How to Tell a Story: What Really Happens in Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun”?



    I’d like to begin this short essay with a few words of reference to Faulkner at Nagano edited by Robert A. Jelliffe (1956), which is, allegedly, the first and thereby influential Faulkner scholarship ever published in this country. William Faulkner, a Southern gentleman and the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature for 1950, came to Japan in August 1955, at the invitation of the Exchange of Persons Branch of the U.S. Department of State, to attend the would-be first of international conferences on American literature to be held on this side of the Pacific. Faulkner at Nagano is a collection of the proceedings of the so-called “Nagano Seminar,” and of question-and- answer sessions between Faulkner and the Japanese participants at the Seminar; the book also includes the interviews and speeches of the novelist conducted at the Seminar and elsewhere during his three-week stay in the post-WWII Japan. The success of the Seminar is, perhaps, a major contributing factor of Faulkner’s popular reception among Japanese writers such as Nakagami Kenji and Oe Kenzaburo, and likewise among such scholars of American literature as Ohashi Kenzaburo, Hiraishi Takaki, Fujihira Ikuko, and Tanaka Hisao, whose names are internationally known among Faulkner scholars.
     And quite recently, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Nagano Seminar, the William Faulkner Society of Japan hosted the second International Faulkner Symposium in Tokyo in June 2004; and a collection of twelve essays presented at the Symposium is published in book form, History and Memory in Faulkner’s Novels (Shohakusha, 2005). Certainly, in the last half a century of Faulkner scholarship, both the novelist and his works have been exposed to various new critical theories — reader response and deconstructionist theories, new historicism, feminism, and post-colonialism — and new critical approaches and readings of his works continue to be written. Even so, the novelist’s ideas observed and expressed in Faulkner at Nagano are as good and valid as ever to read his stories and novels.
     The purpose of my essay on Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” first published in a collection of stories, These 13 (1931), is to propose yet another reading of the story in conjunction with the then popular ballad and song — “St. Louis Blues,” and “Frankie and Johnny” in particular, drawing upon what Faulkner prescribed as artistic credo of a story-teller — that is, what story and how to tell that story — expressed in his responses to questions raised at the Nagano Seminar.
     In an answer to the question concerning his Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Fable (1954), which appeared to Japanese readers as a new trend in his writing, different from his earlier stories and novels, Faulkner replied as follows: “… I simply used a formula, a proven formula in our western culture to tell something which I wanted to tell, but that’s no new trend. …. I used an old story which had been proved … a good one that people could understand and believe…” (FN, 23. my emphasis), and he then continued that “… [all of a man’s] work has such a definite relationship that he doesn’t in mid-career change his stride, or his purpose” (FN, 46). And later on Faulkner said, that any serious writer “in writing is writing about truth and there’s only one truth, and … is never satisfied with the job he’s done because it wasn’t as moving as he wanted it to be, so he tries it again”(FN, 53). Hence, in writing A Fable, the Christ fable set in Europe during the first World War, Faulkner used “an old story” in which the father must choose between the son’s sacrifice or saving the son” (FN, 47), a most moving tragedy that can happen to any human being. Such is what Faulkner explained as “a proven formula in [his] western culture,” the importance of responding to one’s trust, of not betraying one’s trust, or later in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he spelt out as “the old verities and truths of the heart.”
     Then on the question of the manner of writing, why he “use[d] such a complicated method of telling [his] stories,” Faulkner confessed: “It is ignorance. I have had no education…., and I have had to teach myself my trade, I suppose, and I haven’t got rid of a certain amount of trash in me” (FN, 203. My emphasis). It can be construed, therefore, that his artistic credo in writing is to tell an old story over and over again until he is satisfied with the job’s he’s done; this attitude of Faulkner’s creative process is as good and valid as he testified it some fifty years ago at the Nagano Seminar. What exactly is the “trade” Faulkner learned—the question of what “the ‘matter’” and of how “the ‘manner’” of telling a story— in the American literary tradition?
     A penultimate answer could possibly be found in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous theory of short fiction in his “Review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’ s ‘Twice-Told Tales’”: “A skilful literary artist” strives to work out a “unique or single effect” in a story. In contrast to the “great tradition” of the English novel, my contention is that the short story is a uniquely American genre practiced by both 19th and 20th century American writers of fiction — Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and Mark Twain, and among Faulkner’s contemporaries, to name only a few, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Eudora Welty. 1 Faulkner wrote more than 120 short stories, many of which are incorporated in his longer novels.
     More relevant here is Mark Twain’s idea of “the humorous story as an American development” distinguished from comic (English) and witty (French) stories” expounded in his “How to Tell a Story” (quoted in MASS, 272). Twain wrote in self-defense, perhaps, that the humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling, …not upon the matter”: “The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrives nowhere in particular; …. The humorous story bubbles gently along, …”(Ibid. my emphasis). This is the “trade” that Faulkner, another Southern writer, learned “by word of mouth, not print,” and exploited in telling such masterpieces as The Sound and the Fury, “A Rose for Emily,” “Red Leaves,” and “That Evening Sun.”


