‘Barn Burning’ by William Faulkner

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‘Barn Burning’ by William Faulkner is a twisted story of a man, Abner, who finds some perverse sense of joy in setting afire someone else’s barn. “Barn Burning” is set roughly 30 years after the Civil War, the story revolves on two members of the Snopes family: Abner Snopes, a poor sharecropper who takes out his frustrations against the post-Civil War aristocracy by burning barns, and his ten-year-old son, Colonel Sartoris Snopes “Sarty”.

‘Barn Burning’ opens with ‘Sarty’ Snopes in court. He attended his father’s case hearing for arson. He was hoping against hope that he will not be called to testify against his father. This is so because Sarty knows fully well Abner, his father, is absolutely guilty of. The judge, whom Sarty perceives as kindly, is nonetheless Sarty’s enemy because he is his father’s enemy, and Sarty has not yet separated himself from his father. Sarty’s family are itinerant farmers, but they move around even more often than is typical because of his father’s habit of burning something down every time he gets angry.

In ‘‘Barn Burning,’’ Faulkner also depicts the alienation and loneliness felt by Sarty as he finds himself on the verge of moral awareness. His father’s crime cuts him off from the larger social world of which he is growing conscious. This sense of alienation however takes more prominence with regards to Sarty’s relation with his father, who should be the moral model and means of entry of the child into the larger world. Because of his father’s criminal recklessness Sarty in the end finds himself the bigger choice of alienating himself from his family or sticking to them.

The story’s conflict arose when Sarty faced by the need to expose truth must choose between family and morality. The story’s primary theme is the relationship between father and son. In the story one finds an important symbolism through fire. In a way, the fire represents the father’s anger and, his lack of respect for other people’s property. As can be gleaned from the fact that the story begins and ends with the burning down of a barn.

Sarty who has a growing dislike for his father’s destructive tendencies must quench the fire of truth and justice burning within him in order to choose his family. This is what the father expects from him which is evident at the middle of the story when Abner confronted Sarty and asked him if his behavior at the courtroom meant that he was willing to tell the people the truth on what happened and about his twisted act of burning the barn.

Sarty was forced to lie to protect his father from punishment for burning the neighbor’s barn. But deep inside him, he could not dispel the fact that justice must be served. “You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.” This is what Abner admonished his son, Sarty, after the court trial. And this quote is critical to the theme of the story as it focuses on blood ties. Specifically, how these ties affect the young Sarty. The story examines the internal conflict and dilemma that Sarty faces.

Due to his father’s wrongful act, Sarty Snopes desires to break away from the oppressive conditions of his family life. Sarty gains this freedom when he decides to warn the de Spains. Somehow, the father’s violation of his own sort of morality liberates Sarty from what he calls the “pull of blood,” or duty to his family.

Abner Snopes, is described as: “There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage . . . which impressed strangers, as if they got . . . a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lies with his” (218-19). At first, Sarty believed his father. He was prepared to defend his father at the first trial. But deep inside him he hopes that the fires will end, thinking, “Maybe he’s done satisfied now,”. Unfortunately, towards the end of the story, Sarty finds out that this was not to be so. Abner begins to set ablaze his next barn. This time his father breaks his own moral code by not sending anyone to warn. Sarty pleads, “Ain’t you even going to send a [slave]?” “At least you sent a [slave]before!” Sarty knows then what to do. He does not only intend to extinguish the fire that his father starts but more so he extinguishes the family connection. His act of warning the de Spain despite knowing fully well that he will incur his father’s ire sends off the message loud and clear that he is not going to be an accessory to his father’s crime.

Unlike before when his father would warn the people barn before setting it ablaze, Abner does not intend to do this in his last barn burning episode. This explicit violation gives Sarty the impetus to break away from the ties that bind him to his own family- from the “the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself”. A very courageous act indeed considering he is only ten years old.

This was not the case during the first trial. Here we find Sarty preparing himself to defend his father. But the experience enables him to “the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood”. Abner discerns this apprehension, and later warns him, “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you”. When Major de Spain admonishes Abner for the soiled rug, fining him twenty bushels of corn, Sarty feels hopeful as he thought, “Maybe it will all add up and vanish-corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses-gone, done with for ever and ever”. His prophetic thought leads to the final blow that make Sarty choose to go against his own family. At the end of the story we find Sarty’s painful severance of the family ties to break free of the ties that had him bound for so long.

Fortunately, unlike his elders, Sarty is not corrupted enough to let go of his morality. The “pull of blood” is not strong enough reason to corrupt Sarty’s principles. He decided to take matters in hand to make him into what he seems destined to become. He stood by his principles and breaks free from his family’s influence as epitomized by Sarty’s breaking loose from the strong grasp of his mother’s hand in the story. Just as Sarty is able to let go of his mother, he too is able to let go of his ties as he strive to pursuit of nobler and bigger goals.

Together with his father’s offense and his own youthful sensitivity lead Sarty to his noble decision to warn the de Spain’s. At the conclusion of the story we find that ‘he was a little stiff, but walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun. He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds, called unceasing-the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.’ It is a very telling line which proves that Sarty chooses not to look back to his family’s painful past and move on without them.


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