William Faulkner is a writer of his own unique style. He was a resident of Mississippi and spent most of his days in Oxford, Mississippi. He attended college at University of Mississippi. He served in the air force during World War I and afterwards retained a job at the New Orleans Times. He was a featured writer for this newspaper and soon became famous. Even after being known as the marvelous writer of Mississippi, he had hard times getting by and supporting himself. He began to write Hollywood scripts and teach at the University of Virginia in order to keep a stable income. He has been a major influence for other southern writers and always keeps a southern aspect through out his stories. He primarily was a novelist, and what many novels he did indeed write, but he also wrote many wonderful short stories. In 1950 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. William Faulkner is considered one of America’s greatest twentieth-century novelists (“William Faulkner,” pars. 1-4).
“Barn Burning” is one of William Faulkner’s many southern stories. It is a tale of a southern boy forced into role by society. “Barn Burning” takes place after the civil war in the late nineteenth century. It primarily involves the conflicts of a father and his son. The father lives a rebellious life style and finds himself in outrages and in return sets things on fire. The son, Sarty, is trying to overcome what’s in his blood and is in constant struggle with family ties and morality. Although the story centers on the feelings and thoughts of Abner’s youngest son Sarty, the economic implications of his entire family play a vital role in justifying his father’s behavior, which is the pivotal reason for Sarty’s controversial feelings on which the whole story is based. William Faulkner captures the life of the south during the depression in this story. The dramatic conflict can be seen in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” through the setting, characters, and symbols.
Along with many of Faulkner’s short stories, “Barn Burning” is set in the imaginary Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha (Akers and Moore 9). The stories main setting are at first the justice court, then of course on the road, and at last Major de Spains plantation. As the story opens, the ten-year old boy, Sartoris Snopes, sits in a courtroom listening as his father is accused of burning a neighbor’s barn. So, at the start of the story one may see that the father may be a bit of a rebel or he could just be being wrongfully accused for something he did not do. After being found guilty and in return being banned from the county, the family hits the roads again in their wagon not knowing where they will end up. Abner’s behavior makes him unwanted in any community so he is constantly moving his family from place to place. The family has become so used to this nomadic life, that they have few memories of a stable place to call home. This causes them to know life under the stars as well as they do under a roof. The lines, “ The wagon went on. He did not know where they were going. None of them ever did or ever asked, because it was always somewhere, always a house of sorts waiting on them a day or two days or even three days away” (Faulkner 239). This line suggests the life they live, which in fact is not a stable one. A few days later the family arrives at Major de Spains plantation. This luxurious plantation would be the next place for Abner Snopes to work as a tenant and a sharecropper for work. The significance of this beautiful mansion and its vivid description in the story from Sarty’s point of view, allows things to be seen from his perspective. The description of the house helps frame the main conflict that Sarty has with his father. Sarty states, “Hits big as a courthouse he thought quietly, with a surge of peace and joy whose reason he could not have thought into words, being to young for that…” (Faulkner 261). Seeing the house causes his feelings of happiness flow from him, and he feels that nothing his father could do could destroy this beautiful place he sees. Sarty thinks to himself, “Maybe he will feel it too. Maybe it will even change him now from what he couldn’t help but be” (Faulkner 261). The home is like a hope for the family, for the father to turn his life around and change his ways (Haisty 170). “In the context of ‘Barn Burning’ de Spain might be said to stand for social and aesthetic order, the two things which Sarty has been deprived of all his life” (“Barn Burning,” par. 21).
