William Faulkner – Barn Burning

Posted on November 3, 2008

Barn Burning is a short story that was written by an American author- William Faulkner. Faulkner has brought out a mysterious characterization of Snopes.  It is a story that has ten year old Sarty Snopes as the main character who is faced by a conflict. Sarty’s father is a barn burner and he is divided as to whether he should let it to the judges that his father faces on two different occasions. In the first case, his father is taken to court and charged with burning Mr. Harry’s barn. Even though he is guilty, he walks away scot free and the bad thing about it is that it is not the first and is not going to be the last barn he burns as we see in the story later. It is an injustice and he wishes that he could stop it, but on the other hand, he should protect the family name. this brings out the basis upon which the story rotates.

The stor’s main theme is a conflict in which Sarty has to find which one among his family and his community he should identify with. Abner Snopes, Sarty’s father keeps on reminding him that family relations are very important and that “he was getting to be a man. He got to learn to stick to his own blood or he wont have any blood to sticking to him” (Main story: p 3) the major theme in the book is about finding one’s identity, or choosing what to identify with. There is constant identity crisis.

The book presents Sarty with two opposing choices. He can choose to side with his father because they are related by blood or choose to be loyal to the justice system in the community. Sarty knows very well that his father does burn barns and he does not advocate for his great injustice that the owners of the barns are subject to but his father keeps on drumming the fact that he has to take only the sides of his blood relatives. In his own opinion, we see that he argues that they are the ones who can side with you in all circumstances. In his statement earlier referred to, he adds that “those people in the court were not going to side with him even if Sarty would have decided to testify against him.” (Main story: p.3)  this idea of being loyal to the family members is evidently something that the boy must have been taught from a very early age because, even before the father reminds him that there was no need for him to go testifying in court against his father to bring about justice, he had already set the court people as enemies in his mind, “He fiercely aligns himself with a loyalty to blood as opposed to the justice of the court: ‘… our enemy/he thought in that despair; ourne/ mine and his both!/’…” (Main story: p.1)

Another instance where he shows his allegiance to the loyalty of the family is when he fights with other two boys because they ridicule him and heir father, “they call him a barn burner.” Although it might be clear that he lived in ‘terror and fear’ of his father, he cannot just stand the soiling of both his father’s and his own name. (Main story: p.2). in the process of fighting, he is hurt, this shows the sacrifice he would make to ensure that he protects his family name, irregardless of whether they are on the wrong. This presents a great contrast to the fact that had the judge not dismissed him, he would have testified against his father.  When confronted by the father, Sarty does not hide the fact that he had been planning to tell the truth, and his father slaps him. At this point, we might be driven to think that his loyalty is imposed on him by his father. He admits to us that “when his father told him that they just wanted to get him because he had beat them, had he answered that what they wanted was simply justice and the truth, he would have hit him again.” So he preferred to keep quiet.

After this incident, the judge is forced to find Snopes innocent despite the fact that he has been responsible for burning more than one barn. We see that in the area where the people do farming, so much importance is attached to barns which are the store houses in the area. He does not burn farm houses. However, he is issued with an order to leave the country for a neighboring country immediately.

Young Sarty is faced with such a difficult choice. He can either choose to side with his father pledging his allegiance to blood ties, or choose to be just and reject his father’s evil deeds. In their new home, their landlord is a certain Major de Spain.  We see the way Snopes starts manipulating the situation to make Sarty aware that he is watching him this time. The statement “…the man that aims to begin to-morrow owning my body and soul for the next eight months…” might just be an indication of the sorry life that he lives, such that he feels obligated to teach his son, Sarty to always side with him in his endeavors. It could just be a way of saying that other people will always make him be under their control and either he plans to control his son in turn to be his slave as he finds strength in having at least someone who is obedient to him.

When Snopes takes Sarty along for a walk, we see clearly what the wish of young Sarty is. The wish that his father changes is seen by the way he figures the fact that his father will be able to change now that he has come to these rich men’s mansion. “Major de Spain’s house, according to Sarty is comparable to a place of law: Hit’s as big as a court house. (Main story: p.4)” ‘this emphasizes the theme of justice. He thinks that the splendor that the mansion displays will change his father’. . (Commentary: p. 2). This was reason enough for Sarty to experience some peace, as highlighted in the second page of the commentary.

This demonstrates the hopes that the boy has, he believes that his father will change so that at least he would not have to side with injustices. Unfortunately, it seems to be disillusionment, something that you dream about but never really happens. The father’s stiff black back represents rigidity that Sarty cannot fathom. He is not just about to abandon his illegal activity of barn burning. He derives some pleasure in it and cannot just quit.  The many stiff attribute of this man show a lot of rigidity. The radiance of the mansion is something very inconsequential to his bad habits.

