancy's vulnerability to her husband's murderous violence, she still holds sufficient power to define herself, both in terms of physical space and language. In terms of space, Nancy shifts her location from her house, where she is wholly unprotected, first to a pallet in the Compson's kitchen, where Mr. Compson brandishes a pistol to maintain her safety, and then to a pallet in the children's bedroom. Here she is ostensihly defended by the full force of the Compson family and even of white society, given that such force would be marshaled in defense of the children. Her fear, which conflates the danger represented by her husband with a more metaphysical threat, does not offer the children clarity regarding the risks she faces; they cannot label her moans--"it was like singing and it wasn't like singing" (Faulkner 1977, 296) (7)--and they cannot distinguish between the two possible meanings of her cries of "Jesus"; Quentin insists that "It's the other Jesus she means," while Caddy assumes her husband Jesus' attempts to "come into the kitchen" sent Nancy upstairs (1977, 296-7). Yet even as Nancy must rely on white intervention for her physical safety, her assertions of authority over interpretation remain powerful. As Caddy attempts to pin down the exact nature of the threat ("What tried to get in?"), Nancy's response ("God knows") maintains the ambiguity of the referent of "Jesus'" by invoking a theological linguistic register. The economical clause expresses certainty and uncertainty simultaneously. When Nancy insists that "God knows" she "aint nothing but a nigger," and can thus be presumed to be helpless, it functions as an expression of the divine certainty of her discmpowerment. By contrast, when Caddy asks for a precise identification of the threat in the kitchen, Nancys "God knows" instead expresses uncertainty, establishing the utterly unknowable quality of that threat. Yet in speaking to Dilsey about Jesus'plans, Nancy insists that "1 know ... 1 know what he is fixing to do before he know it himself" laying claim to near-omniscience in pinpointing an action before the actor himself has decided upon it--a certainty her earlier "God knows" suggested was a divine prerogative (1977, 297). Indeed, the parallel syntax between these two clauses ("God knows" and "I know") suggests a parallel in knowledge.

Fraced with such a profound claim to authority, five-year-old Jason responds with an attempt to define Nancy in a way that might reduce her disruptive potential. His efforts center on race. In what becomes a litany of definition, he readily classifies himself, Jesus, and Dilsey, but stumbles where Nancy is concerned: "'I aint a nigger,' Jason said. 'Are you a nigger, Nancy?'" (Faulkner 1977, 298). In raising the question rather than simply designating her identity, as he does with the other figures, Jason gives voice to Nancy's uncertain status, in that she does not smoothly fit the categories he has identified. Significantly, in the first manuscript version of the story Jason had simply designated her identity; suggesting that Faulkner's final draft deliberately accentuates Nancy's insistence on self-definition (1983, 469). In her reply; Nancy both resists the category and returns the discussion to a theological register;"I hellborn, child" (1977, 298).8 Jason s efforts at establishing a binary opposition of racial categories invokes the claim to interpretive authority implicit in his eventual position as an adult white male, and Nancy's rejection of his term in favor of a third possibility he has not envisioned suggests that her disruptive potential remains considerable, even as the narrative shows us the threat--both to Nancy's identity as self-defined and to her existence itself--that the story's world offers. Yet Jason, whose youth suggests an early exploration of racial difference and its significance, seeks as much to understand as to control.9 I le seeks clarity about his own identity even as his doing so threatens Nancy's self-construction, particularly given the overdetermined quality of his terminology in the era and region Faulkner describes. Indeed, within the context of the story, the word "nigger" first appears in the mouth of the jailer, and so is structurally tied to disciplinary violence in its attempts to control black identity in general and Nancy in particular. While Jason's efforts to assert definitional control fail in this second section, the tools that will silence Nancy are clearly being deployed. But the story's immediate break at that point suggests too the disruptive potential of Nancy's refusal of the binarism that Jason (and Jefferson alongside him) envisions. In fact, Faulkner's revisions to the story accentuate the force of her definitional shift. His first manuscript version offers the "hellborn" term ("hell-born" in the manuscript and the American Adercury) at the beginning of a paragraph describing her drinking coffee; but by placing her words at the end of a paragraph, Faulkner increases their disruptive potential. The section break only enhances what the paragraph break already implied: narrative itself stops when the social categories are refused. Nancy's refusal to be interpreted interrupts the children's efforts at self-definition, although the force of the racial construction Jason offers also threatens Nancy's ability to maintain her authoritative interpretive stance.

