Michael Meyer suggests that the description of the de Spain mansion in paragraph 41 of “Barn Burning” reveals Sarty’s conflict. What does this mansion represent in Sarty’s mind? How does that symbolism conflict with Sarty’s being loyal to his father?
The description of the house helps to frame the main conflicts that Sarty had with his father by making sure that you (the reader) know that this is the first time that Sarty has seen anything like this house. It causes his feelings of happiness to flow from him, and he feels that nothing that his father could do could destroy the place that he sees, as he thinks in paragraph 41 about “the spell of this place and dignity rendering even the barns and stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames that he might contrive”. This majestic sight for Sarty causes him to realize what his father is and what life path that he is going down, as it is described in paragraph 89: “…this the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself”. The description of the house gives Sarty a new insight on what his father had been doing, and because this is first time he has experienced the act of actually seeing his father do the damage first hand himself (paragraph 90: “At least you sent a nigger before!”), the guilt of the action weighed heavily upon him and it questioned the loyalty he had to his father.
Michael Meyer asks you to guess what happened to Abner and Flem (the older brother) Snopes at de Spain’s barn. Whether Abner and his older son live or die influences the tone of the last paragraph.
How does Sarty seem to feel at the end of the story? In particular, look at the images and wording of the last paragraph to figure out his feelings, and mention them in your answer.
I believe that the Sarty’s father and brother are shot at the end of the story. The last paragraph in context to my response to the last question feels like the boy is worn out from the worry of his responsibilty to stop his father. He is tired too because he did not succeed and is walking on into the woods like he thought he could before when running to fetch the oil from the barn. He is free. “Wheeled on”, “would be”–these phrases show signs of progression. “His breathing was easier…” ; Sarty is less stressed over his dilemma, for he can do no more. All the talk about how moving around and walking would make him feel better shows how he can resolve his problem by distancing himself from the situation.
What do you think happens to Sarty’s father and brother at the end of the story? How does your response to this question affect your reading of the last paragraph?
Sarty feels that his father and brother were shot.
Sarty feels free now. He doesn’t know where he is going, but he feels a sense of relief–no more fear or despair. He was thinking of what the next day would hold (i.e., hunger), which he felt walking would cure. He realized that he had been asleep for some time, and it was time to get started. He was going forward into the woods and not looking back. It appears that the scene would be sooo peaceful and inviting with the birds calling.
How does the language of the final paragraph suggest a kind of resolution to the conflicts Sarty has experienced?
He states it was almost dawn, so the night is almost over and soon there would be sun. The slow constellations “wheeled on.” He was going on. The silver voices of the birds “called unceasing.” He did not look back. Sarty put an end to the past and was moving forward.
Consider Sarty’s hope for order and resistance to Abner’s brutalization, lies, and destruction; consider Abner’s guerilla tactics against sharecropping.
When I consider Sarty’s hope for order revealed continually throughout by the stream of consciousness technique of the narrator at various crisis points in the story with “Maybe he’s done satisfied” after barn burning at the start and “Maybe it [the de Spain house symbolic emissions of strength, safety, and beauty] will change him now from what maybe he couldn’t help but be” and after the verdict of 20 bushels for the ruined rug “Maybe this is the end of it,” I feel kindred to his wonder at why Abner couldn’t let it all go-start over-get on with work and life.
But then that makes me compelled to examine Abner’s characterization. We are not clued into Abner’s motivation for his cruelty. Abner could be intimidating people and burning barns for some internal bitterness at having to work as a sharecropper but it seems to run deeper and to be too “natural” in him. While Sarty assumes it’s due to war, our narrator suggests that Abner’s traits were with him long before in the way he used war “for booty-it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own”. Abner’s behavior seems part or package pyromaniac, sadist and psychopath. So while he may have a perverted sense of righteousness about what he was doing, his frequency and lack of regard for anyone, “blood” or not, points more towards dysfunction.
With all we know today of abusive traits being carried on from one generation to the next, success for either Sarty or Abner is probably unlikely, but of the two I would choose Sarty. Abner’s lifestyle was embedded and active, while Sarty may have had a chance to have life experiences which would alter his programming since he was still young and would be away from his father. If Sarty was miraculously able to overcome his tendencies, shown early on even when he found himself “leaping in the red haze toward the face, feeling no blow, feeling no shock when his head struck the earth ,” he would probably feel successful just living and working- he was capable and enjoyed working “he had this from his mother” Whereas, not having Abner’s true motivation revealed leaves us empty to determine what his goals or thoughts on “living” are. If completing the acts to as many as he could was his bizarre plan then he was successful. But he was driven, repeating the scenario over and over, seemingly not satisfied and therefore not successful.
It seems to me that Southern society as it was could produce characters like Abner. Poverty and exploitation of labor may be the most important factors in our understanding of the barn burner. He should not be acquitted, but the focus should be on the socio-economic circumstances of his time and place. If Abner seems to be simply naturally evil, it may be because the author pulled back from the radical political position that readers might find in the story.
The story is reactionary, however well written. It demonstrates the attitudes of the southern conservatives during the ’30s. Ab is made into a monster in order to avert the attention from his status as an exploited worker.