When it appeared in the American Mercury in March 1931, the editor, H. L. Mencken, prevailed on William Faulkner to make changes in “That Evening Sun” (then entitled “That Evening Sun Go Down”) to make it more palatable to the sensibilities of the magazine’s readers. To wit, Mencken objected to the name Jesus, for the lover of Nancy, the story’s protagonist, and to the explicit descriptions of Nancy’s pregnancy by Mr. Stoval, the white bank cashier and church deacon. Faulkner agreed to rename Jesus Jubal, and he removed the vine metaphor for Nancy’s pregnancy, but he balked at removing all references to it because Jesus’s knowledge of her condition is a critical factor in his motivation to murder her. When the story was republished in These Thirteen (1931), he restored the story to its original form and eliminated some explanation that he considered unnecessary in the final paragraph (Charters 423–424).
Despite the post–civil rights era in which readers now encounter this story, many find that it still has the power to produce shock and anger. The effect of the story derives in part from Nancy’s utter powerlessness as a black woman in the 1930s South, and in part from Faulkner’s narrative point of view. By filtering the tale through the consciousness of Quentin Compson, now 24 years old, but retelling the events as they occurred when he was nine; his sister, Caddy, was seven; and his brother, Jason, was five, Faulkner utilizes the technique of the uncomprehending and therefore unreliable narrator. Readers must fill in the gaps as Quentin recalls the social structure of the time. White men had all the power, black men had power only over black women, and thus for no other reason other than her color and gender, Nancy is doomed.
Despite—or perhaps because of—her hopeless position, Nancy demonstrates spirit when she publicly accuses Mr. Stoval of failing to pay her for the last three times he had sex with her. He responds by kicking her in the teeth, and the town marshal responds by putting her in jail, where Nancy, visibly pregnant with Stoval’s child, unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide. Later Nancy goes to work for the Compsons, and Quentin reports on a visit from Jesus, who articulates the black man’s frustration with his powerlessness when the white man can take his woman and his home. Jesus is a sympathetic figure at this point, but because he cannot vent his anger at its source—Mr. Stoval—he transfers it to Nancy. She knows Jesus will kill her and hopelessly declares to the naive children, “I ain’t nothing but a nigger. . . . It ain’t none of my fault” (434). Mrs. Compson selfishly ignores Nancy’s very real terror, and Mr. Compson, while mildly sympathetic, ultimately fails to protect her.
When Nancy tries to use the Compson children to protect her from Jesus, who she knows is somewhere nearby waiting to kill her, Faulkner renders her fear palpable. The children’s inability to understand her predicament makes it even more frustrating for the reader, who foresees her death but cannot reach into the story to stop it. Written by a white man from Mississippi, this horrifying story constitutes a powerful microcosm of the brutally unfair and unfeeling attitudes of southern whites toward southern blacks in the Mississippi of the early 20th century.
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Charters, Ann. “William Faulkner.” In Major Writers of Short Fiction: Stories and Commentary, edited by Ann Charters, 422–424. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.
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