Summary of Part I
The first paragraph indicates that the story will be told as an anecdote by the narrator, Quentin Compson, who is now twenty-four. He describes how fifteen years before, black women would do laundry on Monday mornings. Nancy would carry the laundry on her head as she stooped through the fence, and her husband, Jesus, never helped her by delivering the clothes to the Compson house.
Quentin remembers how he and his siblings would go fetch Nancy to tell her to cook breakfast for them, but stop at the ditch because their father had warned them to stay away from Jesus. In one case, Nancy came to the door naked, and tells them she is going back to sleep. Jason accuses her of being drunk. But later Quentin reports that, according to the jailor who found her trying to hang herself in prison, that it's not whisky but cocaine that affects Nancy's behavior.
She was in prison for accosting Mr. Stovall on the street and demanding to be paid for her sexual services. He kicks her in the mouth with his heel, knocking out several of her teeth. In jail, she made noise all night, then tried to hang herself from the window bars with her dress. From Quentin's relation of the jailer's story, the reader can assume that she was suicidal because of her pregnancy; "her belly already swelling out a little, like a little balloon."
The children observe Nancy's pregnant belly while she cooks for them, and Quentin relates a conversation between Nancy and Jesus in the Compson's kitchen, in which it is made clear through the euphemism of a watermelon that Nancy is pregnant with another man's child, and that Jesus intends to kill whomever that man is.
After dinner, Quentin's parents send him to find Nancy to see if she is finished with the dishes. He finds her in the kitchen, and she says, "I ain't nothing but a nigger... It ain't none of my fault." Quentin doesn't respond, but goes back to the library to tell his family that she is still there. The reader learns through the following conversation between Quentin and Caddy that Jesus is gone, and that Nancy has said, "Done gone to Memphis, I reckon. Dodging them city po-lice for a while, I reckon." Jason claims that Nancy is afraid of the dark, and Caddy calls him a "scairy cat."
The narrator's father, Jason Compson III, returns from the kitchen and announces that he is going to walk Nancy home; his wife reacts in disbelief, asking "Is her safety more precious to you than mine?" But he goes anyway, and the children accompany him. As they walk down the lane, Father asks Nancy if Aunt Rachel can do anything to help the situation with Jesus, but Nancy replies that nothing can be done. Father responds, "If you'd just let white men alone... if you'd behave yourself, you'd have kept out of this." Meanwhile, the children tease each other about being afraid of the dark.
Summary of Part II
The Compsons continue walking Nancy home each night, then make a bed for her in the kitchen. Then one night the children hear Nancy making a sound that was "not singing and it was not crying." They creep downstairs, and they hear Father coming down the back stairs to investigate with his pistol. Then he comes back upstairs with Nancy's pallet, and puts it in the children's room. They talk to her, and Caddy tries to get information out of her, like whether it was Jesus who tried to come in the kitchen. Nancy doesn't answer their questions, but repeats, "I ain't nothing but a nigger."
When Dilsey is well, she cooks dinner again for the Compsons. In the kitchen, Nancy tells Dilsey how afraid she is that Jesus is back, and Dilsey gives her some coffee to drink.
Summary of Part III
Now Nancy drinks the coffee, but ends up spilling it all over herself because she begins to make the same sound. She says "Won't no nigger stop him," in reference to Jesus; then she looks at the children and seems to come to the conclusion that only the presence of white people will stop her murderous husband. She asks them to ask their mother to let her stay in their room again, but when Caddy asks, Caroline Compson replies, "I can't have Negroes sleeping in the bedrooms." Then the children observe their parents having a conversation about whether or not the officers of the town could protect Nancy; when Jason Compson III says the officers couldn't do anything, Caroline complains that she pays taxes for seemingly ineffectual police.
The children report back to Nancy, and she drops the cup of coffee onto the kitchen floor. Caddy keeps asking her what Jesus will do to her, but Nancy doesn't respond. Instead she tries to convince them to come back with her to her house, where they can "have some more fun." She tells them not to ask their mother, and Caddy reasons, "She didn't say we couldn't go." Jason is finally convinced to come along by Caddy, who teases him for being afraid. They all walk down the lane, and Nancy addresses them by name, very loudly. The reader can assume it is to warn Jesus, if he is lurking in the dark, that she is accompanied by white children. She calls Jason "Mr. Jason," to imply that he is in fact his father.
They arrive at Nancy's house, and are immediately bothered by the smell. Jason complains that he doesn't want to stay, and continues to do so pretty consistently throughout the scene. Nancy builds a huge fire, and begins to tell them a story.
Summary of Part IV
When Nancy stops talking, Jason says it wasn't a good story and again declares that he wants to go home. This time, Caddy agrees with him, but Nancy tells them not to open the door. She lures them back to the fire, saying she'll tell another story. She has her hand on the lamp chimney, and doesn't seem to notice its heat until Caddy points it out. Then she suggests making popcorn, and tells Jason he can hold the popper. But when she retrieves it from under the bed, the popper is broken; she uses some wire to fix it, while Jason and Caddy continue to complain that they want to go home. The lamp is beginning to smoke, but Nancy doesn't seem to mind. When Jason gets the smoke in his eyes, he drops the popper into the fire and begins to cry.
