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The twenty-four-year-old Quentin Compson recalls changes that have taken place in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi, over the last fifteen years. He thinks of the African American laundresses, or washerwomen, who used to wash white families’ laundry fifteen years ago, in 1899. They would pick up bundles of clothing from families such as the Compsons and carry the bundles on their heads to and from their cabins. More recently, the process has come to involve transporting laundry by automobile, though the work is still done by African American women. Quentin recalls a series of events that occurred in 1899.

As a nine-year-old and the eldest of the three Compson children, Quentin observes his family’s interactions with Nancy, a washerwoman who lives in a cabin on the other side of the ditch in “Negro Hollow.” Nancy washes for the Compsons and cooks for them when Dilsey, their regular servant, is ill. Her estranged husband Jesus lives on the margins of both the African American and the white communities. He bears a permanent scar across his face, the result of a razor cut from a fight, presumably one of many fights in which he has participated.

Nancy has a confrontation with a white man named Mr. Stovall. On Main Street in the middle of the day in front of several townspeople, she accosts the bank clerk and church deacon for not paying her money she is owed for sexual favors. Stovall knocks Nancy to the ground and kicks her in the face, knocking out several of her teeth, before she is taken to jail for an undisclosed reason. While in Jefferson’s jail, Nancy sings about her troubles and tries to hang herself. The jailer accuses her of using cocaine, sees that she is pregnant, and proceeds to beat her for her behavior anyway.

After she is released, Nancy is visited by Jesus in the Compsons’ kitchen. Speaking in sexual innuendos, their discussion focuses on her pregnancy and the father’s identity. Nancy makes it clear that Jesus is not the father, and he threatens to kill whoever is. Knowing that Jesus would not confront Stovall because of the consequences (he likely would be lynched), Nancy grows increasingly afraid of her husband, whom she believes actually wants to kill her out of jealousy. Jesus then disappears, apparently heading to Memphis to see another woman.

The Compsons arrange a pallet in their kitchen for Nancy, who refuses to return to her cabin since she believes Jesus is lying in wait for her in the ditch. She even sleeps one night in the children’s room. When Dilsey returns to work, Mrs. Compson refuses to allow Nancy to remain any longer. Bemoaning her plight, she expresses herself in a way Quentin describes as “a sound that was not singing and not unsinging.” Terrified to go home alone, Nancy convinces the children to come to her cabin with her. She tells them a story that mirrors her own situation, desperately trying to entertain them to keep them by her.

Five-year-old Jason becomes upset and wants to return home, as Quentin and seven-year-old Caddy grow increasingly uneasy. Eventually, Mr. Compson arrives. He is sympathetic to Nancy’s fears but does not believe she is in imminent danger. He takes his children home, leaving Nancy alone. She is so convinced that Jesus will return no matter what she does that she leaves the door to her cabin open, seemingly resigned to her fate, but she keeps the light burning, because she does not want to be killed in the dark.

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