Themes and Meanings
Although the story touches on such aspects of early twentieth century southern life as the imposition of technology on a culture of traditional handicrafts, the awkward and frequently cruel adjustments of the races to social change, and the inequality of the races under the law, “That Evening Sun” is mainly a story about fear—fear rendered all the more terrible by Nancy’s total isolation among others who cannot understand, share, or relieve it.
The title of the story derives from a well-known blues song. Nancy’s moaning, which Quentin, one of the Compson children, describes as “not singing and not unsinging,” occurs when the evening sun goes down and her imagination is most active. Her state exceeds ordinary blues melancholy, with the result that her “unsinging” lies beyond the control of music to give pleasure or consolation. Quentin, the narrator, knows what has happened to Nancy, but neither he nor anyone else in the story understands her despair or the all-consuming nature of her terror.
Although her husband has vowed vengeance against the presumably white father of Nancy’s child, she realizes that any such act against a white man would be suicidal and that if Jesus does take action, she can expect to be the target. The Compson family are uncomprehending in their various ways. Mrs. Compson simply resents her husband’s leaving her to take a part-time servant home, the children are too young to understand what besides skin color and external subservience distinguishes blacks from themselves, and Mr. Compson’s suggestion to Nancy that she “let white men alone” indicates how little he fathoms her vulnerable situation.
On the night that the family allows Nancy to sleep in the kitchen, she awakens them with her moaning but is too frightened even to respond to the question of whether she has actually seen her husband lurking outside. Given a cup of coffee, she cannot hold it and does not notice that the coffee has spilled out. The children’s naïve questions concerning what she has done to make Jesus so angry only add to her despair....
(The entire section is 860 words.)