The popcorn is all burned up, but there isn't any left to pop. Pathetically, Nancy begins to try to save some grains from the burned popcorn. Then they hear something outside, and Nancy becomes filled with fear; she begins to make that sound again. Caddy looks out the door and announces that their father is approaching. Nancy begs them to tell him that they want to stay, or that she should come home with them. But Jason declares, "I didn't have fun. You hurt me. You put smoke in my eyes. I'm going to tell."
Summary of Part V
Father arrives, and reports that Jesus could not be outside, or he would have seen him. Nancy insists that Jesus is waiting in the ditch, but Father continues to try to convince her otherwise; he suggests locking up her house and going to Aunt Rachel's. When he suggests putting out the lamp and going to bed, Nancy says she is "scared for it to happen in the dark." Father gathers up the children to leave, and Nancy warns, "When yawl go home, I gone." She comforts herself that at least she has her "coffin money" saved up with Mr. Lovelady, who collects insurance. Father continues to assure her that her fears are "nonsense."
Summary of Part VI
The Compsons leave Nancy "sitting by the fire." She ignores Father's instructions to put the bar up on the door, and does not look at them again. As they walk back to their house, Caddy asks her father about Jesus, but he assures her, "He's not there. He went away a long time ago." They can no longer see Nancy, but they can hear her making that sound. Jason repeats what he has observed earlier, "I'm not a nigger." The story ends with Caddy and Jason bickering about whether Jason would be "scairder than a nigger" if something were to jump out of the ditch.
The anecdotal style of the story allows the narrator, who is now twenty-four, to have perspective and a more mature tone. However, since the anecdote happened to him, he remembers certain things more clearly than others. This focusing on small details, like the way Nancy's eyes and hands look, lends a childish tone to the memory. It also accounts for how information is presented in a vague way, since Quentin didn't understand what certain observations meant. For instance, he doesn't know what the "watermelon" under Nancy's dress is, and the reader must assume that the unborn child is not Jesus's from Nancy's words, not Quentin's interpretation.
The stark contrast between the childrens' approach to the dark and Nancy's draws attention to the social gap between them. Being afraid of the dark is a game to them; Caddy calls Jason "scairy cat," while Jason defends himself stubbornly. However, Nancy's is a real fear; she is petrified of her violent husband, a very real threat.
The characters' differing use of the word "nigger" draws attention to the gap between the social classes, and races. Nancy's hopeless repetition of, "I ain't nothing but a nigger," points out her understanding that her fate is ultimately not in her own hands, since she is kept down in society by her race. In contrast, while Nancy and Dilsey are having a serious conversation about Jesus in the kitchen, Jason interrupts them with, "Jesus is a nigger... Dilsey's a nigger too... I ain't a nigger... Are you a nigger, Nancy?" He clearly doesn't realize how much being a "nigger" defines someone's identity in this setting, and rather views the classification as a kind of game.
Quentin, the narrator, uses similes of heat to describe Nancy. When they reach her house, he observes that, "The smell of the house was like the lamp and the smell of Nancy was like the wick, like they were wating for one another to begin to smell." This description is fitting given the following scene, in which Nancy stays unnaturally close to heat and flame. She puts her hand on the lamp chimney, and doesn't seem to notice its heat until Caddy asks her if it is hot. When she builds up the fire to make popcorn, Caddy observes, "Look at Nancy putting her hands in the fire... What's the matter with you, Nancy?" As they pop the popcorn, Nancy sits close to the fire and "the lamp was turned up so high it was beginning to smoke." Then, when she hears their father approaching, she is filled with fear and "her eyes filled with the red lamplight."
The fire and firelight in Nancy's cabin represent the fear that gradually fills her more and more, becoming panic. When they arrive, Quentin observes that "She was looking at us, only it was like she had emptied her eyes, like she had quit using them." When she hears someone approaching, "her eyes filled with red lamplight" as she is filled with panic. In contrast, the smoke from the lamp literally gets in Jason's eyes, causing him to cry. But instead of crying because of the symbolic fire in her eyes, Nancy begins to sweat: "water began to come out on her face in big drops, running down her face, carrying in each one a little turning ball of firelight like a spark until it dropped off her chin."
"That Evening Sun" was first published in March, 1931 in American Mercury as "That Evening Sun Go Down." The title refers to a black spiritual song, whose lyrics begin, “Lordy, how I hate to see that evening sun go down." It is an implication that death will accompany the setting of the sun, a fear that plagues Nancy.
The Compson family is also the central focus of The Sound and the Fury, for which "That Evening Sun" serves as a kind of introduction, and Absalom, Absalom!. In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson is traumatized by the realization of his sister, Caddy's, sexuality, and eventually commits suicide. Dilsey plays a large role in the fourth section of the book, as an unbiased narrator. Quentin is also one of the narrators of Absalom, Absalom!, which is told in a series of flashbacks, much like the anecdotal "That Evening Sun."