     The title of Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun,” is taken from “St. Louis Blues” (1914) by W.C. Handy 2 , where a broken-hearted woman sings of her unfaithful lover, who has left her, and the story barely overlaps that of Nancy, a black washing woman who works for the Compson family. Several interesting articles have been written on the story’s relation to the Blues which Faulkner must have actually heard performed by W.C. Handy himself in one of the social gatherings held at the Oldhams in Oxford, Mississippi, when he was sixteen or seventeen, and which he must have heard Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues,” sing in her rich deep inflection around 1925. All these biographical details must have had some impact in writing the story. 3
     “That Evening Sun” consists of six short sections like the stanzas in a ballad, and the gist of the story is narrated in the first and the longest section. The whole episode is recollected, after fifteen years, by the grown-up Quentin Compson. The once rural town of Jefferson has now changed into a modern city with the paved streets and iron telephone poles. Likewise, the black women with the bundles of soiled clothes have been replaced by a city laundry whose motorcars pick up the clothes on Monday mornings (MASS, 492). 4
     The action of the story takes place while Nancy works also as a cook for the family taking over Dilsey who is sick in bed. The three Compson children — the nine-year old Quentin, his precocious sister Caddy, age seven, and the “scairy cat” Jason Jr., age five — can not understand Nancy’s obsession that her husband Jesus is back in town to revenge on her who betrays him sleeping with white men for money. Thus, unlike the sorrow-stricken woman of “St. Louis Blues,” the unfaithful lover/wife is Nancy rather than Jesus who leaves town. “Nancy told [the children] how one morning she woke up and Jesus was gone” (MASS, 495). The curious Caddy keeps asking Nancy what wrong she has done to make Jesus mad. Jason, on the other hand, repeats “Nancy’s scaired of the dark,” or “I ain’t a nigger,” providing a dissonance to Nancy’s almost pathological fear of Jesus or the dark—of something unmentionable yet ever-present in Nancy’s troubled mind.
     This black “adulteress,” to my understanding, is treated as an independent human being: “Nancy would set her bundle [of clothes] on the top of her head, then upon the bundle in turn she would set the black straw sailor hat which she wore winter and summer. She was tall, with a high, sad face sunken a little where her teeth were missing” (MASS, 492. My emphasis). The facetious image of a black woman with the black straw sailor hat on her head all the year round reminds us of another Faulkner black character, Lucas Beauchamp who refuses to take off his hat in defiance of somebody ordering him what to do. Quite comical is this image of a tall black woman with the black straw hat on top of the bundle of clothes on her head, the hat assumes a culturally symbolic meaning connoting a personal dignity of independence in Faulkner’s works.
     As stated above, the Compson children cannot figure out why Nancy is scared of going across the pasture after work, and of being left alone in her cabin, as they cannot understand her almost pathological fear that Jesus is waylaying her in the ditch with “that razor” in his mouth. Neither can the self-centered and uncaring Mr. and Mrs. Compson understand Nancy’s obsession that Jesus who bums around for no good reason is back to revenge himself on his woman who gets pregnant with a white man’s child. They cannot fathom the depth of a personal sorrow, anger, or passion caused by a sense of betrayal and jealousy Faulkner tries to rend in Nancy’s story, “That Evening Sun.” For the Compsons do not care enough to experience all such unspeakable emotional turbulence as she is suffering. Such “proven formula” narrated in “That Evening Sun” is spelt out as a drama of betrayal between lovers or between husband and wife.
     Faulkner uses variants of an old story of betrayal, the common theme sung in popular ballads and songs, to tell something he wanted to in the most moving way, as he says, which could be, by a stretch of imagination, synonymous as trust between father and son, that is, humanity’s betrayal of Jesus (God)—the Christ fable Faulkner dramatized in A Fable which took him quite a long time to complete. In such literary and cultural context, naming Nancy’s husband Jesus is no arbitrary choice, since the story of Nancy and Jesus becomes another variant of the “proven formula,” and Faulkner the story teller uses the popular blues as “a certain amount of trash” in his story, which he believed would appeal to anyone who cares at all. Even so, no detailed inter-textual relationship is observed between “St. Louis Blues” and “That Evening Sun”; on the contrary, the portrayal of Faulkner’s Nancy as “a tall woman, with a high, sad face” somewhat contradicts the image of a grieving woman of the song.


