“That Evening Sun” is set in the early 1900s in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Though slavery had been abolished in 1862, black people at the time of the story still did not have civil rights and were subject to extreme racial prejudice—often even working as servants for the same white families who had kept their grandparents as slaves. The corrosive effects of racial segregation are demonstrated through Faulkner’s tragic portrayal of Nancy, a black servant who works for the white Compson family and also as a prostitute. Faulkner’s story highlights how the effects of slavery lingered long after abolition, and further suggests that racial segregation is detrimental to all members of a society—including the white people whose complacency and hypocrisy help uphold such an unequal world.
Faulkner emphasizes the physical segregation between the story’s white and black characters, the latter of whom live in extreme poverty and labor as white people’s servants. The Compson family lives in a very different part of town than the “Negro Hollow” where Nancy, Dilsey, and the other black characters reside. In contrast to the houses in the white part of the town (like the Compson’s, with its library and many bedrooms) the black characters are described as living in “cabins,” which suggests that these dwellings are small and that the people living there are poor. Faulkner walks the reader through this contrast by describing the journey the black servants make, carrying the laundry “from the kitchen of the white house to the blackened washpot beside a cabin door.” Faulkner further emphasizes the town’s physical segregation in his description of the ditch outside Nancy’s house, where she thinks her husband, Jesus, is hiding. As the story progresses, Nancy’s fear of Jesus becomes symbolized by this physical divide between the black and white characters.
The ditch also comes to reflect the deep psychological separation between white and black characters in the story. Rather than seeing this disparity in living conditions as an injustice resulting from centuries of slavery, the white characters accept segregation as normal and natural, a stance that would have been further legitimized by the laws of the period. Under segregation laws black people were not allowed to use the same bathrooms as white people, vote, or move freely around the state. Black people were considered inferior and, although no longer slaves, were still often seen as property by their white employers. That’s why, instead of understanding Nancy’s circumstances, the Compsons view the danger she is in as something she has brought upon herself and something that is inconvenient for them.
When Nancy is attacked by Mr. Stovall, it is clear to the reader that Mr. Stovall has been using Nancy’s services as a prostitute but, because she is black, he has refused to pay her. The fact that he is violent towards her to protect his own reputation underscores the brutalizing effects of racism. Yet rather than highlight the injustice of Mr. Stovall’s behavior, the narrator and the eldest Compson child, Quentin, instead refers to Mr. Stovall’s position in the community as a “a deacon in the Baptist Church,” highlighting the fact that, in the white community Mr. Stovall is a respectable man. Indeed, his position and skin color shield him from repercussions for knocking Nancy’s teeth out, while Nancy herself is thrown in jail for brashly demanding payment from her white client.
Later in the story, when Mr. Compson is walking Nancy home, he repeatedly tells Nancy that she should “let white men alone,” blaming her for the violence used against her—even though she has been forced into prostitution because she is so poor. This is even more hypocritical when the reader considers that Nancy is employed by the Compsons, as it suggests how little they must pay her. Faulkner thus uses Nancy and the Compsons to suggest the hypocrisy and cyclical nature of racism: racism is upheld by white characters, who then blame black characters for being in desperate circumstances brought about by racism.
Nevertheless, both black and white characters develop their sense of identity and agency, and their sense of importance within society, based on these racial divides. The black characters, like Nancy and Jesus, are aware that they are less valued and hold less authority than the white people around them. Jesus points out the hypocrisy in this when he complains that a “white man can come in my house, I can’t stop him. When a white man want to come in my house, I ain’t got no house.” While Jesus is resentful of his situation, Nancy internalizes her lack of agency and the prejudice aimed at her, viewing it as something she cannot do anything about nor protect herself from. She repeatedly laments that she “ain’t nothing but a nigger” and that it “ain’t none her fault.” This shows that, although Nancy is less aggressive than Jesus, she understands that her situation is hopeless as long as she is forced to rely on white people for protection and sympathy.
In contrast, the white Compson children learn that their place in society is more important than that of black people. The children show little respect for Nancy, although she cooks and cleans for them. When Quentin describes summoning her to make breakfast, for example he says that they “throw rocks at her house” until she comes to the door. They do not feel that it is necessary to respect Nancy, nor her house, because in their minds it is a black woman’s place to be their servant.
Racial segregation defines multiple aspects of the characters’ lives in “That Evening Sun,” from their living situations, to their personal identities. While the Compson children grow up complacent and protected by the law within society, characters like Nancy and Jesus operate on the other side of this, separated from the white characters by both experiential, physical, and legal divides.
Racism and Segregation ThemeTracker
Racism and Segregation Quotes in That Evening Sun
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.”
She didn’t shut up until almost daylight, when the jailor began to hear a bumping and scraping upstairs and he went up there and found Nancy hanging from the window bar. He said that it was cocaine and not whisky, because no nigger would try to commit suicide unless he was full of cocaine, because a nigger full of cocaine wasn't a nigger any longer. The jailer cut her down and revived her; then he beat her, whipped her. She had hung herself with her dress […] So the jailer heard the noise and ran up there and found Nancy hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little, like a little balloon.
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.”