The three characters of importance to the controversy of the story are Abner Snopes, the antagonist, Colonel Satoris Snopes, the protagonist, and Lennie Snopes, the wife of her husband and mother to her children. When finding out the meaning behind the title of the story, the article “Barn Burning” states that, “The barn-burning of the story’s title refers to Snope’s habit of setting fire to the property of those who (in his eyes) slight him” (par. 9). Faulkner does a magnificent job allowing the readers to see the evil in Abner Snopes. Abner appears to have some type of complex with society and his madness expresses itself through dominance, destruction, and wrath. He is a man of dominance, as seen through the way he treats his family, with harsh words and sometimes, brutal force. His actions show his lack of knowledge and his immaturity. When Abner becomes angry, rather than searching for a reasonable answer for his problem, he resorts to rashly destroying the property of whomever he thinks has wronged him. Abner’s wife, on the other hand, shows signs of having feelings and caring for others throughout the story. At the beginning of the story the readers are told that she is sitting on the wagon crying. Mrs. Snopes is sobbing because of the wretchedness of her life and the cruelty of her husband. She knows that what her husband does is wrong and uncivilized but she is a women in fear of her husband and does not stand up for herself. Faulkner allows the readers to see the enlightened side of the mother, in order to see where Sarty’s intelligence might have spawned from, because it was indeed not from his father. The last character of great significance is Sarty. He is at a time period in his life where he is noticing his father’s wrong doings and becoming judgmental as to whether or not that is the life he wants to live. When the father saw that Sarty would have turned him in at court, he states “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” (Faulkner 260). This is the struggle that Sarty deals with throughout the story. He doesn’t know whether he should go against his family in what he thinks is right or stick to his blood and be a part of something he disagrees with. Sarty is confused on how he should view life. He tends to hide his feelings by denying the facts, “Enemy! Enemy! he thought; for a moment he could not even see, could not even see that the Justice’s face was kindly not discern that his voice was troubled when he spoke to the man named Harris…” (Faulkner 257). Sarty knows that his father’s acts are wrong, but still sees the people against his father as enemies. After the court session when some person twice his size called his father a “barn burner”, his reactions are to stand up for his father and fight him back. Although the Sarty gets beat up by the boy, he still made an attempt to act as if he went along with his father’s actions.
Young Sarty Snopes describes his own inner conflict as “the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses.” On one side is “the old fierce pull of blood”—family loyalty. On the other are truth and justice. The pull of family ties is strong, but Sarty is old enough to have started to realize that what his father does is wrong. (Haisty 169)
The use of symbols in the story allows one to better understand the battle of this family. The main symbol is the fire, which is used in two ways. The side of Abner that thinks he can destroy anything to make things better relates perfectly to fire. Fire destroys anything in its way, and has respect for nothing. It will not stop until it is forced to quit. Just like fire, Abner does not respect boundaries. He stops at nothing and respects no ones property. The scene in which the family moves to the next town, after being kicked out of their last one, offers a tremendous understanding into the state of Abner’s anger. Due to the extreme cold Abner builds a small, contained fire. Faulkner describes this fire as a “small fire, neat, niggard, almost, a shrewd fire, such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather” (259). From this, one understands Abner’s deeper relation to the fire, its potential and its power. He respects it, and as a result of this respect, he uses it as his greatest weapon. In this sense, his relation to fire demonstrates his relation to his own anger, and the immense power that his anger has over him. Rather than venting his adverse feelings, Abner holds them in, as he contains the small campfire, until he can lash out with the full force of his hatred. The irony is that the story begins with a fire, showing the father in control, yet in the end the father is no longer in control and because of his outrage he finally meets his match. Along with the fire as being a primary symbol in the story, so is the beautiful plantation. It is described as a white luxurious place. It symbolically does foretell the hope and one day the pure life that Sarty will live to see. The house opens up the eyes of Sarty and in the end closes the eyes of Abner. If Abner would have saw the house for what it was worth, maybe he too would have learned from it. Another symbol is the black jacket that Abner so proudly wears. One would know from reading short stories that black indicates death and wickedness. The evilness that reeks within Abner is seen throughout the story and as far as death, it will soon be known for him. Faulkner describes him as “a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frock-coat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin” (260). The last symbol is the mother’s dowry, which is used as a metaphor of her life. “The clock inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which would not run, stopped at some fourteen minutes past two o’clock of a dead and forgotten day and time, which had been his mother’s dowry” (Faulkner 258). The broken piece of furniture serves as a metaphor for Mrs. Snopes life, which came to a stop, spiritually, when she bound her fortune, for whatever reason, to Ab Snopes (“Barn Burning,” par. 15).
Throughout the story of “Barn Burning,” William Faulkner continually foretells the conflict through the setting, characters, and symbols. The story’s emotional turns are clearly defined by Sarty’s thoughts and Ab’s reactions. Sarty’s dilemma and Ab’s frustrations grab the reader, serving up a series of emotionally laden dilemmas. At the end of the story, Sarty makes a life long decision knowing he will never be able to turn home and that it will bring his family down once and for all. This decision is hard for a boy to make, but Sarty is able to see that he is nothing like his father, and the route he wants to travel in the world is nothing like his father’s path (Bernardo, par. 3). “Barn Burning” is the struggle this family faces of life and death and the conflicts between the father and son. In a way, Faulkner writes as a moralist.