William Faulkner elected to write “Barn Burning” from his young character Sarty’s perspective because his sense of morality and decency would present a more plausible conflict in this story. Abner Snopes inability to feel the level of remorse needed to generate a truly moral predicament in this story, sheds light on Sarty’s efforts to overcome the constant “pull of blood”(277) that forces him to remain loyal to his father. As a result, this reveals the hidden contempt and fear Sarty has developed over the years because of Abner’s behavior.
Sarty’s struggle to maintain an understanding of morality while clinging to the fading idolization of a father he fears, sets the tone for a chain of events that results in his liberation from Abner’s destructive defiance-but at a costly price. Sarty’s dilemma arises from his father’s destructive envy of his wealthy employers. Abner Snopes frustration with being a poor sharecropper owned “body and soul”(280) by the South’s rich and elite leads him to exact his revenge on the undeserving blue bloods in the only way he knows how-by burning down their barns.
While Sarty’s loyalty to Abner is proven after a court hearing held by “his father’s enemy . . . our enemy . . . ourn! mine and hisn both,”(277) after which he challenges and is beaten by a boy “half again his size”(278) because the boy called his father a “barn burner”(278) he is left to make a critical decision between saving his family or his own morality. What prompts Sarty to betray his own moral character is his fear of Abner, who he describes as the “black, flat, and bloodless . . . voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin”(279).
Time and again, Sarty has witnessed Abner’s propensity for inflicting fiery devastation upon wealthy people like Mr. Harris in a warped attempt to even the score. He is even more afraid of losing his father’s trust after Abner hits him “hard but with out heat”(280) not for telling the truth, but for wanting to. Sarty is conscious of the fact that if Abner knew his desire for “truth, justice, he would have hit”(280) him again and that Abner’s recommendation that he “learn to stick to” his “own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you”(280) is more of a threat rather than fatherly advice.
Sarty learns to stifle any qualms he has and overlook his own developing morals in order to defend his father’s cold-blooded attacks. In the face of Abner’s “outrage and savagery and lust”(286) and the ever-present conflict these emotional outbursts cause, Sarty’s sense of obligation to his father out weighs his desire to “run on and on and never look back”(286). He hopes being forced out of town will transform the side of Abner that possesses an “inherent [ly] voracious prodigality with material not his own”(279) and he will be satisfied once and for all.
As father and son walk within sight of an impressive manor “big as a courthouse”(280) owned by Major de Spain, a wealthy landowner with whom Abner has struck a deal to farm corn on his land, Sarty knows at once that “they are safe from him”(280). His father’s “ravening”(281) envy could not possibly touch these “people whose lives are part of this peace and dignity”(281). But, Abner is seething with “jealous rage”(281) at the sight of the de Spain manor and once again, Sarty sees that familiar “quality of something . . . ruthless . . . depthless”(281) emerge.
Sarty’s piece of mind falters as he witnesses Abner walking an “undeviating course”(281) towards the de Spain manor with horse manure steaming from his shoes and a “ruthless”(281) glint in his eyes. He worries that Abner will revert back to barn burning as a way to ease his anger at feeling inferior and defeated by the aristocratic society he been a slave to. Sarty’s ever-present optimism that his father will change makes the audience almost sympathetic to Abner’s “ferocious conviction”(279) that there is none more deserving of economic independence than him and his family.
Sarty’s hope that starting over in a new town will transform Abner “from what maybe he couldn’t help but be”(281) dissipates as he watches his father storm into the de Spain manor “without heat” and fling “the door back and the Negro . . . and enter . . . his hat still on his head”(281) ready for a confrontation. Sarty nervously watches his father stand amid the “glitter of chandeliers and. . . muted gold frames”(281) his “shaggy iron-gray brows”(281) absorbing the fine furnishings an expensive paintings displayed throughout the room in deliberate silence, ignoring Miss Lula’s repeated pleas for him to “please go away”(281).
