Is there a specific reason why Faulkner chose the name "Jesus" for the antagonist in the story?

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susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"That Evening Sun," by William Faulkner, is a short story that depicts the racism of the Old South.  The story is told from the point of view of Quentin, who was nine years old at the time of the main story's development.  He recounts the story of Nancy, a maid who works for the Compson family as a substitute for their regular maid Dilsey.  Nancy impregnated by a white man is deathly afraid that when her husband Jesus finds out about her pregnancy he will kill her.  She seeks refuge with the Compsons, who either don't understand her fear or underestimate it.

Faulkner adds ambiguity to the story, and the name of Jesus is an example.  At times, it is not clear either to the reader or to the children if Nancy is afraid of her husband or of Jesus.  She is mortally afraid that the act of prostitution she has committed will be punished in some way--physically by her husband, but perhaps morally by her god.  In desperation, she had turned to Mr. Stovall, a well-to-do prominent white man, who most likely is the father of her unborn child, and demanded payment.  He refuses and kicks her, breaking her teeth, an act that lands Nancy in jail, not him.  In this way, Faulkner is showing the powerlessness of the blacks in the white controlled South.

Jesus also feels a victim of this injustice.  "White man can come in my house," he says, "but I can't go in his." Powerless to do anything against the white man, Jesus most likely turns on Nancy.  Nancy, to some extent, feels that she deserves Jesus's anger, even though it seems that she turned to prostitution because she had so few other options to survive financially.

This wordplay with the name Jesus is echoed with the wordplay of the "nigger."  To the Compson children who sense Nancy's fear but are too young to understand, the word "nigger" means being a coward.  They do not not associate it with race.  Jason keeps asking if he is a nigger because he is also afraid of the dark.

In this way, the story is filled with ambiguity.  Faulkner is not afraid to make his readers uncomfortable by dealing with race and religion. Because she is a black woman, the Compsons ignore Nancy's abject terror of Jesus, just as they most certainly ignore the biblical Jesus's pleas for compassion.