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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,216 words.)