     My contention in this essay is: Faulkner is exploiting, as a variant of Nancy’s story, another popular ballad, whose heroine is closer to the proud black woman in “That Evening Sun.” The popular ballad known as “Frankie and Johnny” or “The Blue Grass Murder Ballad” will present a more plausible dramatic connection to Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun.” Interestingly enough, there’s a sketch coincidentally entitled “Frankie and Johnny” found among unpublished typewritten manuscripts at the time of Faulkner’s death. Together with another sketch “New Orleans,” “Frankie and Johnny” appeared in a New Orleans magazine The Double Dealer in 1925, and was posthumously published in Mississippi Quarterly vol. XXXI, No. 3 (1978). Faulkner’s “Frankie and Johnny” is, however, a so-called initiation story of a young man named Johnny, and has little to do with the drama of the ballad “Frankie and Johnny.” 5 The ballad, variously called as “Frankie and Johnny” or “Frankie and Albert” (1904), is inspired by one or more actual murder cases; the best known of these incidents took place in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 15, 1899, and Frankie of the ballad rather resembles Faulkner’s tall heroine in “That Evening Sun.”
     The true story of the Blue Grass murder goes as follows: one Frankie Baker, a 22-year-old dancer, stabbed (or shot) her young lover who betrayed her for another woman. As is the case with popular ballads there are several versions of the song and the epilogues may vary from one to another version. One epilogue goes, that being found guilty on trial Frankie is executed; another story goes, that claiming she killed her lover in self-defense as he attached her first, she is acquitted and dies in a mental institution years later. Despite the different endings, most lyrics begin and end with the same refrain: “Frankie and Johnny were lovers, O, how that couple could love./ Swore to be true to each other, true as the stars above./ He was her man, but he done her wrong” ( Here again an echo of “a proven formula” of betrayal that “He was her man, but he done her wrong” is heard at the end of each stanza It is generally acknowledged there are more than 250 variants on the actual murder case, and even the movies are made based on the ballad, eliciting a cliche conclusion that “This story has no moral / This story has no end / This story only goes to show / That there ain’t no good in men” (My emphasis). These popular songs and ballads seem to be saying that people cannot help loving and trusting, knowing too well that “there ain’t no good in men [and women],” and “a good man is hard to find,” indeed, as the title of Flannery O’Connor’s story may suggest.
     Now to return to Nancy’s plight in “That Evening Sun”: Nancy insists that “’[Jesus] ain’t gone nowhere,’ … ‘… I can feel him now, in this lane. He is hearing us talk, every word, hid somewhere, waiting. I ain’t seen him, and I ain’t going to see him again but once more, with that razor in his mouth…’” (MASS, 496). Tired of hearing Nancy’s make-believe story that Jesus is back in town to get her, Mr. Compson teases Nancy, and his joke transforms her into an impassioned avenger:

“If you’d behave yourself, you’d have kept out of this,” Father said. “But it’s all right now. He’s probably in Saint Louis now. Probably got another wife by now and forgot all about you.” “’If he has, I better not find out about it,’ Nancy said. ‘I’d stand there right over them, and every time he wropped her, I’d cut that arm off. I’d cut his head off and I’d slit her belly and I’d shove…’” (Ibid. My emphasis).

