Barn Burning By William Faulkn Essay, Research Paper
A Critical Approach to Faulkner s Barn Burning
In Barn Burning, by William Faulkner, a tenant farming family is forced to move after the father, Abner, set fire to his neighbor s barn. Abner did this in retaliation of the neighbor s keeping Abner s hog that kept getting in the neighbor s yard. This was the twelfth time in ten years that the family had to move due to Abner s fierce anger and vengeful acts. Upon their arrival at their new tenant farm, Abner and his youngest son, Sarty, take a stroll up to the main house to speak with the landowner, Major de Spain. When they arrived at the main house, Abner purposely stepped in manure before entering the house. He refused to wipe his feet even though he was told to do so. He rubbed the manure in, staining the expensive rug, and refused to clean it. The Major then took Abner to court. Sarty, a ten-year-old boy, knew his father expected him to lie, and he was torn between remaining loyal to his father and doing what was right. The Justice of the Peace ordered Abner to repay the Major with ten bushels of corn from his crop. That night, in retaliation Abner decides to burn Major de Spain s barn. Abner Snopes was a hard man who expected his family to accept his beliefs, without question. He was a man full of bitterness and anger who felt it the right thing to do to take vengeance upon anyone who did him wrong. Sarty, his youngest son, dealt with an inner conflict of remaining loyal to his father and family ties and doing what was morally right. Sarty, after much inner conflict, ran to warn de Spain of his father s intentions. He heard two gun shots and realized that his father had been killed. Instead of returning home, Sarty ran away and never looked back. He felt a little guilty, but mostly relieved that he was at last free of that lifestyle and the inner conflict. Throughout the story, Sarty was torn between his father s beliefs and doing what he felt was right. In the end he decided to do what was morally right which meant that he had to forsake his family. He willingly broke away from the oppressive conditions of his family and isolated himself from everything he had ever known. In Barn Burning , plot, character, setting, point of view, and symbolism all promote the development of the idea that when one is faced with a difficult decision, that person should rely on his or her own values, not those of his or her family, to make the right choice.
Faulkner s Barn Burning is a grievous story because it very clearly shows the classical struggle between the privileged and the unprivileged classes in the late nineteenth century after the Civil War. Time after time emotions of despair surface from both the protagonist and antagonist involved in the story. This story outlines one distinct protagonist and one distinct antagonist. The protagonist is Colonel Sartoris Snopes ( Sarty ), a ten-year-old boy, and the antagonist is his father Abner Snopes. Sarty, the protagonist, is surrounded by his father s antagonism.
Abner Snopes is opposed to the social structure and the struggle that it imposed on him and his family. Abner makes the decisions for his family though they may not always be right. In Oliver Billingslea s criticism, he states, What Abner Snopes has done is doing to his family is to stifle each member s individuality. His discipline is repressive, almost Puritanical (Billingslea 293). Abner battles against any authority. He does what he wants no matter what the consequences are. Sarty is Abner s only real fear. He realizes that Sarty is a good kid and will turn him in if he is given the chance. While fighting against authoritative figures, Abner is also battling Sarty and Sarty s good will. Sarty refers to Abner as being cut out of tin (Faulkner 149). He believes that Abner is cold, tough, and unwilling to bend for anything. He knows that Abner is set in his ways and doesn t plan to change for anything or anyone. Sarty is afraid of his father and knows what Abner is capable of. For this reason, Sarty feels the need to be loyal to Abner, his father. At the same time, he realizes that Abner is not accomplishing anything by his actions. Their family is suffering because of Abner. Sarty is slowly growing up throughout the story. As soon as Sarty warns Major de Spain, a landowner who they worked for, of Abner s intention to burn his barn, Sarty mentally made the decision to leave childhood and become a man. At that point he took his future into his own hands and no longer allowed anyone, including Ab, to decide how he would live his life. According to Oliver Billingslea, William Faulkner s Barn Burning is a story about the relationship between a father and his sons, not only in the hereditary sense of blood ties, but in a spiritual sense as well, especially in respect to how the younger boy s conscience dictates action. It is the story of one boy s relationship to what Faulkner called the old verities and truths of the heart, evidenced in Sarty s quest for a father figure that will give meaning and order to his life (Billingslea 287). Nicolet s discussion takes a different approach in his criticism: William Faulkner s Barn Burning is essentially a morality play in which good and evil, embodied in the conflict between Abner Snopes (who represents what will become Snopesism in general) and the essentially decent by relatively powerless world of the Justice of the Peace s court and symbolized by the two parts of young Sarty s name (Colonel Sartoris Snopes), battle for the boy s soul (Nicolet 25).
