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“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner: A Family Unit Analysis


Barn Burning is a short story written by William Faulkner, which demonstrates the complex relationship between personal and familial values. The protagonist Sarty – a ten-year-old boy – is forced to testify in court to prove his father’s innocence (Faulkner 5). However, Sarty is aware that his father has indeed burned the barn and, therefore, must lie to save him. He detests the idea of lying to the judge but makes a false statement nonetheless. However, when the family moves to another farm, and Sarty’s father is planning to burn another barn, Sarty opposes his family. He notifies the owner about the father’s plans and runs for his life. In the end, Sarty defends his principles and leaves the family. Ultimately, Sarty has chosen honor over familial values, demonstrating the complex relationships in the family unit.

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Family Relationship

Throughout the story, Sarty’s father emphasizes the importance of familial values. He tells Sarty, “you got to learn to stick to your blood” (Faulkner 5). He hits his son to prove the point concerning familial bonds, but Sarty is unconvinced. Faulkner depicts Sarty’s father and older brothers as dishonorable people as opposed to Sarty’s values (Bai and Sun 210). Nevertheless, Sarty is connected to his family members and cannot go against their wishes. In the beginning, he describes this sensation as “the old fierce pull of blood” (Faulkner 1). He understands the immorality of his father’s actions but cannot oppose them. Thus, despite the disagreements, Sarty feels a close connection to his family and protects his father in court.

Family Conflict

The focus of the short story is the family conflict. Sarty detests his dishonorable father’s values but cannot oppose them at the beginning of the story. The author emphasizes Sarty’s character by symbolizing his honesty with his full name – Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Fennel 61). The judge mentions that a person with such a name “can’t help but tell the truth”, implying Sarty’s principles of honesty (Faulkner 2). Thus, Faulkner uses symbolism and metaphors to demonstrate Sarty’s honorable values (Sauermann 5). This difference in the perspectives creates a family conflict, and Sarty needs to choose either to keep his principles or family bonds. For the majority of the short story, he follows his father’s orders despite their increased tendency to dishonesty and violence. However, in the end, Sarty follows his own beliefs and cuts ties with the family.

Personal Values

Thus, Faulkner explains the challenges of the family conflict through the lens of Sarty’s values. Sarty is only ten years old, but he is knowledgeable enough to understand the vile nature of his father’s actions. Faulkner also narrates some of the events in the story from both Sarty’s and omniscient perspectives. The author uses the literary device to emphasize Sarty’s age and explain his obedience (Sauermann 3). Nevertheless, Faulkner also praises Sarty for his ambitions and ideals (Sauermann 4). He is the contrasting character to his family, which is described as cold and dishonest (Sauermann 4). This opposition between personal and familial values supports the narrative and helps readers understand the complex nature of the bond between Sarty and his father. Ultimately, Sarty’s final resolution to leave his family marks the beginning of a new life and the triumph of personal values over his household.


Barn Burning transparently demonstrates the complex nature of family conflicts. It tells a story of a boy, whose principles are distinct from his family’s values. The author uses these differences to indicate a conflict and demonstrate the character’s growth. Faulkner shows the readers that family is important, but sometimes it might ruin an individual’s life. Throughout the story, Sarty detests his family’s values but he is bound by blood to follow his father’s orders. Sarty is gradually losing trust in the family and eventually abandons it. Ultimately, Faulkner depicts this event as the boy’s triumph and a step toward a better life. After all, Sarty is finally free from the family shackles and can choose his values and objectives.

Works Cited

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.

Faulkner, William. Barn Burning. 1938. Web.

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Fennel, William. “Vengeance, Justice, and Sarty Snopes in William Faulkner’s Barn Burning.” Bukkyo University Department of English Archives, n.d.

Sauermann, Miklas. “The Significance of Blood Ties in Faulkner’s Barn Burning.” SSRN, 2020, Web.

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