The story's third section offers a more uneasy balance between Nancy's authority and the children's quest for identity, as the structure of the story begins to shift the locus of power from Nancy to the children. Faced with the absence of white protective authority when Mr. Cornpson (at his wife's insistence) refuses to continue accompanying Nancy home, even though both Mr. Cornpson and Nancy recognize that telephoning the marshal cannot keep her safe, Nancy is left to envision an alternative form of protection. She knows, as she and Dilsey agree, that the protection must come from the white world to be effective against Jesus. Even as Jason continues his queries about race, the confusing situation leads to questions about gender for Caddy. The first questions she enunciates in the section ask if the dynamic she sees between Nancy and Jesus offers insight beyond its apparent participants:"' Why is Nancy afraid of Jesus?' caddy said. 'Are you afraid of father, mother?'" (Faulkner 1977, 299). Her question, with its pointed inquiry into male-female dynamics, extends the section's exploration of identity to the relation between gender and power and powerlessness. Nancy, who has lost white male protection, persuades the children to come to her house while evoking an imaginary Mr. Cornpson for at least the illusion of safety. Knowing that the waiting Jesus would readily believe the children's father accompanies them, Nancy speaks as if to the attending white man, hoping at least to forestall Jesus' attack through the power of that imaginary presence. Indeed, if we accept Gussows assertion that disciplinary violence was deployed largely against black men, then Nancys initial position as subject to disciplinary violence aligned her with masculinity; but as the story shifts its focus to domestic violence, Nancy is instead aligned with femininity, given that women are traditionally constructed as the primary victims of domestic violence. The story thus repositions her from threatening definitional categories step by step into occupying categories where she is primarily subject to threat, and where she can only appeal to an imaginary protector across the lines of race and gender.

The texts exploration of gender and authority continues once Nancy reaches her house, where she struggles to retain the children's interest and thereby their protective presence through storytelling, refraining her own story as if its central figure were a queen rather than a washerwoman. But the powerful figure who laughed at attempts to control her at the story's outset has been vacated; the Nancy who remains is frighteningly absent, as Quentin observes: "it was like she had emptied her eyes, like she had quit using them ... she talked like her eyes looked, like her eyes watching us and her voice talking to us did not belong to her" (Faulkner 1977, 302). And likewise her story is unpersuasive. Caddy recognizes the disparity between the claim to power implicit in the notion of a queen and the evident lack of power in the social conditions that might require a woman to bar the door, or the economic conditions that make crossing a ditch part of the journey. This is particularly true given the implicit connection between race and class the ditch produces, since in Jefferson a ditch separates the white from the black communities. Indeed, Faulkner's revisions between versions center Caddy's interpretation on gender and power rather than on the figures in the story. Caddy's questions m the American Mercury version are about "the queen," the specific character in the story Nancy has told (Faulkner 1931, 264); but in the final version, her question instead uses the indefinite article, signaling Caddys disbelief in the premise itself: "Why did a queen want to go into a ditch?" (Faulkner 1977, 302). Moreover, the first published edition answers the query strictly in terms of location: the queen "had to cross that ditch to get home" (1931, 264). In the final revision, however, Nancy's reply also stresses the threatened violence:

Nancy's story inadvertently constructs the impossibility of the overlapping subject positions of power, race, and gender, and Caddy's pointed questions reveal die contradictions. The section break, which immediately follows Caddys question, here works to accentuate the degree to which such faulty overlaps stop narrative completely both Nancy's attempts to narrate, which will not be continued, and. at least briefly, Faulkner's own.

