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“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner


Barn Burning is a masterpiece short story by William Faulkner set in the late 19th century in the white plantations in the south. The narrative revolves around highlighting social classes characterized by a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Class conflicts in the south were relevant discussion issues, specifically due to the history of thralldom where slaves were treated as commodities with price tags, thus they could be purchased and owned by their masters. Under such circumstances, equality and justice were elusive; hence, these themes were common among writers at the time and later in the evolution of human societies. This paper is a literary analysis of Barn Burning, and it will focus on setting, the themes of loyalty, justice and class conflict, choices and growth, and imagery including fire, blood, and rug. It starts with a short summary of the story and ends with a conclusion highlighting all the major points.

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Burn Burning opens in a store, which doubles as a makeshift courthouse, with young Colonel Sartoris Snopes crouching on a barrel trying to watch his father, Snopes, and Mr. Harris, his father’s accuser. The judge requests the prosecution to provide evidence that Snopes is responsible for burning Harris’s barn. The prosecution wants Sartoris to testify, but Snopes objects because he knows his son will be forced to lie before the court. Sartoris is excused from testifying, and the judge drops the charges against Snopes but tells him to leave the city. He moves his family to another town where he is supposed to live as farmer tenants together with his family. Snopes warns Sartoris that he should never betray his family because the boy almost implicated his father for burning Harris’s barn earlier in the courthouse. Snopes goes to visit his landlord, de Spain, where he soils a rug in a magnificent house (Faulkner). De Spain orders Snopes to clean the carpet, but when it is returned, he (de Spain) claims that it is not clean and that Snopes should pay twenty bushels of corn as fine. However, Snopes sues de Spain, and the court reduces the fine to ten bushels of corn. That night Snopes wants to burn de Spain’s barn, but Sartoris manages to warn him (de Spain) about the impeding arson and Snopes’ plans are thwarted.


The story’s setting is selected carefully to reinforce the major themes of social class conflicts in the south during the 19th century. Events unfold in a neighborhood where the rich and the poor live. Mr. Harris and de Spain are both landowners living in mansions while Snopes and his family live in shanties working as sharecroppers. The courthouse setting is also important as it underscores the widespread lack of justice. The fact that the courthouse is a store shows how the rich do not care about justice for the hapless. As such, Snopes resorts to burning landowners’ barns as a way of avenging iniquity that surrounds his life, that of his family, and proletariats in the neighborhood.


The first theme that emerges early in the story is that of loyalty to the family as opposed to respecting the law. Sartoris is about to implicate his father in the courthouse for burning Harris’s barn. The young boy is forced to choose between supporting his guilty father; hence, showing loyalty and telling the court the truth. Later in the day, Snopes beats the boy for almost betraying him and warns him (Sartoris) to never betray his family. However, when Snopes plans to burn de Spain’s barn, Sartoris’ loyalty is tested to its limits, and he decides to stop his father from committing another crime.

The theme of justice also stands out throughout the story. First, court proceedings are conducted in a store, which underscores the lack of seriousness concerning justice in this town. Two court cases are presented with Harris suing Snopes for burning his barn and Snopes litigating de Spain for the unfair fine imposed for soiling a rug. However, justice also occurs in Snopes’ desire to burn landowners’ barns. Every time he destroys a barn, he is dispensing justice for societal inequalities. Harris and de Spain live opulently while Snopes cannot even find a permanent place to stay due to poverty. This argument underscores the issue of class conflict that exists between the poor and the rich.

Another major theme in Barn Burning is that of choices and growth. Throughout the story, Snopes and his son make important choices that shape the underlying plot. At the courthouse, Snopes chooses to lie that he did not burn Harris’s barn, and Sartoris is also expected to make the same choice. Additionally, after the court’s ruling, Snopes has to decide whether to continue with his wayward behavior or change and stay out of trouble. Nevertheless, he resolves to burn another barn, and this choice places his life and that of his family in jeopardy. On his part, Sartoris makes the right choice, which is a sign of growth, when he learns that his father wants to burn de Spain’s barn. This time, he decides to stand for the truth and change the fate of his family. Snopes’ choices lead to his death after being shot by de Spain to prevent the planned arson.


The first symbol appearing in this story is that of fire. As the plot develops, fire is seen as a form of power or lack of it thereof. At the courthouse, Snopes is accused of burning Harris’s barn, and when he gets to de Spain compound, he plans to repeat the same action. In this case, Snopes uses fire as a source of power to avenge the societal evils and injustices, specifically caused by the rich (Billingslea 292). Additionally, the justice system is dysfunctional, and it does not address the needs of the piteous. Therefore, the only form of power that Snopes has is fire, which he uses to deliver justice, in his terms. However, fire shows the powerlessness of the poor people. When Snopes is ordered to leave the town, he makes a small fire to keep his family warm during the night, but it is not enough. This shows Snopes’ failure to take care of his family because he is powerless and miserable.

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The rug at the center of conflict between Snopes and de Spain is used as a symbol to advance the theme of social class differences, authority, and defiance. Snopes deliberately steps of fresh horse excrement and soils de Spain’s rug with it as a show of defiance and assertion of his authority. After de Spain drops the rug at Snopes’ house for cleaning, his defiance continues as he destroys it using a rough stone. However, later in the story, it is revealed that the rug is expensive, having been imported from France at a cost that Snopes cannot afford even if they worked for the rest of their lives. The underlying value of the rug highlights the difference between the poor and the rich. While de Spain can afford to import a pricey carpet, his neighbors, the Snopes can barely meet their daily needs. According to Wilson, the issue of class conflict in the post-bellum south was common, especially after the trend set by slavery in the region and Jim Crowism (Wilson 433). Therefore, Faulkner writes about this topic because it was a major societal problem at the time.


William Faulkner’s Barn Burning is an interesting short story laden with meaning and themes that address class conflict in the south during the late 19th century. Snopes, a piteous farmer, is in a constant fight with landowners in the region, specifically Harris and de Spain. Snopes resorts to burning barns belonging to the rich as a way of asserting his power and delivering justice that the courts have failed to accord the poor. In addition, he believes that society is unfair, with a small group of individuals being ostentatiously rich and the majority living in abject poverty. Such inequity is unacceptable to Snopes, and thus he decides to use the only source of power that he can access – fire, to address this societal problem. The setting and symbols, such as fire and rug, are used carefully and deliberately to promote the themes of loyalty to families, justice or lack of it, and the power of choices, as discussed in this paper.

Works Cited

  1. Billingslea, Oliver. “Fathers and Sons: The Spiritual Quest in Faulkner’s” Barn Burning”.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 3, 1991, pp. 287-308.
  2. Faulkner, William. Barn Burning, n.d.
  3. Wilson, William. “Class Conflict and Jim Crow Segregation in the Postbellum South.” Pacific Sociological Review, vol. 19, no. 4, 1976, pp. 431-446.

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