Nancy is portrayed as a vulnerable character in several ways throughout “That Evening Sun.” Due to the lack of civil rights for black people in this period, she has no one to defend her. As a woman, she is also physically more vulnerable to threats from men and, because she is poor, she is vulnerable in that she must make a living any way that she can—even this means undertaking a dangerous profession like prostitution. There is a sense of connection between Nancy’s vulnerability and that of the Compson children, who are fascinated by Nancy’s fear because, to an extent, they can relate to it; children are often scared of things like monsters hiding in the dark, and they view Nancy’s fear of Jesus in these terms—as though she is one of them, even though, because they are white, the Compson children can’t fully comprehend the depth of Nancy’s terror. Though her fear is often dismissed by other characters, the story suggests that it is entirely justified by highlighting Nancy’s helplessness in a town that has no sympathy for her. Racism, sexism, and poverty, the story argues, together make black women like Nancy some of the most vulnerable members of society.
The use of the name Jesus to represent a threatening character is a bit of irony by Faulkner, underscored when Nancy, terrified, calls out to “Jesus” in the middle of the night. Quentin points out that it is not her husband she is calling for but “the other Jesus”— Jesus Christ. Nancy professes that she is “hellborn,” and the idea that Jesus is coming for her—and that this something she should be afraid of—suggests Nancy’s belief in her own lack of salvation; Jesus coming for her is a frightening concept as he is coming to punish her, not save her. Nancy believes she is damned because this is how society has made her feel by failing to protect her.
When Nancy sleeps in the children’s bedroom they question her constantly about her fear of Jesus, failing to fully understand how it is different from their own fears. Caddy can see Nancy’s eyes, wide with fear, in the dark and treats this like a game, asking, “can you see our eyes too Nancy?” Although the children are titillated by Nancy’s fear, they are already beginning to understand that their society values patriarchal qualities like “bravery.” Caddy teases Jason about being scared and at one point tells him that he is “scardier than a nigger.” This accusation suggests the racial stereotype that black people are more cowardly than white people, which Caddy has obviously picked up from the adults around her. The fact that white adults think like this demonstrates the complete denial about how badly black people are treated in society, as white people don’t understand why black people should be afraid of mistreatment or prejudice.
The story’s ending again emphasizes the different vulnerabilities of white and black characters. Nancy encourages the children to come to her cabin, the implication being that having them there will offer her some semblance of protection because their social status is higher than hers; Nancy hopes that their presence will deter Jesus, as he would not dare hurt white children because of the consequences this would have for a black man. Although Jason is scared in Nancy’s house, the story ends with him riding on his father’s shoulders and announcing that he is “not a nigger.” When Caddy calls him a “scairy cat,” Mr. Compson defends Jason. This closing image suggests that, although Jason is vulnerable as a child, his status as an adult white man (represented here by his father) will protect him in future because, in the patriarchal and racist society they live in, he will be the most powerful type of person.
The story’s recurring metaphor of darkness, meanwhile, ironizes white people’s fear of black people, who, because of their “darkness,” who were often treated as criminals and thought of as threatening. This fear is not founded on anything genuine but simply on white people’s paranoia and racism. However, the fact that Nancy’s fear does seem to affect the young Quentin, who has not yet fully developed into his adult complacency and prejudice, suggests that there is something corrosive and frightening under the surface of society in Jefferson. Faulkner portrays racism itself as the true horror in “That Evening Sun.” The fact that Mr. Compson leaves Nancy unprotected when she is likely to be murdered suggests that white people should be afraid of the way they have treated black people. The sheer brutality and negligence shown towards Nancy in the story is part of the horror underlying southern culture and lurking, unacknowledged, on the conscience of the white people in Jefferson.
Fear and Vulnerability ThemeTracker
Fear and Vulnerability Quotes in That Evening Sun
When Dilsey was sick in her cabin and Nancy was cooking for us, we could see her apron swelling out; that was before father told Jesus to stay away from the house. Jesus was in the kitchen, sitting behind the stove, with his razor scar on his black face like a piece of dirty string. He said it was a watermelon that Nancy had under her dress.
