Home » “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

“Barn Burning ” describes the development of Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty) with his coming to manhood and the concomitant rejection of his father (Mr Snopes). From the beginning of the story, we witness the growing conflict between the two characters which is identified from the beginning of the text with the boy’s anxiety. Nevertheless, through this latent emotional (and physical) rebellion, what the boy comes through is the discovery of evil, embodied by the patriarchal figure whose destructive will seems to control everyone and everything.

This desperate situation tears the boy in two because he doesn’t seem able to chose between “the old fierce of blood” ( the fidelity to his father) and his thrust towards justice and truth. We will see that “Barn Burning” is actually the story of an initiation that will lead to the boy’s final refusal to help and support his father. By denouncing this one, Sarty will claim his own individuality and will gain his independence and freedom. The opposition of sharecropper (Mr Snopes) and aristocrat (Mr de Spain) suggests social implications. Several elements refer to this possibility.

The father points out that de Spain’s house is built with “nigger sweat” as well as the white sweat of the sharecropper. He seems to view himself as a victim of an unfair socio-economic system: he “burns with a ravening and jealous rage. “(p. 169), he is the “element of fire”, the narrator speaks to “some deep mainspring” of Mr Snopes being “as the element of steel or powder spoke to other men, as one weapon for the preservation of integrity … used with discretion. “(p. 166). The father does not make any discrimination between the rich and the poor.

For him, there are only two categories of people: blood kin and “they”, into which he lumps all the rest of mankind and this division relates to his son ‘s crisis (to be related to the problem of identification too). The physical description we are given about the father is always presented through the eyes of his son. The father really seems to be a kind of ghost which would come in no matter the place (“his father’s foot were gone”, “the silhouette was standing over him” (p. 172).

Recurrent images dominate his description: first, blackness and rigidity, “in his black Sunday coat” (p. 163), “the stiff black coat” (p. 64), “a shape black” (p. 166),”the stiff black back” (p. 168), the stiff and implacable limp” (p. 170), the stiff foot (p. 172 and 179). At times, he proves to be a passive figure but metallic imagery and a sense of cold violence are also used in his portrait : “his father had said no word yet” (p. 162), “his voice cold and harsh”, “the harsh, cold voice” (p. 164), “the voice harsh like tin” (p. 166), “His father had not spoke again. He did not speak again” (p. 170), “his foot striking… it carried” (p. p. 172-173). It happens that the same words are used to describe different characters.

We find in the description of the characters the same way to repeat things. For instance, the same words are used to depict the father and his older son who then seems to be the spitting image of that one. The older son has accepted his fate; his father passed on the torch to him; this can be seen with the phrase:” His father handed the reins to the older son” p. 167. All the members of the family are submitted to the father’s will, whether it be Sarty, his mother, his aunt, his brother and his sisters. They are passive figures who embody a total lack of willingness.

They remain inscrutable and they indicate no desires throughout the story. We can note that each character (in the family) seems to have his double: the father with the older son, the twin sisters, the mother and her sister; most of the time, Sarty shows indifference towards them but he experiences a real contempt for his sisters he sees as bovine (p. 167) and hulking (p. 164). They are almost depicted as human cattle. In the story’s climatic scene, Mr Snopes orders his wife to hold her son to prevent him from warning de Spain that he intends to burn his barn.

Ms Snopes is a will-less character who symbolises the strong power of her husband’s will; his implacable force is thus projected on the figure of the mother, appearing momentarily in the doorway, her face and eyes filled with despair; (p. 171) but in all scenes, she remains a peripheral figure without life or power, like the stopped hands of the inlaid clock which was her dowry (p. 165). All the members of the family become the father ‘s extension of his will. On the other hand, the story is centred on Sarty’ s emotional dilemma. Faulkner places heavy emphasis on the sensational details that the boy feels.

This can be seen in the opening paragraph when we find that he is unconsciously aware that things are happening. Then, there is the sensation that the boy believes he feels, the smell of the meat. This is related to the feelings that he cannot express. The smell, referring to the olfactory sense, links the devil image and the blood image to identify the anxiety the father creates in the child’s psyche. The permanent reference to blood refers to the past, where you come from, to your origins and your “descendants” (p. 165).

Tension is created by the blood (“the old fierce of blood. p. 162, “the old grief of blood” p. 164). demanding identification with his father against : ” our enemy… ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father! (p. 162). Here, we could make a reference to the original sin which would appear as an unknown menace hanging over the boy and that is passed on from a generation to another. Sarty has inherited the traditions and the father tries to convince his son that their interests are identical. In the second major scene, Mr Snopes leads his son up the slope, away from the family at the campfire.

The child looks up at the towering figure of his father “against the stars… of the frockcoat. “. He strikes his son “on the side of the head but without heat” (p. 166), like he had struck the two mules (p. 165) and at times he also speaks “without heat” (p. p. 166 and 169). These images of cold violence and indifference to inflicted pain convey the child’s sense of his father emotional frigidity. Mr Snopes’ s cold violence is not an expression of hatred or anger: violence is a tool, used upon his son (as upon the mules) to make him to do his bidding.