Sarty can see the quiet contempt building in Abner. Over the years he has witnessed his father repeatedly endure a sense of emasculation by not being a good provider for his family. Sarty understands that standing in this room with so many expensive, useless possessions only reminds Abner of his own failure as a man, husband, and father. He recognizes that his father can’t possibly compete with the de Spain’s at their level of excellence, so he must bring them down to his level. In a deliberate act of rebellion, Abner drags a “final long and fading smear”(281) of manure across the rug, never once bothering to glance down.
Through the dozens of moves and the court hearings, Sarty’s love for his father never diminishes. Though Abner is hardly a man to be admired, Sarty does his best to be supportive and understanding. If Abner see that regardless of his actions he will still have the loyalty and devotion of his son, maybe he will stop trying to be so vengeful. When Major de Spain confronts Abner about the additional damage to the rug demanding restitution in the form of 20 bushels of corn because the rug cost “one hundred dollars . but you never had a hundred dollars . . . you never will,”(283) Sarty immediately tries to reassure Abner-“You done the best you could”(283).
He wants to run to him, to stand by him and show his support, but stops suddenly out of fear as he gets a glimpse of “the inscrutable face, the shaggy brows beneath which the gray eyes glinted coldly”(283). When Sarty encounters the Justice of the Peace during the trial in which Abner sues Major de Spain, “he sent one glare of fierce, exultant, partisan defiance”(284).
Even when the Justice finds in favor of Major de Spain, still awarding him reduced damages in the sum of 10 bushels of corn, Sarty sides with his father “He won’t get no ten bushels neither. He won’t get one”(285). Sarty realizes the judgment is a blow to Abner’s pride and hopes that voicing his outrage at the award will appease him. His actions are critical if he is to thwart any notion that Abner is looking to feed his appetite for destruction. But, Abner seems calm, his “voice almost pleasant, almost gentle”(285) when he replies “You think so?
Well, we’ll wait till October anyway”(285). Sarty is optimistic that Abner will not seek revenge for his embarrassment at the hands of Major de Spain as he sits on the porch gazing out into the night until the sound of all his hopes and fears shatters the silence “Abner! No! No! Oh, God”(286). Sarty whirls around to see his mother desperately trying to stop Abner from pouring kerosene into a 5-gallon container “her face the same quality of hopeless despair as had been in her voice”(286). The moment Sarty has always feared has arrived.
The building chaos of his mother’s pleading and his father’s demands for him to “go get that oil”(286) swim through his head as he runs to the stable. This is it! Searching for any shred of decency in his father’s face, Sarty hands Abner the can, as appeals to him to send Major de Spain a warning “Ain’t you even going to send a nigger? “(286). Abner grabs him “stooping at him in breathless and frozen ferocity, the cold, dead voice”(286) spewing orders to the older brother and drags him to his mother.
“Take hold of him . . . if he gets loose . . . will go up yonder”(286). With that final utterance, Sarty’s urgency increases as he struggles against his mother’s grip crying “Lemme go! I don’t want to have to hit you! “(286). Running for his life, Sarty knows he must stop him from burning down the barn. All the times he stood by and defended Abner, knowing it was wrong, wondering how he could have ever allowed himself to be so blind, flash through his mind as he runs, desperate to catch up to Abner. “[H]is heart and lungs drumming,”(287) he continues running to stop his father, to save him from himself.
As last, Sarty makes it to de Spain’s house and warns him of his father’s intent. His moment of truth setting into motion a chain reaction of events that Sarty is unable to halt. He runs down the drive “blood and breath roaring”(287) trying to make his way to the barn and his father. His grief at betraying his father is outweighed only by his need to get to him. So, he runs harder, faster than ever and then “knowing it was too late,”(287) Sarty hears the shots. Bang . . . . . Bang! Bang! And it is over.
The night is quiet save for the distant echo of a young boy’s agonizing screams “Father! Father! “(287) Sarty spent his entire life hiding behind the unspoken rule that blood is thicker than water. But, in the face of having to decide whether he should continue to overlook Abner’s amoral behavior, he chooses not to. Even though he tries to understand Abner’s reasoning, in his heart he cannot condone it. In a situation where Sarty-the child would be frightened to stand up against his father, Sarty-the man is not. It is unfortunate that he had to lose a father in order to regain his sense of morality, but in light of the situation he was in, it can be agreed, that he is better off.