In Barn Burning, Faulkner manages to explore different themes related to family, authority, violence, and justice. Told from the perspective of a child conflicted by his moral obligations, “Barn Burning” illustrates the dichotomy between two exertions of power – Abner Snopes and Major de Spain. Even though Abner as the father of Sartorius holds a significant amount of power over him, the latter recognizes the sustainability in an intangible authority reflected in Major’s wealth, status, and sense of justice.
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Throughout the story, the reader builds an image of Abner with special attention to how he looks. Faulkner describes Abner as “a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him” (5). There is a mechanical sense to his appearance, emphasized in words “bloodless” and “tin”. Likewise, Bai and Sun explain the extent to which the text dehumanizes Abner’s image – to emphasize what effect he has on other characters (209). Moreover, this metallic image is not only limited to his appearance; it is about how he exercises his authority through a mechanic, even apathetic violence. “His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, […], his voice still without heat or anger” (Faulkner 5). Through abusing Sartorius, burning down the barn, ordering his wife to tie his son up, Abner claims his dominance.
If Abner’s power comes across as an expression of individualism, Major de Spain’s authority extends across the land and the people he owns. As Nichols puts it, Abner’s clear-cut moral principles that are based on blood ties alienate him from larger communities, which is why the reader perceives Abner’s independence as his tool to exercise his power (91). In contrast, the story does not devote such attention to Major de Spain himself; rather, the reader grasps the extent of his dominion through other characters or surroundings. The audience hears Major speak only two times in the story, and in both of these cases, he is never referred to by his name, only as “the man on the mare” or “the white man”. However, the reader does not confuse him with any other character, and it is because Major de Spain’s authority does not come from his physical manifestation but his status and weight of his words. Major is recognizable because only he can say to Abner that the latter owns him “twenty bushels of corn, and only he can order his servant to catch Abner.
Moreover, there is a difference in the characters’ environments. According to Child, Abner and de Spain are divided by their economic statuses, which places them into two different worlds (294). If for Abner, corn is money, for Major only cash has significant value. Operating on a larger scale, de Spain’s influence over Sartorius surpasses Abner’s, and it reaches its peak at the end of the story when Sartorius breaks free from his father’s tyranny. One can argue that the boy has not chosen de Spain over Abner but rather he followed his moral instinct instead of obeying his father’s self-indulgent violence. However, the very act of betraying the set of rules imposed by Abner in favor of societal justice shows the loss for individualism and win for Major de Spain, whose source of power lies in society.
In conclusion, the narrator’s attitude towards Abner and Major de Spain reflects the complexity of their authority. The physical force is no match for things such as status and wealth; it is not reliable nor sustainable. Major de Spain’s power is multilayered – he speaks through his servants and his wife; he transmits his authority even through inanimate objects such as the rug. This is why Sartorius finds the strength to betray his father; Abner is incapable to compete with Major.
Bai, Qian, and Yu Sun. “On the Father Images by Anderson and Faulkner-Illustrated by the Triumph of the Egg and Barn Burning.” International Journal of Languages, Literature and Linguistics, vol. 3, no. 4, 2017, pp. 208-212.
Child, Benjamin. “Astonishing Byblows: Rurality, Snopesism, and Populist Modernization in Faulkner’s Frenchman’s Bend.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies,vol. 64, no. 2, 2018, pp. 286-310.
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Faulkner, William. Barn Burning. 1938, pdcrodas.webs.ull.es/naturalismo/FaulknerBarnBurning.pdf. Accessed 19 May 2021.
Nichols, Mary P. “Conflicting Moral Goods. William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning.’” Short Stories and Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, and Persuasion, edited by Kimberly Hurd Hale and Bruce Peabody, Lexington Books, 2018, pp. 89-107.