Though “That Evening Sun” is narrated from Quentin’s adult point of view, much of the story deals with the impressions left on the Compson siblings as children. Faulkner uses the naive perspective of the children to suggest that racial categorization itself is childish, and to criticize the nostalgic way in which many white people, including Quentin, came to view the south as black people won more rights in society. Although Quentin is a child when the events with Nancy take place, the adult Quentin narrating the story overlooks certain moments that cast the family’s treatment of Nancy in a negative light. Quentin’s unwillingness to criticize his family’s behavior extends into an unwillingness to criticize white society more generally, which undermines his nostalgic vision of the old south. Faulkner further rejects this vision as prejudiced and inaccurate through his use of the children’s ignorant perspective as a mouthpiece for racially bigoted views.
The story opens with Quentin looking back on his childhood and reminiscing about how Jefferson used to be. This comparison brings to light the modernization of the town and the changes in the status of black people in the south, which have improved since Quentin was a child. Yet it also suggests the rosy view with which Quentin views the south of his childhood, despite the stark racial divides he remembers. Quentin’s use of words like “ghostly” to describe the new telegraph poles, which have replaced the trees in Jefferson, suggests that he is unhappy with this modernization and longs for the old ways of life. The old ways of life, however, are only happy and nostalgic for Quentin because he is white; the black characters, like Nancy and Jesus, did not have happy lives in the old south because of the racial prejudice they faced.
That this does not trouble Quentin suggests that he still does not really comprehend his own racial bias. Describing the “city laundry,” which collects the clothes in “motorcars” and has replaced the black servants who used to do laundry when he was a child, Quentin remarks that “even the Negro women” now have cars. Quentin’s use of the word “even” suggests that, in Quentin’s mind, black people are still not equal to white people. By connecting this new way of doing laundry to the “bloodless” appearance of the town, Quentin suggests that modernization has sapped personality from Jefferson, while the black women carrying bundles of laundry like “cotton bales” remind him positively of his childhood. The reference to “cotton bales,” though a fond memory for Quentin, links directly to slavery and reminds the reader that the system that Quentin is nostalgic for was built on a history of subjugating its black citizens.
Although the reader can be critical of Quentin as an adult narrator, the Compson children’s perspective on the world is defined by their naivety and their inability to understand the implications of the adult events taking place around them. The children are frequently exposed to adult conversations which they do not understand, but which the reader does. For example, when Jesus says that Nancy has a “watermelon” under her dress, Caddy and Jason are confused; the reader recognizes that Jesus is referring to the fact that Nancy is pregnant.
Although the children do not understand the implications of everything they hear, they are exposed to extreme racial divides and prejudices by the white adults around them and come to view this social division as normal and proper. This reflects poorly on the white adults in the story, as Faulkner implicitly connects racism with a childish and simplistic view of the world. This is reinforced when Jason, the youngest Compson child, asks their black servant Dilsey if he “is a nigger.” Dilsey confirms that he is not, and, throughout the story, Jason repeatedly draws attention to the fact that he “is not a nigger” and points out the other characters who are black, emphasizing the difference between them and himself. This shows that, even from a very young age, the children are learning to segregate people into racial categories; racism is not something that a child is born with, but which they pick up from the adults and the society around them.
Although the white children’s attitudes can be viewed as naive, those of the adults are deliberately ignorant and irresponsible. The children’s mother, for instance, acts petulantly when she wishes to dissuade her husband from walking Nancy home, even though Nancy is afraid for her life. Mrs. Compson views Nancy’s situation as an inconvenience to herself and feels that her husband is simply trying to irritate her by appearing to favor Nancy.
When he takes Nancy home, Mr. Compson tells her that he has checked the ditch for any sign of Jesus. When he returns to his own home with his children, however, Quentin notes that he “couldn’t see much in the ditch where the shadows” were. This suggests that Mr. Compson has lied to placate Nancy, rather than making the effort to check the ditch. The fact that Quentin is aware of this lie further implies that, even as a child, he realizes there is potentially a real threat to Nancy that his family is ignoring. Quentin, who is nine when the story is set, is just on the verge of leaving behind his period of childlike naivete. He has the potential to fully recognize and admit the racial bias all around him and to acknowledge his family’s complicity in Nancy’s fate.
Yet as an adult narrating the story, Quentin gives the reader the impression that his awakening in this sense has never come to fruition. Instead, he has never addressed his romantic view of the south nor what happened to Nancy after his family left her that night. Although Quentin cannot be held responsible for his ignorance as a child, as an adult he represents a major problem in the south: white people’s refusal to acknowledge their complicity in upholding racism.
Naivety, Ignorance, and Nostalgia ThemeTracker
Naivety, Ignorance, and Nostalgia Quotes in That Evening Sun
Monday is no different from any other weekday in Jefferson now. The streets are paved now, and the telephone and electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees […] to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry, which makes the round on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially-made motorcars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees, apparitionlike, behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long, diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like tearing silk.
But fifteen years ago, on Monday morning the quiet, dusty, shady streets would be full of Negro women with, balanced on their steady, turbaned heads, bundles of clothes tied up in sheets, almost as large as cotton bales, carried so without touch of a hand, between the kitchen door of the white house and the blackened washpot beside a cabin door in Negro Hollow.
And then about half the time we’d have to go down the lane to Nancy’s cabin and tell her to come on and cook breakfast. We would stop at the ditch, because father told us not to have anything to do with Jesus – he was a short, black man with a razor scar down his face – and we would throw rocks at Nancy’s house until she came to the door, leaning her head around it without any clothes on.
So we thought it was whiskey until that day they arrested her again and were taking her to jail and they passed Mr. Stovall. He was a cashier in the bank and a deacon in the Baptist church, and Nancy began to say: “When you going to pay me, white man?” […] Mr. Stovall knocked her down but she kept on saying, “When you going to pay me, white man?” […] until Mr. Stovall kicked her in the mouth with his heel and the marshal caught Mr. Stovall back, and Nancy lying in the street, laughing. She turned her head and spat out some blood and teeth and said, “It’s been three times since he paid me a cent.”
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.”
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.”