On Writing

That Evening Sun – William Faulkner – Point of View

What are we doing when we choose to tell a story from a certain point of view?  How does the story change?  In “That Evening Sun,” by William Faulkner, the story is told from a young boy, Quentin’s, perspective.  The story begins by showing us Quentin’s present time in Jefferson where “the streets are paved now,” and the white peoples’ laundry is still washed by black women but now they “fetch and deliver it in automobiles.”  After this introductory paragraph we move back in time, fifteen years ago, to Quentin’s childhood and a much different world.

The story that follows is of Nancy, a black woman who is filling in as a housekeeper for the Compson’s.  The story revolves around Nancy’s fear that her husband, Jesus, will kill her, and the indifference of the white community within which she lives.  By telling the story from Quentin’s perspective, the reader understands more of what is happening than the children.  The children can’t comprehend Nancy’s situation because of their age, and the white adults refuse to acknowledge the truth because of their prejudice.  For the reader it’s clear and hard to witness.

Whether or not Nancy is a prostitute isn’t important.  What’s important is that neither she nor Jesus can stop white men from violating their lives.

“I can’t hang around white man’s kitchen,” Jesus said. “But white man can hang around mine. White man can come in my house, but I can’t stop him. When white man want to come in my house, I ain’t got no house. I can’t stop him, but he can’t kick me outen it. He can’t do that.”

Nancy is pregnant from a white man who is either a paying customer, a rapist, or both.  It’s hard to tell.  Which of Nancy’s actions are by her own choice and which are due to her having limited or no choice?  Her husband is enraged and runs off.  Nancy is terrified Jesus will come back and murder her.  By the end of the story Jesus may be lurking in the dark, waiting for the Compsons to leave.  “He’s out there,” Nancy says, “When yawl walk out that door, I gone.”  “Gone where, Nancy?” asks Caddy.  The father and Nancy speak, she’s resigned to her death, and Mr. Compson doesn’t want to hear a word of it.  “Nonsense,” he says.  “Hush,” he tells her.  Again, just before leaving with the children, he says, “Nonsense,” and disregards her fears.

The Compsons leave and the younger children have understood nothing that has happened.  Quentin, the narrator, understands when he asks, “Who will do our washing now, Father?”  But, like Nancy’s request for help, it goes unnoticed as the other two children bicker amongst each other while being led by their father.

By setting the point of view from the perspective of a child, Faulkner is able to create a rich subtext in the story.  There is the story the children know, which sits on the surface.  Then there is the real story of Nancy, which comes out through dialogue that is obvious to the reader, but unclear to the children.  While the story is about Nancy, it is also about the children and the context of their lives.