In Faulkner s Barn Burning three main characters stand out–Major de Spain Abner, and Sarty. Major de Spain is a member of the Southern aristocracy, but with a qualification: his name, which connects him with neither the Protestant upper class nor the Bourbons or other French-descended grandees of the Old South. The name de Spain suggests the nearly submerged Spanish presence in Louisiana and Florida, or even the Creole, or light skinned free blacks of New Orleans (Short Stories For Students 4).
In the story Abner has a fiery ego and a chip on his shoulder. He takes offense with authority (the landowners), and his life seems to be a series of circumstances that invoke offense, revenge, and running away after he burns the barns. According to Loges criticism, Abner Snopes is depicted as a man who will not hesitate to evoke the power of fire against those who oppose him. In Barn Burning the narrator suggests that for Abner, fire has almost mystical powers . This association with fire provides another correlation with the biblical Abner. Eight times in the Old Testament Abner is referred to as the son of Ner. In Hebrew Net means to glisten or shine as in a lamp (Strong 78-80). The name is derived from a Chaldeean root nuwr, which is translated in the Old Testament as fiery or fire (Strong 77). Thus in the Hebrew, Abner becomes the son of fire or burning (Loges). Loges believes Abner s name and his character are similar to the Bible character Abner in the book of Samuel.
In Faulkner s Barn Burning, another main character is Colonel Sartoris Snopes, or Sarty, as he was called for short. Sarty short for Colonel Sartoris Snopes bears the name of a famous Rebel commander from the civil war under whom, perhaps, his father Abner Snopes served; (Short stories for students 4). In Bradford s criticism, he refers to Sarty as an extraordinary boy who is the young son of Abner Snopes, the head of that despicable clan. In the course of the story Sarty becomes what his given name suggests, a supporter of that larger family that is community and a protector of right order (Bradford 332). Sarty was small and wiry like his father, in patched and faded jeans even too small for him, with straight, uncombed, brown hair and eyes gray. This young boy is torn between loyalty to his father and morality, and the story deals with this struggle. Sarty is an upright character, changing throughout the story as he moves from sticking to his own blood and instincts to thinking more of himself and his own welfare. At first he is extremely loyal to his father, but as the father digs a deeper hole for himself and his family, Sarty realizes that his life is a vicious cycle of the same situations in every town they live. In the first scene, Sarty knows that his father wants him to lie, and he acknowledges that he will have to do so, despite strong feelings that it is the wrong thing to do. He fears his father more than he wishes to act as he would like to. According to Hiles, You re getting to be a man .You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain t going to have any blood to stick to you : Abner Snopes s admonition to his son, Colonel Sartoris (or Sarty ), introduces a central issue in Faulkner s Barn Burning the kinship bond, which the story s narrator calls the old fierce pull of blood (Hiles 329). Sarty watches his father get kicked out of town, track manure over his new employer s antique rug, suffer the indignity of having to clean it, and then burn the landlord s barn down. As this occurs, he drifts more and more out of the mindset that his father prefers, and he gains some sense of responsibility and justice and settles into the view that he will have to take action to stop this from happening. Eventually, Sarty warns the landlord that his father is burning his barn, and then he leaves his family. This is an entrance into another type of life, another outlook of life, and a new freedom that would have been nonexistent if he had remained in his father s grip. Sarty changed from a boy who was very afraid of his father to one who took action as a young man. He was aware of the consequences of his actions and willing to face them in lieu of remaining where he was. Sarty was left alone as he watched his family go on and leave him. Although Sarty had no book learning to bring into experiences, however, he did display evidence of natural brightness his emerging sense of morality, a characteristic not shared by his father.
The setting of Barn Burning is intensely important to the story. It is the post-Civil War South, 10 to 15 years after the War, in which a defeated and in many ways humiliated society is trying to hold its own against the Northern victor. The South has retreated into plantation life and small-town existence. According to Johnston, Barn Burning is a chapter in the continuing story of this stubborn retreat. A generation after war, the planter-aristocracy is still quite powerful as we see by the fact that Major de Spain is a large landowner and lives in a white mansion, staffed by Negro servants and furnished with imported rugs and glittering chandeliers (Johnston 436). Privately, it maintains the social power structure that was existent before the war. Slavery had been abolished, but the master-slave relationship mentality was very much alive. There was a great separation between the Southern aristocracy and the tenant farmers and workers who did the labor on the plantations. The Snopes belonged to the lower rank of these migrant workers, itinerant sharecroppers, who moved from one place to another, paying for their stay by giving part of the crop to the landlord. In line with Abner s character, this lifestyle created an intense resentment. In a way the story s setting could be the road since Sarty s family moved constantly and lived in at least a dozen ramshackle houses on at least a dozen plantations in his ten short years. Their frequent travel from one place to another was due to his father s quarreling and violence. The wagon, heaped with miserable belongings, was a consistent scene for Sarty.