The fourth section continues the disempowerment of Nancy while beginning to establish the children's authority as representatives of the white world. Nancy makes increasingly desperate efforts to retain the children's interest, knowing that her safety depends upon their continued attention since her imaginary protector emerges from their presence. But the power dynamics have clearly shifted. Just as the story of a queen failed at the end of the third section, Nancy's attempts to entertain the children in the fourth section also fail. First, the popcorn popper is broken, and then the popcorn is burned when Jason drops it into the fire. Even Nancy's physical self seems vacated, just as her voice was in section three: she burns her hand on the lamp and later in the fire without seeming to notice the pain until Caddy points it out to her. Rather than Nancy functioning as an at least provisional adult authority, the children take control, recognizing their increased power and using it against Nancy with a forcefulness unavailable to them earlier. Jason, for instance, had previously attempted to use manipulative behavior against his parents ("I'll stop [crying] if Dilsey will make a chocolate cake"), but his efforts failed, with violence evoked as the mechanism to shut him down: "father said he didn't know if Jason would get a chocolate cake or not, but he knew what Jason was going to get in about a minute" (Faulkner 1977, 299). But now Jason, who wall "want to go home again if Caddy holds the popper," and Caddy, who demands more popcorn when Jason burns the first batch, seem to hold Nancy's life in their hands with their casual demands for entertainment, held as threats against her urgent need for their protective presence (1977, 304). They are now the ones in control of the potential for violence, in that only their willing cooperation will hold violence at bay; and so they withhold their cooperation to enforce their will. While the text opened by highlighting Nancy's interpretive authority, by this section her interpretive power has been lost completely She is powerless to interpret not only her own physical sensations but historical time as well; as she attempts to invoke the children's support by pleading with them to stay based on their desires for entertainment ("You member how last time we had so much fun?"), Jason's words shut down both Nancy's appeals and the story's fourth section: "I didn't have fun, 'Jason said.' You hurt me. You put smoke in my eyes. I'm going to tell'" (1977,306).The silencing power of interpretation no longer rests with Nancy as it did in the second section, but with the children.

The fifth section demonstrates Nancys final loss of authority. Mr. Compson's arrival signals not her safety, but the final removal of her protection, despite her frantic (and only partly plausible, since it enters the narrative strictly through her words) assertion that she has found "the sign" from Jesus, "a hog-bone, with blood meat still on it," which she understands as signaling his intent to kill her (Faulkner 1977, 307).10 Mr. Compson now dismisses her concerns. While his original protection seemed to have been offered out of a sense of obligation predicated on his status as a white man and at least took seriously her claims to be in danger, he now proposes to pass Nancy over to Aunt Rachel, the elderly black woman who "sometimes ... said she was pews' mother] and sometimes ... said she wasn't any kin to Jesus,' and whose status lies at the opposite end of the social ladder from his own (1977, 294). In so doing, he effectively washes his hands of Nancy. While the offer to take Nancy to Aunt Rachel occurs in each of the versions, by the final version Faulkner has emphasized more fully the degree to which Mr. Compson rejects Nancys interpretation of her situation, as his response to her claim of impending death moves from the early drafts' silence to "Nonsense. You'll be the first thing I'll see in the kitchen tomorrow morning" (1977, 308). Nancy's reply can only challenge Mr. Compson's interpretation by also expunging her own: "You'll see what you'll see, I reckon ... But it will take the Lord to say what that will be" (308). Gone is the earlier section's powerful parallel between her own and a divine interpretive authority; she no longer has sufficient interpretive authority even to insist on her own danger, and by the sixth section, her agency is so minimized in the narrative that she won't so much as take action to bar the door against Jesus" arrival. Mr. Compson s appearance and his authoritative stance erase the transgressive selfhood Nancy constructed in defiance of white male authority at the narrative's outset, and she is thus so silenced that the story does not even give her a backward glance to discover if her interpretation of the threat was accurate.

Here too, Faulkner's revisions highlight the degree to which the story refuses to clarify Nancy's situation. The American Mercury edition continues without division from the fifth section to the story's end, and throughout that version the children and Mr. Compson continue to take seriously the threat represented by Jubah, the name Faulkner substituted for "Jesus" per Mencken's request. While walking home, Caddy demands to know more about Nancy and Jubah ("Why is Nancy scared of Jubah? What is Jubah going to do to her?") and the children go so far as to look into the ditch to see if he's there (Faulkner 1931, 267). However, in the final version of the story not only is the extended exchange about Jubah/Jesus removed, replaced with Caddys much more generic "What's going to happen?", but Mr. Compson instead dismisses Nancy's and the children's concern, insisting that Jesus "went away a long time ago" (Faulkner 1977, 309). Faulkner's revisions also downplay the danger Nancy faces. Once the Conipsons have crossed the ditch back into the white world in the American Mercury edition, Quentin notes that they were "walking out of Nancy's life. Then her life was sitting there with the door open and the lamp lit, waiting, and the ditch between us and us going on, the white people going on, dividing the impinged lives of us and Nancy" (1931, 267). "The echoing refrain about Nancy's "life" insists that Nancys survival is at stake; by eliminating that language or any additional acknowledgement of Jesus as a dangerous presence from the final version, Faulkner removes any clarity regarding Nancy's fate. Indeed, Nancy's expression of interpretive powerlessness ends the fifth section, and in the sixth section her final words in the story assert her helplessness before physical and linguistic violence alike: "'I just done got tired,' she said/I just a nigger. It ain't no fault of mine"' (1977, 309). It is as if the struggle for attention and agency has become too difficult to sustain in the face of white privilege, asserted by the children and Mr. Compson both.

