William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” (first published in June 1939 in Harper’s Magazine) is a short story that is notable for underlining the problem of class conflict as well as for reflecting on family dynamics and the role fathers play in the lives of their children. The story is told from the perspective of Sarty – the protagonist, a young boy with a vivid imagination, who is quite impressionable. The boy’s father, Abner Snopes, represents the antagonist of the story as he committed the arson of someone’s barn but wanted his son to testify for him in court and ensure the non-guilty verdict. The boy knows that he has to lie in court, but the father is still dissatisfied because he suspected that Sarty was on the verge of telling the truth and betraying the family. As the Snopes are forced to leave the city because of Abner’s crimes: “Take your wagon and get out of this country before dark”, they move to another location where they will be working as tenant farmers (Faulkner 4). The farm’s owner has a large, fancy mansion, and Sarty has some doubts regarding whether his father would cause harm to the property. It becomes evident that Abner Snopes shows disrespect to the mansion’s owner, Major de Spain, and voluntarily damages the latter’s property. Eventually, the boy realizes that his father is planning to burn de Spain’s barn and decides to alert the mansion’s owner. At the end of the story, an altercation occurs, which leads to Abner being shot by de Spain based on Sarty’s perception, who runs away from the mansion and never returns. Party mourns his father’s alleged death but is liberated in his desire to go forward.
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The relationship between Sarty and Abner is complicated because of the inequality in the power dynamic. As a dominant figure in the family, Abner expects his son to obey his decisions and preaches loyalty to one’s family: “You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (Faulkner 13). However, what Abner fails to understand is that his negative behaviors and patterns of offending people of higher social status paint an image of him being jealous of the accomplishments and possessions of others. Deep down inside him, Sarty understands that what his father does and how he behaves is improper. However, pressured into being loyal to one’s family, Sarty stays silent and obedient to avoid angering his father.
The boy’s thinking changes gradually because he sees that his father is not going to change his old habits in a new environment that promised the family well-being. As he realizes that Abner is planning to burn de Spain’s barn, the boy is determined to avoid what happened in the past and tells on his father. Safety is devastated by the fact that he has to betray his father in this way, but he realizes that there is no future in staying loyal and looking past the harmful behaviors. As the boy escapes the property amidst the struggle between his father and de Spain, he feels as if a weight fell down his chest, and the decision to do the right thing will help him to move on. Thus, Faulkner teachers his readers to be honest and vigilant regardless of the situation – one does not choose a family but can choose to be a good person.
Faulkner, William. Barn Burning. Harper Perennial Classics, 2013.