The above scene is, indeed, a dramatic rendition of Frankie of the ballad performed by Nancy who is beside herself with jealousy. The wronged “wife” passionately reacts to Mr. Compson’s insinuation, which transforms the cool proud Nancy who earlier nonchalantly retorts,“’He quit me,’ …. ‘Done gone to Memphis, I reckon. Dodging the city po-lice for a while, I reckon’” (MASS, 495) into a fiendish woman. It is quite likely, therefore, that Faulkner had the Frankie of the “Blue Grass Murder Ballad” as well as “St. Louis Blues” in mind when he wrote “That Evening Sun,” because he must have been well informed of the ballad “Frankie and Johnny” at the time of the story’s composition. As mentioned above Faulkner’s mulatto woman in “That Evening Sun” bears some resemblance to Frankie as narrated in the popular ballad. And there’s a good possibility that Nancy stabbed Jesus to death with “that razor,” in self-defense, considering the fact of the tall Nancy struggling with the “short” Jesus. (Nobody has seen Jesus back in town.)
     Nancy’s extreme fear of Jesus and her groaning that she is “ through,”or “I won’t be nothing soon. I going back where I come from soon” (MASS, 498), or “I scaired of the dark” (Ibid., 505) could become more comprehensible if understood as verbalization of Nancy’s superstitious fear of being chased by Jesus’ ghost, for she is emotionally and physically paralyzed because of her guilty conscience of killing Jesus, even if done in self-defense. Furthermore, provided that a humorous story “may wander around…, and arrive nowhere in particular;….” is what Faulkner learned as his “trade,” it is only natural that “That Evening Sun” concludes with an open ending, or with no ending whatsoever. As the Compsons leave Nancy in her cabin, Caddy asks her Father, “What’s going to happen?” “Nothing,” Mr. Compson replies like a man of the world (MASS, 505).
     As the foregoing examination of the text shows, Faulkner’s story of Nancy and Jesus obtains an additional rich literary and cultural dimension, when read in context of both “St. Louis Blues” and “Frankie and Johnny.” Despite the “ignorance” he confessed to at the Nagano Seminar, Faulkner mastered his “trade” and “That Evening Sun” rightly belongs to the American tradition of the modern short story and the story continues to be one of the most frequently anthologized Faulkner stories along with “A Rose for Emily.”


     In concluding this short essay, I’d like to touch briefly on Faulkner’s acute sense of music rendered in the narrator’s speaking voice, which adds a rich musicality to his apparently complicated manner of telling a story. In Quentin’s memory of a childhood incident involving Nancy who came to cook for them while Dilsey was sick, the children take Nancy home and they listen to her story of the queen in her cabin. Quentin the narrator records an unusual experience: “[Nancy] talked like her eyes looked, like her eyes watching us and her voice talking to us did not belong to her” (MASS, 501). And in turn the reader of “That Evening Sun” hears Nancy’s voice in Quentin’s narration, because reading Faulkner the reader (at least this reader) goes through a unique aesthetic experience of hearing the disembodied voice of the narrator while reading the printed page. This is true of reading The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, or the story “A Rose for Emily.”
     Yoshiaki Sato offers interesting comments on the musical background for Faulkner’s Writings—1927-1928. Sato maintains that the emergence of the audio-electronics civilization at the turn of the 20th century brought about revolutionary changes in the performance and recording of jazz and blues. In turn the blues and jazz music had a great impact on Faulkner writing such works as The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932), which proceeded the composition of “That Evening Sun” (1931). Of great importance to my discussion here is Sato’s explanation of the origin of the blues and its development. Sato observes that blues is a very personal music, developed among the black field workers in the 19th century American South, and it came to be called “holler” or “field holler”; it is a kind of music black people sing to express their unspeakable outrage, anguish, grief and sorrow, in heart-rending or obscene jargons indigenous to their culture. Such function of blues music will clarify the moaning sound the Compson children hear coming up from the cold dark kitchen after Nancy’s work is finished and she’s “through.”
     One night, Quentin wakes up, “hearing the sound. It was not singing and it was not crying, coming up the stairs.” Led by Father, the children go down the hall, and they listen to the sound. “It was like singing and it wasn’t like singing, like the sounds that Negroes make” (MASS, 497. My emphasis). This then is a special secret in Nancy telling her suffering, resorting to “the sounds that Negroes make,” a blues technique, born out of their suffering and sorrow and developed over a period of time. And to my understanding, blues is not to be monopolized by any one ethnic group, because no word exists to articulate an extreme sense of sorrow, rage, and suffering other than to “holler” or to “howl.” 6
     The incident of Nancy’s abandonment by her husband, the ensuing predicament, grief, and agony she goes through are recollected, fifteen years later, in Quentin’s story “That Evening Sun.” Yet, the story is simultaneously told by the other members of the Compson family: Caddy and Jason, and Nancy in particular, join in the narration as a chorus in “That Evening Sun.” The first person narration is abandoned, soon after the opening of the story, to dramatic exchanges given in direct narration throughout the entire episode: the seven-year old precocious Caddy throws in kind words for Nancy who hesitates to leave after work, that “Maybe she’s waiting for Jesus to come and take her home” (MASS, 495), soothing Nancy’s wounded pride, who imposes on the girl’s sympathy and says “Jesus always been good to me” (Ibid., 495-46). Caddy can understand why Nancy is afraid of Jesus, and asks Mother such pointless question as “Are you afraid of Father, Mother?” (Ibid., 499).
     While Jason simply keeps on repeating, “I ain’t a nigger.” or “I am not scaired”( Ibid., 496). Jason’s exaggerated fear of walking past the dark lane on the Hallowe’en night (All Souls’Eve) constitutes an ironic contrast with Nancy’s likewise hyperbolic fear of Jesus waylaying her in the ditch where the Compson’s pasture ends. Moreover, the sickly Mrs. Compson’s complains : “How much longer is this going on? I to be left alone in this big house while you take home a frightened Negro?” (MASS 496). All these relevant and irrelevant rejoinders, to the main theme of Nancy’s agony and suffering, give Faulkner’s prose the richness of different voices, which combine to give the finished story both depth and multi-dimensional width.
     Finally, concerning the interdependence between music and poetry, the 19th century critic, Walter Pater has this to say in his “The School of Giorgione”: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art of obliterate it” (Renassance, 135. My emphasis). And this art’s aspiration toward the condition of music “obliterating” the distinction between “the matter and the form” is another secret to explain the rich musicality of Faulkner’s art of telling a story.