The lack of resolution where Nancy is concerned replicates the themat-ics of the story as a whole, where a black woman's agency could only be eradicated through violence--be that Mr. Stovall's actual disciplinary violence or Jesus' threatened intimate/domestic violence. Ultimately, Nancy's transgression is effectively contained, with the story returning to the 'normalcy' implied to have existed before the text opened, in a kind of narrative violence that refuses her story. Categories are fixed and certain now; race and gender are returned to their former hierarchies.The one hint of transgressive agency lies in Caddys words; young Jason, repeating his insistence that he is "not a nigger," expects the categories of white and black to be permanently fixed, with white as the clear authoritative position. Caddy, like Nancy before her, rejects that binarism in favor of a third term, "tattletale," positioned below "nigger" on the hierarchical scale Jason has imagined: "'You're worse,' Caddy said, 'you are a tattletale. If something was to jump out, you'd be scairder than a nigger." But here, too, white male authority intervenes to silence the moment of disruption; Mr. Compson seeks to stop Caddys insults first by an appeal to her identity ("Caddy," he says), and then by the more forceful assertion of parental authority: "Candace" (Faulkner 1977, 309).

By its return not to Nancys possible murder, but to the children's vocal exploration of race, the story's ending suggests that the children's identity has been central all along. Their claim to white privilege allows them to ignore her story and the violence she may endure in favor of their own interests and comfort, as articulated in Quentin's question,"Who will do our washing now, Father?" (Faulkner 1977, 309). Nancy returns to the nameless, faceless, interchangeable washerwomen carting their bundles of laundry atop their heads, her momentary threat to white male hegemony eradicated--whether or not we are to assume the threat of violence was real. The children have lost interest; the story follows their gaze. Nancy can no longer command their attention, nor Quentin's as our narrator. His opening insistence that the story took place fifteen years earlier precludes any assumption that the story's immediacy prevents us from knowing, because Jesus' arrival or lack of arrival happens in the narrative's future--the outcome is certain, but the story simply does not bother to say The story allows the Compsons to retreat into the conspiracy of silence that long masked black-on-black violence, 'intimate' and domestic alike--a silence dictated by the notion that what does not apply to white men does not have the 'universal' appeal that makes it worth recounting. The silence about Nancy's fate thus becomes emblematic of societal exertions of white privilege, which refused to grant audience to black and female stories.

Faulkner's revisions across the multiple versions of the story reveal how deliberately he creates the double structure the story employs, and with it the story's shift of attention away from Nancy and into silence. His early revisions in the first section tend to enhance our understanding of Nancy's powerful, transgressive position, where subtle changes in the first manuscript version demonstrate his intent that we not mistake Nancy's vulnerability to violence as a signal of her defeat. While revisions throughout the versions clarify the gradual shift in authority he enacts, the revisions in the final section are the most extensive, deliberately obscuring our ability to imagine what happens to Nancy and shifting our attention to the children, whose authority has gradually increased across the last few sections of the story. But frustration with that silence about Nancy's fate becomes the story's subtle way of calling upon its (presumably white) original readers not to continue to objectify others on the basis of race; by raising our interests and yet refusing to answer our desire to know what happens to Nancy the story asks us to rise above the limiting definitions Jason, sitting atop his fathers shoulders, would impose on the world he inhabits. Faulkner leaves us dissatisfied, and through that dissatisfaction reminds us that Quentin must learn to listen to Nancys story for its own sake, and no longer use her story simply as an avenue into the story of his own family and their emerging identities.

