Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584
This story is set in the American South in the era immediately following the Civil War. Its main characters are Wash Jones, a poor white man, and Colonel Sutpen, his master. The structure of the story is such that it isn't clear what is happening at the beginning until further details are revealed in a flashback; then, what is happening in the barn is clarified.
At the beginning of the story, then, we see a young girl lying on a pallet in a barn. It seems that she has just given birth. Sutpen looks down at the girl, Milly, and tells her it's a pity that she isn't a mare, because then he could have given her a stall in the stable. Sutpen then immediately turns his attention from the girl and speaks to the black woman in the barn about his horses, one of whom has foaled this morning.
Sutpen then leaves the barn, passing Wash outside, who is holding the reins of his horse.
At this point, we see a flashback. Years before, Colonel Sutpen rode away to fight the Yankees; Wash did not go. He chose to stay at home and look after Sutpen's house and his black slaves; ultimately, however, this was not really true. Actually, Sutpen simply allowed Wash to squat on his land; the slaves mocked Wash and thought it funny that he should think himself any better than they were. They called him "white trash." Wash had not only a daughter, but a granddaughter, too, although he was only, seemingly, in his thirties.
When Sutpen returned from the war, he returned to spending afternoons with Wash, drinking. He returned in 1865 and seemed ten years older, his son having been killed in action. Wash was unchanged, not having been to war; he assured Sutpen that the two of them would survive. Often, Wash would have to look after Sutpen when he became drunk, taking him home when he was incapacitated. Wash would stay by the Colonel while he slept, to guard him.
At this point, Wash began to note a ribbon around his granddaughter's waist. Quickly he realized what it signified—that she belonged to Sutpen. Addressing Sutpen about it, Wash assured Sutpen that he didn't mind, because Sutpen was very brave. Secretly, he also thought that he had "fixed" the Colonel—that is, backed him into a corner, in which he would have to marry Wash's granddaughter, thus elevating the family in the world.
At this point the story returns to its starting point—of course, the girl, Milly, giving birth in the barn, is Sutpen's. Wash overhears what Sutpen says about the mare and realizes that he was only up early to see to his horse, caring nothing for Milly and her daughter. Sutpen asserts himself, whipping Wash across the face. Wash responds by killing Sutpen with his own scythe.
Going back into the house, Wash tries to assure Milly that all is well. He brings her water and tries to calm her fears. Eventually, the sheriff arrives and tries to coax Wash out of the barn. Wash resists, looking for kerosene. He has come to feel extremely resentful toward the white upper class and wishes he never had to interact with them. At the end of the story, Wash kills Milly and her baby, as if to put him out of their misery, sets fire to the barn, and moves toward the sheriff and his men with the same scythe he used to kill Sutpen.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632
The opening page and a half, set in 1872 at dawn on Sunday morning, presents all principal characters except Wash Jones. It begins with Thomas Sutpen standing above the pallet where Milly Jones and her child lie; Sutpen’s arrogance is seen in his stance, with whip in hand, as he looks down on the mother and child. His mare has also given birth; the contrast between his attitude toward the colt and toward his and Milly’s child presents the central problem of the story: The mare has borne a male; Milly, a female. If Milly were a mare, he would provide better quarters for her. Leaving the run-down fishing shack, he walks past his rusty scythe, which Wash Jones, Milly’s grandfather, borrowed three months earlier. The scythe will become important both as a symbol and as an instrument of death.
The third-person narrator now embarks on a six-page digression, recounting events from 1861, when Colonel Sutpen rode away to fight in the “War Between the States,” until his return to a ruined plantation in 1865, and through the years 1865 to 1870, when Sutpen and Wash together ran a country store and drank “inferior whiskey.” There is reference to Sutpen’s son, “killed in action the same winter in which his wife had died,” and to Wash’s grandchild. Emphasis is placed on the deterioration not only of Sutpen’s property but also of his person. Even though he still rides the same black stallion and presents, at least to the naïve, worshipful Wash, a proud image, he is now a storekeeper best characterized by misplaced pride, unconcern for others, and habitual drunkenness.
Wash is characterized throughout this section as a poor white in both the literal and the connotative meanings of the term. For many years, he has lived in the deteriorated shack by the slough on the plantation, the object of scorn by whites and blacks alike. While Sutpen was away, Wash pretended to have the responsibility of taking care of Sutpen’s place, but he was careful never to enter Sutpen’s house. After the return, he achieved entry by carrying the drunken Sutpen in and putting him to bed. Wash has closed his eyes to the fact that Sutpen has been seducing Milly, as evidenced by the pretty ribbons she has worn around her waist. When Wash confronts Sutpen with the fact of Milly’s new dress, the subject changes to whether Wash is afraid of Sutpen. The conversation and the digression end with Wash saying that Sutpen will make it right.
The last nine pages return to 1872 and the main narrative, the scene at the cabin on that Sunday when the mare’s colt and Milly’s girl are born. As Wash watches Milly and the black midwife, he thinks of Sutpen, admiring the man, and of the new relationship that will exist between him and Sutpen. He hears the sound of Sutpen riding up; the midwife announces that the baby is a girl; and it is dawn. Wash’s pride in being a great-grandfather is balanced against the problem of telling Sutpen that the newborn child is a girl.
The words Sutpen speaks and the attitude he shows toward Milly and the baby cause Wash to realize Sutpen’s true character for the first time. As Wash approaches, Sutpen lashes him with the whip. Wash then kills Sutpen with the rusty scythe. Wash is occupied through the day with tender care for Milly and with watching at the window. After a white boy discovers the body, Wash waits for the men to come. After dark, the gentle Wash once again becomes violent, killing Milly and the baby with a butcher knife, setting fire to the cabin, and attacking the sheriff’s posse silently with the rusty scythe.
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