Note: This is a somewhat modified English version of my oral presentation delivered at the Faulkner Symposium “Faulkner, References, Text” of the Faulkner Society of Japan held on October 13, 2006, and of my article published in The Society’s Journal, Faulkner Studies, No.9 (April 2007).

1 A.Walton Litz, the editor of a short story anthology, Major American Short Stories (New York: Oxford UP, 1980, revised and 3rd edition), writes in his Preface: the “short story” as a self-conscious genre did not appear until the beginning of the 19th century, when a special confluence of literary and cultural forces led to the rise of the modern short story as we know it today, which can be claimed an “American” art form.
2 The well-known blues sung by Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” goes as follows: “I hate to see de ev’nin sun go down, / Hate to see de ev’nin sun go down, / ’Cause ma ba-by he done lef’ dis town…”(My emphasis).
3 Takeaki Fukuda, “Bessie Smith and American Writers,” EigoSeinen (125: 447-448). Other articles dealing with the similar subject are: Ken Bennett, “The Language of the Blues in Faulkner’s ‘That Evening Sun’” (The Mississippi Quarterly 38 [1985]), pp.339-342; Dirk Kuyk Jr., et al., “Black Culture in William Faulkner’s ‘That Evening Sun’” (Journal of American Studies 20 [1986]) I, pp. 33-50; Laurence Perrine, “’That Evening Sun’: A Skein of Uncertainties” (Studies in Short Fiction 22 [1985]), pp. 295 -307; Robert M. Slabey, “Faulkner’s Nancy as ‘Tragic Mulatto’”(Studies in Short Fiction 27[1990]), pp.409-413; Leona Toker, “Rhetoric and Ethical Ambiguities in ‘That Evening Sun’” (Women’s Studies, vol. 22 [Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1993]), pp. 429-439. But none of these essays give further relevance between the song and Faulkner story beyond mentioning the fact that like the woman in the song, Nancy is sorrowful because of Jesus who left her and the town.
4 The quotations from Faulkner’s text are those in A. Walton Litz’s Major American Short Stories (hereafter referred as MASS), and page references are given in parentheses.
5 I owe this piece of information on Faulkner’s sketch “Frankie and Johnny” to Professor Toshio Koyama, who alerted me to the sketch at the Faulkner Symposium on October 13, 2006. Here I’d like to acknowledge his comment with thanks.
6 One hears King Lear throwing out, “howl, howl, howl” on the heath in the storm, and one hears Macbeth, before Lady Macbeth’s corpse, crying out “[Life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (My emphasis). In both Shakespeare tragedies, there exists no word for the extremity of suffering, agony, and sorrow the characters are experiencing.

Works Cited:

Faulkner, William. “That Evening Sun,” Major American Short Stories. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 3rd, edition. ed. A Walton Litz.
_________________. Trans. Masao Takahashi. “Ano Yuhi,” The World Classics 68. Kodansha, 1975.
Fukuda, Takeaki. “Bessie Smith and American Writers,” Eigo Seinen (125: 447-448) January 1980.
Jelliffe, Robert A. ed. Faulkner at Nagano. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1956.
Pater, Walter. Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. 1910; London: MacMillan, 1873.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Reviews of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. shorter 4th edition. New York: Norton, 1979.
Sato, Yoshiaki. “The Emergence of Audio-Electronics Civilization and Its Impact on the Young Fledging Novelist—Music Background for Faulkner’s Work: 1927-1928,” Faulkner No. 8 (The William Faulkner Society of Japan, April 2006), pp. 20-30.
Twain, Mark. “How to Tell a Story,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. shorter 4th edition. New York: Norton, 1979.

Copyright (c) 2007 Keiko Beppu