In this sense, "That hvening Sun" both does and does not conform to Toni Morrison's paradigm for understanding an Africanist presence in white fictions; the story registers the way white identity requires the submerged black figure, but refuses to submerge that figure fully and so calls attention to the very dynamic of such submergence, and its construction of black pow-erlessness, through our frustration with the story's lack of resolution for Nancy. For gender, the call is less clear, just as it is in the novel that engages these same figures: is Caddy! silence in The Sound and the Fury an evasion of the controlling narratives of her brothers and thus a triumph? Or is she so objectified that she cannot be figured with a voice, but only as an image--the muddy drawers her brothers watch, or the magazine photograph that constitutes her presence m the Appendix? Similarly in this story, is Caddy's evocation of a third term in her debate with Jason a sign that she, at least, can imagine a way to evade the binarism that would disempower her, or is she simply finding another avenue into the excluded middle where Nancy resides, thus making an inevitable move into the silence of voicelessness? Such a discussion ranges beyond what we can glean through careful examination of the structure and development of one Faulkner story. But for at least the failure to tell Nancy's story, the structure offers a clear explanation: for the world Nancy inhabits, her story is too disruptive to have the final word. Narrative and identity themselves depend upon her being silenced, in a pattern that replicates the silencing force of the culture and moment Faulkner describes. By forcing us to leave the story with our central questions unanswered, Faulkner's story calls upon us to recognize and at least in part to resist just such silencing gestures.


I would like to thank my Spring 2009 graduate class Studies in American Literature since 1865, who asked the right questions; the students in my 2009 Faulkner course, for letting me explore this interpretation with them; and D. S. Neff, who has been invaluable as a first reader.

(1.) Pertine offers an extensive list of critics pre-1985 who engage with this issue, divided into those critics who insist that Nancy is killed, those who insist she is not, and a much smaller cohort of those who argue for indeterminacy. While more recent critics have turned their attention to other matters, the problem of Nancy's uncertain fate continues to be present in most critical engagements with the story.

(2.) Many critics have compared the versions, sometimes extensively. For an early examination, see Pearson, who first discussed the Yale manuscript edition. Once Mencken's letters became available and the original typescript could be reviewed, Manglaviti reviewed the changes. Most critics since that point have offered at least passing observations about the revisions between versions.

(3.) See Manglaviti for Mencken's original letter to Faulkner accepting the story but mandating revisions, with Mencken telling Faulkner: "I hesitate extremely to make such suggestions to a writer of your skill, but such is my best editorial judgment" (1972, 651).

(4.) As critics routinely observe, the second paragraph's "fifteen years ago" offers a strangely implausible time marker; Quentin later tells us he is nine, so that the fifteen years extends beyond the moment of his suicide in The Sound and the Fury. Mowever, the story's own logic does not depend upon our understanding of Quentin s role in the novel, and critics have increasingly recognized the importance of responding to the text on its own terms rather than strictly as an episode directly linked to the novel--although, as Towner and Carothers note,"[t]o what extent and in what ways we ought to read Nancy, Quentin, and the others as 'the same' from appearance to appearance ... remain issues open for debate" (2006,151). I will treat the characters as standing alone, although I will use references to The Sound and The Fury to clarify thematic overlaps.

(5.) The issue of time has special relevance, given the story s connection to The Sound and The Fury, where time has been subject to discussion throughout the novels reception, beginning with Jean-Paul Sartre's 1947 review, "On The Sound and the Fury: in the Work of Faulkner" (1994).

(6.) Gussow discusses violence in the context of examining the Blues, which he sees as also engaging two additional forms of violence: "retributive vialence," where-in ih%"badniaii'1 tradition seeks to respond to and resist white disciplinary violence, and "intimate violence " the black-on-black violence that he suggests counters the loss of value of the black body in the post-bellum south; intimate violence "both real 'cutting and shooting' and symbolic mayhem threatened and celebrated in song and story--was an essential, if sometimes destructive way, in which black southern blues people articulated their some bodmess, insisted on their indelible individuality" (2002, 3-5). Gussow s article on "That livening Sun" characterizes Nancy as a "hlueswoman," whose response to violence plays out the images of violence the Blues recounts (2007). Intimate and disciplinary violence are both central to the story, although the gendered nature of the specific expression of intimate violence makes "domestic violence" seem to me to be a more specific term; it is Nancys lover/husband who threatens her with intimate violence, after all, of the "real 'cutting and shooting'" variety.