“It never come off of your vine, though,” Nancy said.
“Off of what vine?” Caddy said.
“I can cut down the vine it did come off of,” Jesus said.
“What makes you want to talk like that before these chillen,” Nancy said […]
“I can’t hang around white man's kitchen,” Jesus said. “But white man can hang around mine.”
“Mother wants to know if you are through,” I said.
“Yes,” Nancy said. She looked at me. “I done finished.” She looked at me.
“What is it?” I said. “What is it?”
“I aint nothing but a nigger,” Nancy said. “It aint none of my fault.”
She looked at me, sitting in the chair before the cold stove, the sailor hat on her head. I went back to the library. It was the cold stove and all, when you think of a kitchen being warm and busy and cheerful. And with the cold stove and the dishes all put away, and nobody wanting to eat at that hour.
“You'll leave me alone, to take Nancy home?” mother said. “Is her safety more precious to you than mine!”
“I won’t be long," father said.
“You'll leave these children unprotected, with that Negro about?”
“I'm going too," Caddy said. “Let me go, Father.”
“What would he do with them, if he were unfortunate enough to have them?" father said.
“I want to go, too,” Jason said.
“Jason!” mother said. She was speaking to father. You could tell that by the way she said the name. Like she believed that all day father had been trying to think of doing the thing she wouldn't like the most and that she knew all the time that after a while he would think of it.
“Well, he's gone now,” father said.
“There's nothing for you to be afraid of now. And if you'd just let white men alone.”
“Let what white men alone?” Caddy said. “How let them alone?”
“He aint gone nowhere," Nancy said. "I can feel him. I can feel him now, in this lane. He hearing us talk, every word, hid somewhere, waiting. I aint seen him, and I aint going to see him again but once more, with that razor in his mouth. That razor on that string down his back, inside his shirt. And then I aint going to be even surprised.”
The floor was cold. Our toes curled away from it while we listened to the sound. It was like singing and it wasn't like singing like the sounds that Negroes make. Then it stopped and we heard father going down the back stairs, and we went to the head of the stairs. Then the sound began again, in the stairway, not loud, and we could see Nancy's eyes halfway up the stairs, against the wall. They looked like cat's eyes do, like a big cat against the wall, watching us.
Nancy whispered something. It was oh or no, I don’t know which. Like nobody had made it, like 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. “Jesus,” Nancy whispered. “Jesus.” “Was it Jesus?” Caddy said. “Did he try to come into the kitchen?” “Jesus” Nancy said. Like this: Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus, until the sound went out like a match or a candle does.
“Hush,” Nancy said. She was talking loud when we crossed the ditch and stooped through the fence where she used to stoop through with the clothes on her head. Then we came to her house. We were going fast then. She opened the door. The smell of the house was like the lamp and the smell of Nancy was like the wick, like they were waiting for one another to begin to smell. She lit the lamp and closed the door and put the bar up. Then she quit talking loud, looking at us […] There was something about Nancy's house; something you could smell besides Nancy and the house. Jason smelled it, even. “I don't want to stay here,” he said.
She came and sat in a chair before the hearth. There was a little fire there. Nancy built it up, when it was already hot inside. She built a good blaze. She told a story. She talked like her eyes looked, like her eyes watching us and her voice talking to us did not belong to her. Like she was, living somewhere else, waiting somewhere else. She was outside the cabin. Her voice was inside and the shape of her, the Nancy that could stoop under a barbed wire fence with a bundle of clothes balanced on her head as though without weight, like a balloon, was there. But that was all.
We left her sitting before the fire. “Come and put the bar up,” father said. But she didn't move. She didn't look at us again, sitting quietly there between the lamp and the fire. From some distance down the lane we could look back and see her through the open door. “What, Father?” Caddy said. “What’s going to happen?” “Nothing,” father said. Jason was on father's back, so Jason was the tallest of all of us. We went down into the ditch. I looked at it, quiet. I couldn't see much where the moonlight and the shadows tangled. “If Jesus is hid here, he can see us, cant he?” Caddy said. “He's not there,” father said. “He went away a long time ago.”