The father is violent when he thinks that he has been threatened. The father’s eyes are appropriate to this cold passion with which he beats his son and burns the barns (” the shaggy brows beneath which the gray eyes glinted coldly “p. 174). The son uses satanic images to describe his nightmarish vision of his father. For instance, as they go up the drive, Sarty follows his father: traditionally, the devil casts no shadow and Mr Snopes’ figure appears to the child as having “that impervious quality of something cut ruthlessly from tin, depthless, as though sidewise to the sun it would cast no shadow” (p. 68).

Fire, the element of the devil, is the weapon for the preservation of his superiority. He cannot accept no order beyond his own. In the text, there are several references to Heaven and Hell (the constant evocation of the fire with the “scarlet devils” on the cans, p. 162, “Damnation! “, p. 163, “in the red haze”, p. 164, “the light… flaring up”, p. 173). In the satanic myth, Lucifer asserts his will against the divine order and he is cast out of heaven. The angels who fall with Lucifer become extensions of his will.

The father’s will is so great that it creates a force into which everything (and everyone) must flow or be destroyed. He cannot tolerate anybody who would challenge the dominance of his will. By allowing his hog to come into the farmer’s corn and by dirtying and ruining de Spain’s rug, he deliberately creates a conflict that would assert his supremacy. In the same way, Sarty’ s father is seen as an outcast and pariah among men (“Leave this country and don’t come back to it”, p. 164) but he accepts no order that is not of his blood (“to learn to stick to your own blood… ny blood to stick to you” p. 167).

For him, he is Abner Snopes versus the rest of mankind; he instructs the boy that everyone is his enemy. For Mr Snopes, “they” is the enemy. The boy says that “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again” (p. 167). Sarty’ s resistance is a recognition of “something” beyond his father. Sarty is struggling to be himself. He answers with such intensity to de Spain ‘s house because he sees it as an object completely isolated from his father’s will.

De Spain’s plantation house, on the other hand, provides the child an objective image for the moral thrust generating his rebellion against his father. His immediate reaction to the sight of the house is to compare it to a symbol of justice, the courthouse. The truth “they” want is nothing but justice. Mr Snopes would have hit his son because such statement would have been a challenge to his own will. He forces his boy to submit to the pull of blood by making him his accomplice.

Sarty expresses a hope that his father will change. His cry (p. 175: “He ain’t done it! , protesting his father’s innocence, expresses this desperate hope; Abner Snopes is what he his whereas his son is in the process of becoming. A change in his father’s behaviour would mean that this one has recovered a sense of integrity and has renounced his destructive violence. After the second hearing, the child insists to his father that they don’ t have to pay the fee (“He won’t git no ten bushels neither. ” P. 176) The father’s answer calms the child ‘s anxiety and the following scene is an idealistic one: for the first time, Abner appears human.

The terrifying images of rigidity and blackness are gone. The boy listens to his father telling a story and we see him divide the food with his two sons. But this peaceful interlude ends abruptly that evening with the mother anguished cry: “Abner! No! No! Oh, God. Oh, God. Abner! ” p. 177. Abner unjustly accuses Sarty of intending to betray him, but doing so, he recognises that his son is moving out of childhood, developing a mind and will of his own and Sarty shows that he is no longer blindly loyal.

He leaves the world of innocence to enter with his father the world of sin; the allusions to the smell (p. 62) inaugurates this passage. Whereas the other characters are deprived of their identities, Sarty is in search of his. At the end, he refuses to look back. But passages in the text make clear that some years later, he will do it and will come to understand why he did what he did. Thus, we notice that Sarty does not possess enough maturity. For instance, he doesn’t know the exact nature of his father’s service.

The narrator has this information and gives it to the reader in different places: “walking a little… stolen horse thirty years ago” p. 164. He thinks that his father fought bravely in the Civil war, but we are told that Mr Snopes had gone to that war “a private, admitting the authority of no man… for booty” (p. 181). By aligning himself with de Spain, the boys destroys his father and gain his freedom. At the end of the story, he moves into the future without looking back, responding, independent, and alone, to the call of the “rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night” (p. 181).

The image suggests a feeling of unity with the world of nature, a sense of wholeness as if the boy had found himself. The description of nature contrasts sharply with the threatening, rigid, metallic portrait of the father as a living force. The contrast clearly shows that Sarty’ s struggle is against the repressive force his father represents. The boy’s anxiety is created by his awakening sense of his own individuality and we find that torn between strong emotional attachment to his father and his growing, he needs to assert himself; actually, Sarty’ s crisis is a psychological one.

Sarty cannot come home again. He has denied the most basic of family ties in spite of his determined efforts to adhere to it. By warning de Spain, Sarty identifies himself with an image different than his father’s, and only by violating his blood does he gain his freedom. Whether Mr Snopes is actually killed, we do not know; it’s not important. For Sarty, his father is dead. He feels relieved because he has destroyed the overwhelming image that threatened his awakening identity and at last, fear and terror are gone. His nightmare ended, he awakens at peace and ready for the future.

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