(7.) I am here assuming that the sound, mid-way between music and crying, is a Sift of moan. Peek suggests instead that the sound is Nancy singing the Blues, where the atonal quality of her singing may not be readily identifiable by the children as music, given their presumed familiarity with more European musical forms. In either case, as he notes, the failure to label her sounds highlights the children's lack of understanding of Nancy or her situation and the distance between their experiences (2004,137-8).

(8.) In the manuscript version, the problem centers on color; Caddy informs Jason that "all people who are black are niggers, I to which Jason objects "Nancy's not black ... shes brown" (Faulkner 1983, 469). Such a discussion implies that Nancy may be biraeial, but the lack of such a discussion in the final version precludes depending upon such status to explain Jason's uncertainty liven if we understand her to be biracial, that condition also positions her as a third term in a society centered on race as, I matter of binary opposition, although such an assessment would complicate her self-definition as "hgllhoril."

(9.) Here, Faulkner explores the discovery of racial identity very much in keeping with the mechanism by which, as recent psychological research suggests, white children come to explain the significance of racial difference. In fact, Bronson and Mcrrynnn report recent studies suggesting that white families in the United States generally resist discussing race overtly, even when their intention is to foster racial equality. For example, they are more likely to offer generalizations such as ueverybody's equal" that do not actually clarify racial difference for their puzzled children, who--like all children--appear to be "developmentally prone to in-group favoritism" (Bronson and Merryman 2009, 63, 53). In one study, some white parents refused outright to participate in direct conversations about race with their children, even after having agreed to participate in a study of children's racial perceptions (49). Contemporary nonwhite families in the United States tend to discuss race more explicitly, at a rate almost three times higher than white families, and often in a "preparation-for-bias" model emerging as a response to discriminatory experiences (52, 64)--a matter surely more urgent in the world Faulkner recalls for us, dominated by Jim Crow laws and lynchings. But even for a white child in the pre-Civil Rights South, five seems a plausible age for Jason to first begin interrogating his elders about the significance of race as a visual construct. As Bronson and Merryman explain, "[c]hildren are not passive absorbers of knowledge; rather they are active constructors of concepts.... the brain's need for categories to fit perfectly is even stronger at age seven than at age five, so ... [t]o a parent it can seem as it the child is getting worse at understanding a diverse world, not better" (62). Faulkner's later oeuvre. includes careful explorations of the discovery of whiteness in characters such as seven-year-old Roth in his 1942 novel Go Down, Moses, which is described as a moment when "the old curse of his fathers, the old haughty-ancestral pride based not on any value but on an accident of geography ... descended to him," a racial pride that permanently isolates him from his black foster family (1990b, 107). While Jason's parallel discovery of race is marked by his general unpleasantness--and perhaps marred by our inclination to read back into the character from his presence in The Sound and the Fury--his actual process of racial exploration very clearly reflects the mechanisms by which all children evidently seek clarity with regard to racial identity.

(10.) Again, we could use an understanding of the Blues to offer an alternate explanation; just as black music is inaudible to the children, this black sign is invisible to them. That it does not appear in our narrative may record its invisibility to Quentin as well.

Works Cited

Bronson, Po, and Ashley Merryman, 2009. NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. New York: Hachette.

Faulkner, William. 1931. "That Evening Sun Go Down." Vie American Mercury 22.87 (March): 257-67.

--. 1977. "That Evening Sun." In Collected Stories, edited by William Faulkner, 289-309. New York: Vintage.

--. 1983. "Never Done No Weeping When You Wanted to Laugh" Edited by Gail Moore Morrison. Mississippi Quarterly 36.3 (Summer): 461-81.

--. 1990a. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage.

--. 1990b. Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage.

Gartner, Carol B. 1996. "Faulkner in Context: Seeing That Evening Sun' through the Blues." Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 34.2 (Winter): 50-58.