Faulkner s style is to tell stories with a particular point of view. In Barn Burning Faulkner tells his story primarily from the point of view of young Sarty, a ten year-old boy. According to Franklin, Faulkner anchors the story most effectively in Sarty s perceptions, and his method fits his subject perfectly (Franklin 192). He illustrated events and situations as an illiterate ten-year-old would. Sarty sees pictures on labels of various goods in the store, but cannot read and understand what the labels say. Sarty was intimidated and felt very small when adults towered above him, and he struggled with moral and intellectual decisions. The narrator described Sarty s youth as a handicap. Young Sarty could not express himself to convey his own meaning to his existence, and this added to the power that Abner possessed over him. Sarty was unwillingly prepared to lie for his father and to defend his him at the Justice of Peace s court. Sarty had to constantly remind himself that his father s enemy was also his enemy. He also fought a boy twice his size when the boy ridiculed Sarty s family. However, Sarty, knowing that burning other people s property was wrong, hoped that his father would stop these harsh acts. His father did not change, and later, when Abner began to burn the Major s barn, Sarty s moral struggle ended when he made the decision to free himself from his blood ties and run to warn the Major. At this point Sarty reached for the positive in life and for the chance to be a better man than his father. According to Ford, the narrator a sophisticated, intellectual, and foremost poetic presence–absorbs and interprets Sarty s anguish for the reader. The reader simultaneously experiences the terror-stricken child s distress and the narrator s rationalizing of Sarty s suffering. The narrator intermixes Sarty s past, present, and future, and, by superimposing these layers of time on one another, distills this moving , passionate moment to its absolute essence (Ford 1).
William Faulkner s Barn Burning is a short story that focuses on a family of tenant farmers, the Snopes, in the South shortly after the Civil War. Faulkner is known for his use of symbolism throughout his many stories about the South, and this story is no exception. When reading Barn Burning, one can find symbolism everywhere. Faulkner uses things as simple as a rug or manure in order to bring out his points. The rug is the property of Major de Spain, the man that hired Abner Snopes as a tenant farmer. As Abner walks up to de Spain s house, he purposefully steps in manure, and then he ignores the servant s request to wipe his boots off before entering the house. When he enters the de Spain house, he wipes as much of the manure as he can onto the expensive rug that Major de Spain had purchased in France. He does not bother to wipe the manure off his boots until he leaves the house. The manure symbolizes Abner s disrespect for those who have more that he does and his desire to destroy what those above him have. The rug symbolizes a position in life that he cannot attain. He is a bitter tenant farmer who refuses to work for the very things in life that cause him to be jealous of other people. Not only did Abner not want to work to earn money to buy the finer things in life, he did not want others to work and earn money to buy them. He was clearly resentful and angry toward the Major who had worked hard and earned money to buy finer things. He showed his hatred and jealousy for the upper class when he destroyed the rug, not once, but twice. In Fowler s criticism, she denotes that Much of the action in Barn Burning does focus, in fact, on Abner Snopes clashes with Major de Spain and the society whose values de Spain embodies. Conflict between Abner and de Spain develops almost immediately in the story, the result of Abner s deliberate antagonism (Fowler 514). Another vital symbol in the story is fire. The fire symbolizes the father s hostility and animosity toward those he perceives as better than he is. The story used the symbolism of fire in two ways. The story begins and ends with the burning down of a barn. When Abner became angry and desired vengeance, he resorted to rashly destroying the property of whomever he thought did him wrong. Abner thought that destroying the property with fire would make things right. Fire destroys anything that gets in its way. It will not stop until forced to quit. Just like fire, Abner had no respect for boundaries and did not quit until forced to.
In Barn Burning fire also represented anger and power. Due to the extreme cold, Abner built a small, contained fire. Faulkner described this fire as a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father s habit and custom always (Faulkner 147). From this, Faulkner showed Abner s deeper alliance with fire, its potential and its power. He respected it, and as a result of this respect, he used it as his greatest weapon. In a sense, his relationship to fire demonstrated his relationship to his own anger and the immense power that his anger had over him. Rather than vent his angry feelings, Abner held them in (just like the contained fire) until he could lash out with full vengeance by burning a barn.
In conclusion, the conflict between Sarty and his father finally ended when Sarty made the choice to trust himself and his instinctive sense of morality, even though it cost him his father and his family ties. The young Sarty Snopes willingly separated himself from the oppressive conditions of his family, thus isolating himself from all he had ever known. He had made the decision to leave childhood and become a man. He had taken his future into his own hands and would no longer allow Abner or anyone else to decide how he would live his life. Even though he was too young to understand, he had accepted the choice he had made and would not look back. Faulkner ended the story by saying, 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 (Faulkner 157).