“That Evening Sun” by William Faulkner is one of the best examples 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. The story is narrated by Quentin one of the three white children of a household where Nancy works and seeks shelter from her fears of being killed. Quentin, aged 9 does not comprehend why Nancy seems so terrified of her husband but somehow seems to understand the inevitability of her being killed. In a poignant instance of guileless cruelty of children, Quentin assumes that Nancy is sure to be killed and wonders with the childish selfishness as to who would do the family’s laundry.
The paralyzing terror of Nancy is brought forward by simple events where Nancy is put up at Quentin’s place and then when she convinces the children to accompany her to her house as she suspects her husband to be hiding in the darkness of the ditch outside her house waiting her to be alone, to kill her. As she fails to take adequate care of the children failing in seemingly trivial chores like reciting bed time stories and making popcorn for Quentin’s kid brother Jason, their father Mr.Compson takes his kids back home leaving Nancy sure that her husband would slit her throat with his razor.
Faulkner’s short story is filled with characters who do not do anything. The fear of a murder is created and then there are characters all of them denying to take any action to prevent the imminent murder. Nancy the African American maid capture by her helpless ness and fear and her white employers who do not want to inconvenience themselves even if it means letting a person die of horror or a horrifying death. The white children of the household, who are so enamored with themselves, that they fail to comprehend the enormity of Nancy’s fear. Jesus, the murderer in waiting who is convinced that he is wronged by his wife and more than her, by the existing social norms which allow a white man to rob him of his honor and his life.
The story, like many of Faulkner’s stories is set in the time period when equal rights was a utopian dream being pursued by the American society. The late nineteenth and the first half of twentieth century were witness to the racial tensions between black and white populations of America. The raw deal meted out to the colored population of America forms the setting for most of Faulkner’s angst-ridden stories that give expression to the daily fears of blacks – their oppressed state, their insecure future, their exploited present and a beleaguered past.
The title is itself a rich symbolism meant to refer to more than one source. The evening sun is perhaps a reference to the popular blues song by William Christopher Handy, though there is no mention of it. It is also part of a popular black spiritual number which goes “Lordy, how I hate to see that evening sun go down,” implying that death is sure to follow once the sun goes down and this song is referenced by Mr. handy in many of his radio interviews about the soulful singing in Memphis. The incident when the deacon at the Baptist church Mr. Stovall, a white kicks and knocks Nancy’s teeth out, it is a symbolism of the blacks being subjected to utter inhuman exploitation and being kicked in the mouth if they ever raise a voice in protest or to demand their just returns. Mr. Stovall is sure he would not be prosecuted even if he had failed to pay a cent to Nancy after sexually exploiting her more than twice and then kicks her in full public view because he was white and she was black.
The themes of “That Evening Sun is many layered. At the surface it touches upon the indifference of people to others’ fears and insecurities that they fail to comprehend. At a subtler level it deals with the habitual cruelty of society to several of its victims through sheer insensitivity. As usual, Faulkner successfully entwines the themes of racial discord and exploitation which recur in most of his writings. Though it is difficult to readers of this generation to not think of exaggeration, it is worth noting that most of Faulkner’s works including “That Evening Sun” aim to recreate the age of inequality which will serve as reminders for all future generations never to degenerate into such depths of cruelty through misguided notions of superiority of self or inferiority of others. It might not be entirely a coincidence that this work appears along with that other master piece of Faulkner “A rose for Emily” in his ominously titled 1931 collection “These 13.”