In William Faulkner's short story "That Evening Sun," what is the significance of Quentin's question to his father:  "Who will do our washing now, Father?"

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Faulkner’s 1931 short story “That Evening Sun” is a sorrowful tale that illuminated the vast gulf that divided whites and blacks in the American South well after the South’s defeat in the Civil War and the traumatic experience of Reconstruction.  Faulkner’s title, and the theme of his story, was inspired by the Negro spiritual that suggests that dusk represents the final moment of life, with death sure to follow in the night.  In “That Evening Sun,” the character of Nancy, the pregnant black temporary housekeeper for the Compson family with the questionable past and the suggestion of infidelity or promiscuousness is frightened for her life.  Certain that her violently abusive and jealous husband, Jubah, will kill her when he gets the chance, Nancy fears to return to her own home alone and convinces Quentin and his siblings to accompany her on the long walk from the Compson home to hers.  Along the way, “the ditch” that both metaphorically and literally divides whites from blacks in Faulkner’s town becomes an all-consuming obsession for Nancy, convinced that Jubah is hiding there waiting to attack her.  As she states early-on, "I can feel him," Nancy said. "I can feel him laying yonder in the ditch."

As Nancy guides the children to her home across the ditch, using their presence as a shield against the menace she believes is lurking in the dark, her fear of being left alone is palpable.  The story that she tells the children includes the ditch and the fear it evokes:

"And so this here queen come walking up to the ditch, where that bad man was hiding. She was walking up the ditch, and she say, `If I can just get past this here ditch,' was what she say . . . ."

"What ditch?" Caddy said. "A ditch like that one out there? Why did the queen go into the ditch?"

"To get to her house," Nancy said. She looked at us. "She had to cross that ditch to get home."

The children can’t grasp the threat to Nancy and have little awareness of the implications of the racist legacy of their town to their current situation.  They are, unsurprisingly, naïve regarding “the real world.”  They have been shielded from the moral implications and brutal realities of the racial divide that remained endemic across the South.  Their father, however, is entirely unconcerned, and his willingness to leave Nancy unprotected and vulnerable is characteristic of many whites during that time and in that place.  When Quentin asks of his father at the end of the story, "Who will do our washing now, father?" he is cognizant only of the vacuum about to emerge in his life with Nancy’s absence from his home.  That Nancy may not live to see the next day is beyond his imagination.