Father-Son Relationships in Barn Burning by William Faulkner

‘‘Barn Burning’’ by William Faulkner provides a comprehensive look at a typical family relationship as it existed in the XIXth-century America and was affected by history, traditions, and society. The story depicts both emotional and ethical aspects of a young boy’s struggle to behave appropriately with his father. As the plot develops, the father is shown to act according to his own justice principles and strong personal traits but against the norms of morality and completely indifferent to his relatives’ points. The final choice that the boy has to make mirrors his sharply increasing dilemma between social responsibility and familial duty. The story’s ending demonstrates that society’s natural forces concerning equity and validity affect personal development more than an unhealthy family relationship.

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Characters’ Premise

Any relationship between people is built upon their experience and social backgrounds. The communication of a father and a son is an example of the closest engagements there can be, considering their common origins and constant presence in each other’s lives. Sartoris and Abner Snopes both belong to a poor, lower-class family of farmers. At the same time this family has a high standard of duties, a complex picture of how children should treat their parents and vice versa. Although, the overall image of this familial relationship appears exceptionally rude and abusive for modern readers, it was acceptable at the time. Nevertheless, the indirect impact of Snopes’ family stressful environment can be noticed after a detailed analysis.

Father’s Attitude

Abner Snopes is an exceptionally strong-charactered man with his own idea of justice, who puts no limitations on the way to what he considers right. Bai and Sun (2017) describe him as ‘‘a man of tyrannical and fierce characteristics’’ and ‘‘not a responsible and caring father to his sons and family’’ (p. 210). Abner’s ruthlessness and indifference is noticeable from the beginning, in definition of him as ‘‘wolflike’’ and depiction of his gestures towards son: ‘‘jerked him back’’ (Faulkner, 1995, pp. 6-7). Being, from legal perspective, a vandal, the man has no shame for his actions: both the arson and the damage he made to a rug. The father transmits his ‘‘truth’’ to the son directly by saying ‘‘I had them beat’’ (Faulkner, 1995, p. 7). It is effective, because next time a struggle comes the boy himself would notice ‘‘If he wanted hit done different why didn’t he wait and tell you how’’ (Faulkner, 1995, p. 13). Loyalty is the most valuable trait for Abner, and it can only be confirmed by an unquestionable belief in everything he says or does.

Son’s Perception

A great deal of information can be learned from the way Sartoris Snopes portrays his father.  The boy feels extremely terrified and bounded in front of Abner, it is narrated in Sartoris’ thoughts: ‘‘I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can’t’’ (Faulkner, 1995, p. 20). Another key point in character development for Sarty is his first introduction to a different life when he and his father come to the Major’s house. In the short scene in the yard Faulkner (1995) describes the tossing which occurs in boy’s head between ‘‘his father and terror and despair’’ and a beautiful, clean house (p.8). At this moment it is stated that Sartoris’ worldview is not limited to his father’s beliefs, but is affected by other examples of life arrangement.

Social Background

The events of ‘’Barn Burning’’ take place in American south, where people commonly are stubborn, puritan and have chauvinistic tendencies. These qualities all can be referred to Abner’s portrayal and describe him as a pure southern man. As Bai and Sun (2017) accurately notice, ‘‘the father image, being brave, determined, indomitable but also stubborn, cold and selfish, can be regarded as the embodiment of the old south’’ (p. 211).  In addition, the story includes images of three prevailing social classes, where slaves, farmers and land owners form a hierarchy of power and rights. According to Zeidanin and Matarneh (2018), it is not uncommon for lower class people, as well as for the characters of this story, to confront the authorities by acts of defiance and vandalism (p.88). The narrative is filled with tension to disobey, appearing in administrative relations between Abner and the court and transferring to familial issues of the same character.

Sartori’s Dilemma

The climax of the story is a decision which Sarty has to make: whether he should stand for his father’s idea of another arson or act rightfully and warn the owner. The boy had learned a lesson of ‘‘sticking to your own blood’’ (Faulkner, 1995, p. 8) and sees his father’s authority as well as still feels ‘‘childish’’ love and admiration for him. However, Sarty is affected by what he had seen before: Major’s house, which was full of ‘‘peace and joy’’ (Faulkner, 1995, p. 8) – things the boy lacked and desired. Nichols (2018) also points out, that ‘‘it is tempting to read Faulkner’s story as a conflict between authority and individual freedom’’(p. 89). This can be true with the amendment that for two main characters ‘‘freedom’’ stands on the different sides of the dilemma. As a result, the father-son relationship, undermined by a prolonging conflict, cedes to the boy’s newfound faith in clear justice.

The Analysis of the Boy’s Choice

Although the above-mentioned facts may be true, there is a key point that lets to judge Sartoris’ behavior as a replication of his father’s – independence. Perhaps, the strive for making their own way is the main similarity between two characters. Abner’s actions several times show his relentless urge to disobey any rules or recommendations, he is a symbol of autonomy and self-possession. It is highly possible that this feature was inherited by son of simply assimilated over the years. In Nichols’ work (2018) it also states, that both ways Abner and Sarty confront being owned fit in the American tradition (p. 89). This statement confirms that family and blood influence one’s behaviour in the society as well as it happens vice versa. The boy had experienced a presumably abusive treatment from his father and still took over his qualities, but interpreted them according to his view of rightness.

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To summarize, the topic of father-son relationship in ‘‘Barn Burning’’ is deeply connected to social structure of the time story takes place. Moreover, the communication itself is unhealthy, because it is built upon coldness and harshness from father’s part, and fear from son’s. The society obtains motives of stubbornness an independence, which respond to main heroes’ characteristics. The narrative questions ideas of justice and obedience from the points of both father and son. The final decision can be interpreted as a following of inherited features and newfound social responsibilities at the same time.


Bai, Q., & Sun, Y. (2017) 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, 3(4), 208-212, http://dx.doi.org/10.18178/ijlll.2017.3.4.134

Faulkner, W. (1995) Barn Burning. In Сollected stories of William Faulkner (pp. 3-25), Vintage International.

Nichols, M. P. (2018). Conflicting moral goods. In K. H. Hale, & B. Peabody (Eds.), Short stories and political philosophy: Rower, prose, and persuasion (pp. 89-109),Lexington Books.

Zeidanin, H. H., & Matarneh, M. (2018). Social alienation and displacement in Faulkner’s “Barn burning”, Henry’s “The social triangle” and Mansfield’s “The doll’s house”. International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, 7(3), 85-89. http://dx.doi.org/10.7575/aiac.ijalel.v.7n.3p.85

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StudyCorgi. (2021, August 24). Father-Son Relationships in Barn Burning by William Faulkner. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/father-son-relationships-in-barn-burning-by-william-faulkner/

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"Father-Son Relationships in Barn Burning by William Faulkner." StudyCorgi, 24 Aug. 2021, studycorgi.com/father-son-relationships-in-barn-burning-by-william-faulkner/.

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