Gussow, Adam. 2002. Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Vi&kme mi the Blues Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

--. 2007. "Plaintive Reiterations and Meaningless Strains: Faulkner's Blues Understandings." In Faulkner-s Inheritance: Imilkner and Yoknapataupha. Edited by Joseph R. Urgo and Ann J. Abaciie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Hampsey, John C. 1987. "Checking In on Time in The Sound and The Fury" The Arizona Quarterly 43.2:133-40.

Kuyk, Jr., Dirk, Betty M. Kuyk, and James A. Miller. 1986."Black Culture in William Faulkner's 'That Evening Sun.' "Journal of the American South 20; 33-50.

ManglavitL Leo. 1972. "Faulkner's 'That Evening Sun' and Mencken s 'Best Editorial Judgment," American Literature 43.4 (January): 649-54.

Morrison. 'Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Witeness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pearson, Norman Holland. 1954."Faulkner'sThree Evening Suns." TheYale University Library Cazette 29 (January): 61-70.

Peek, Charles A. 2004. "That Evening Sun(g)': Blues Inscribing Black Space in White Stories,' Southern Quarterly: A Journal of Arts in the South 42.3: 130-50.

Perrine, Laurence. 1985. "That Evening Sun": A Skem of Uncertainties" Studies in Short Fiction 22.3 (Summer): 295-307.

Radloff, Bernhard. 1986. "The Unity of Time in 'The Sound and the fury" The Faulkner Journal 1.2: 56-68.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1994. "On 'The Sound and the F'ury. 'Yime in the Work of Faulkner." In 'The Sound and 'The Fury: Norton Critical Edition. 2nd ed. Edited by David Mintor. New York: Norton.

Skei Hans H. 1999. Reading Faulkner's Best Short Stories. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Towner, T'heresa ML, and James B. Carothers. 2006. Reading Faulkner: Collected Stories. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Volpe, Edmond. 2004. A Readers Guide to William Faulkner: The Short Stories. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Laurel Bollinger is Associate Professor of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Her research focuses on American Modernism, particularly Henry fames and William Faulkner"What is she doing?" mother said. [Quentin:] "She's not doing anything. She's through." "I'l1 go and see," father said. "Maybe she's waiting for Jesus to come and take her home," Caddy said. "Jesus is gone," I said. Saucy told us how one morning she woke up and Jesus was "He quit me" Saucy said. "Done gone to Memphis, I reckon. Dodging them city po-ikefor a while, I reckon." "And a good riddance,"father said. "l hope he stays there." "Nancys scaired of the dark "Jason said. "So are you," Caddy said. "I'm not," Jason said. "You, Candace!" mother said. Father came back. (Faulkner 1977, 293; emphasis added)

"To get to her house," Nancy said. She looked at us. "She had to cross the ditch to get into her house quick and bar the door" "Why did she want to go home and bar the door?" Caddy (Faulkner 1977, 302-303)

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That Evening Sun: Literary Analysis Essay

641 WordsApr 27th, 20123 Pages

“That Evening Sun” by William Faulkner is a good example of a great emotional turmoil transferred directly to the readers through the words of a narrator who does not seem to grasp the severity of the turmoil. It is a story of an African American laundress who lives in the fear of her common-law husband Jesus who suspects her of carrying a white man's child in her womb and seems hell bent on killing her.
Many critics refer to "That Evening Sun" as one of the finest examples of narrative point of view. The story is told by Quentin Compson, whose voice Faulkner utilizes at two distinct times in the boy's life. First, we have 24-year-old Quentin remembering a 15-year-old episode concerning Nancy's fear of Jesus. This introductory point of…show more content…

Throughout the short story several symbols appear. Mr. Stovell for example who is an illustration of 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. Stovell is representative of all the bad in the South, and how the White take advantage of the Blacks, and don't get punished for it; he represents both the wealthy and the religious.
Another symbol is certainly the way that Faulkner uses dark and light in the story. 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 come to fall upon her. When it is light she feels safer, but once the darkness hits, danger is represented. The title of "That Evening Sun" refers to a popular black spiritual that begins, "Lordy, how I hate to see that evening sun go down," which implies that once the sun sets, death is sure to follow.
In conclusion, William Faulkner’s stories deal with a plethora of human problems, while at the same time they focus on social conflicts and misunderstanding. In, “That Evening Sun” this can all be clearly seen, as he focuses on one of the most urgent problems of that

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