The rigidity that Sarty finally realizes that the father possesses motivates him to pursue a different line of identity. He figures out that the father has potential to change but he is stringent in avoiding it. The horse droppings incidence tells it all. He deliberately steps on it so he can dirty Major de Spain’s rug. He is always seeking trouble as his poor boy wishes that he changes his behavior. It was beyond his belief that his father would be unjust so deliberately. He is an evil character. “His being wounded in the Civil War, has made him a bitter man, so he throws it about to other people blindly especially those who oppose him, or pose threats to him. How he knew those who do that to him is not clear. For instance, in Mr. Harris’ case, he had made an effort to help him when he thought that was what was needed- a roll of barbed wire, but the reaction was the same and by any chance, he was humiliated.  Maybe, Snopes must have been a very disturbed man. “His name itself begun with a ‘sn’ sound, an unpleasant sound. A silent and sullen man, walked with a limp. This is very handy when we come to learn that he had received the wound while stealing horses while he was still young.”(Commentary: p. 2)

After the house incidence that would have been a booster to the change of Sarty, we see him once more in the payment of some money to de Spain for having destroyed his carpet. Father and son team up and decide to ensure that they will not pay, ‘due to the snobbish tone that Major de Spain tells his father that he cannot afford a hundred dollars. Ha asks for twenty bushels, that they both agree, with Sarty insisting that it was unfair and that they wont pay. However, Sarty does that in what is supposedly a mission to ensure that the father does is prevented from burning de Spain’s barn.  It looks like a derailment tactic. He feels bad that the father had been defeated but this is ironical since he is supporting an injustice because he imagines it is mild, in his opinion, as he argues that the de Spain is so unfair. He is irritated that Mr. de Spain dismisses his father that he cannot get a hundred dollars. Unluckily, even this does not seem to set his father’s mind from planning to burn the barn. This is the time when they clash so badly and the father is so visibly angry at all of them, for trying to stop him from burning de Spain’s barn.

Sparty explanation for his father’s mystery of burning burns and yet he builds very little fires at the camp, see the provision of a very questionable explanation. Fire is his weapon of maintaining integrity as well as hitting back at his enemies. “The use of fire is his one and only source of power to be used selectively and effectively should anyone cross his path thus anger him.” (Commentary: p.3). It is however mysterious that he builds very small fires at the camp and yet he strikes his enemies with fire. His having been in the army at a certain time might have been the reason why he uses small fires for cover up.
When Mr. de Spain tells his father to pay the twenty bushels, Sarty knows for a fact that if he is made to pay de Spain, he will surely burn his barn again. He goes to court and almost reveals the secret in an attempt to defend his father. He thinks that they are accusing him of something, not knowing that he was the plaintiff.

Sarty is caught off guard this time by his father’s intension to burn Mr. de Spain’s barn. He even tries to delay his plan by suggesting the sending of someone to warn Mr. de Spin that his barn will be burned but his father already knows what he stands for and won’t let his plan fail. Despite the mother’s effort to restrain him from going, he struggles with her and ensures that he defeats her. His aunt supports his course and even threatens to go if his mother does not let him go. Even his mother sides with him, that making the three of them against one. His problem is not abnormal after all. He frees himself and takes off towards Mr. de Spain’s house. He does the only sensible thing that crosses his mind, he reports to Mr. Spain who runs to the farm and shoots towards that direction. As the story ends, we do not know whether Sarty’s father is alive, but seemingly, it is too late. This time, the community justice overtook the loyalty to the family. As he sits in the crest of the hill and thinks about exactly what happened, Sarty is just sad, maybe because he has lost his family and will have to start a new life on his own. He will no longer be bound to the family ties that he was so much bound to that all his decisions depended on it. It’s a whole new beginning for him. He is presented with a world where he does not know anything and will have to learn all things, but there is hope. Nothing binds him to support injustices. He has all the justice within reach, he can keep his dignity. A new world is set for him.

Even Snopes himself suffers the identity crisis problem. Only that could explain the reason why he was always trying to hurt other people or trying to make so many enemies. Even in the war, we are told that he did not fight along any side. Even though he makes his sons life so difficult so that the son lives in constant fear and despair, he suffers more than Sarty does. He has not done anything to make people appreciate him, but is always trying to identify his enemies and destroy them. In his own opinion, he might not even be having friends, to identify with.

In another light however, we find that the theme that the narrator tries to bring out is self eliminatory, if one of either sides is achieved, the other is eliminated. The author must have been aiming to eliminate the traditional views of Snopes that saw him making his son a slave to family support. If Sarty had chosen to be loyal to his father, he would never have tried to save the situation. Probably he would have ended up like his father since he would be an accomplice to the evil things that he did. On the other hand, we see Snopes having been made to be something we cannot quite conceive. It is quite difficult to imagine a man would be bad enough to force his son live in captivity of having to side with his illegal deeds. We also do not expect him to be the one suing Mr. de Spain. He had wronged him by marring his rug, and the best he would do was wait for him to be the one taking him to court. In short, the author tried to manipulate the characters in an extra ordinary way to come up this theme.

It’s also interesting how the racial issues have been brought out. As much as Snopes sees himself as a person looked down upon, he knows that he has one up above the niggers. That’s the reason why he dismisses the butler when he tries to stop him at the door to get into the de Spain’s mansion. Though slightly brought out, the racial discrimination brought about sends us back to history. It’s a historical representation. At least, apart from the fact that there were such issues (racial) one would think that that was all that there was in this land. It shows that even the whites had their own troubles to deal with.

In conclusion, we see that the author went a long way to bring out the theme of identity crisis. Creation of stereotypes was the tactic he found most appropriate to do so. He bundles one person with all the negative characters so that he could be a barrier for the main character to have a crisis.

In addition, we see that the story is mostly told from Sarty’s point of view so that we are being led to feel sorry for him. Though the author deviates to get into historical events that might have occurred in the main character’s absence, the rest of the story revolves around him such that he does not use any other character’s perspective that would bring different light to the whole story. This might have been done to speed up the development of the theme. Otherwise the theme has been clearly outlined.

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