Barn Burning by William Faulkner

Title: “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is best known for The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! . Mr. Faulkner won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature and won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1955 and 1963.

photo of William Faulkner

1954 photograph by Carl van Vechten.

In “Barn Burning”, William Faulkner uses a minor, but brilliant, deviation from the structure of plot by delaying key exposition until later in the story in favor of introducing the initial complication of a trial into the story.  The reader sees the trial through the heightened senses of young Sarty Snopes, watching his father, Abner, on trial.

“He smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentarily […] the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy […] stood, but he could hear them,” (Faulkner 492).

What makes conflict so enticing to the reader is the uncertainty of the outcome: will Abner be convicted? Will he be declared innocent?  The doubt is the hook that keeps us reading.

Abner’s innocence is dubious; they are forced to leave town, and his treatment of Sarty (a beating) reveals his guilt. Sarty however retains hope for his father’s reform.

“Maybe he will feel it too. Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe he couldn’t help but be” (Faulkner 496).

Sarty’s obedience to family at the cost of what is right versus his desire for justice makes up the heart of the story. Faulkner leaves little hope of a redeemable Abner by revealing the animosity towards Abner’s new boss, Major De Spain. Abner’s actions, first ruining an expensive rug, and later, an indirect threat to his employer.

The curiousity and doubt produced from this conflict heightens the anticipation of the crisis point.   Abner Snopes is taken to court over the ruined rug and the judge rules for recompense to be paid come harvest.  Rather than paying, Abner orders Sarty to fetch a pail of oil.  Sarty’s confusion leads to the realization of his father’s unchanged spirit and we see the internal conflict in his thoughts:

“I could keep on, he thought. I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can’t, I can’t” (Faulkner 502).

He is forced to decide between family loyalty and warning the DeSpain’s. Although Sarty’s decision is ultimately a moral one, the reader is left questioning whether it is in fact, the wisest option. Two shots later, a man is dead, and Sarty is forever severed from his family. Grieving and alone, he is now faced with a harsh life ahead of him, the son of a thief, and Faulkner leaves us with no hope for reconciliation.

Source Reading: Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction, 11th ed. Ed. James Pickering. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 492-504.


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