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Finding Individuality in “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

Discovering one’s identity is much more difficult than just understanding what society expects of you because it also involves understanding how you feel about yourself and what you feel is right. Although it is very rare that we really understand all the various elements of our life and understanding that contribute to the decisions we make, yet we need to make decisions every day that contribute toward how we define ourselves. The idea of individualism suggests that “every person is an end in himself and that no person should be sacrificed for the sake of another” (Stata, 2002), yet we are often forced to make our decisions based on what is best for us as individuals and what is best for us as a member of a multiple-member group, such as in the case of a family. This conflict between the emerging identity and the expectations of society is a common theme through much of literature including William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” In this story, the main character is Sartoris who becomes increasingly aware of his father’s anti-social activities. As he puts more thought into his father’s behavior, Sartoris begins to realize that it is his father’s fault that the family has had to move so many times. The disrespect the family encounters everywhere they go is finally understood to be well-deserved because of the type of man Sartoris’ father is. In the end, Sartoris realizes that he wants a different sort of life for himself and separates himself from that life. Throughout his story, Sartoris must make a choice between two conflicting sets of external expectations for his behavior even as he attempts to determine just how he defines his own identity.

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Sartoris’ conflict occurs as he begins to piece together the various actions of his father and recognizes many of them as being somehow unjust. This conflict is present from the earliest words of the story as it becomes clear that Sartoris is in a courtroom where his father is accused of deliberately setting fire to a neighbor’s barn. Even before he has had a chance to introduce himself, Sartoris is dragged up to the stand to testify against his father. Because he is the narrator, Sartoris is able to inform the reader that he identifies himself as little more than an extension of the strict man he calls his father. In this situation, he understands that he has no choice but to do whatever his father expects him to do, even if it means lying under oath. This connection is the earliest identification Sartoris has with anyone in the outer world as is discovered in the first paragraph of the story. Sartoris “could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!)” (1621). In this statement, Sartoris reveals that he doesn’t really see any true separation between himself and his father. This reveals how Sartoris identifies himself as an inextricable part of the community of his family and the requirement that he do what they expect him to do. His inability to identify with the townspeople around him is the direct consequence of the constant moves that are undertaken by the family preventing any close family friends while his father’s behavior and lifestyle are instantly recognized by the outer community thus preventing them from attempting to connect with Sartoris.

It is not until Abner, Sartoris’ father, decides it’s time to fully indoctrinate Sartoris into the ‘family business’ that Sartoris finally begins to understand the source of the animosity he’s experienced all his life. He begins to understand that much of the resentment and suspicion he’s received is brought upon the family as a direct result of his father’s behavior. It is this realization that enables Sartoris to start differentiating himself from the family group as he realizes his father’s destructive behavior has closed numerous real opportunities for the family to improve their living situation. This realization comes as Sartoris compares his own poor living quarters to the home of Major de Spain. The de Spain house is described in small segments as it is slowly revealed to the boy upon his approach. Sartoris and his father approach through “a grove of oaks and cedars and the other flowering trees and shrubs … They walked beside a fence massed with honeysuckle and Cherokee roses and came to a gate swinging open between two brick pillars” (1624). Not only the homes, but the character of the men who head the families strikes Sartoris as significant. Sartoris sees that there are very few actual differences between the two men on a general level but, because Major de Spain had different friends and a different approach to working with others, he has the large house and the nice family while Sartoris’ father, having made different choices, has received the condemnation of the community at large. Sartoris recognizes that his father’s choices and actions have only reinforced the social beliefs regarding his class and shut away any potential opportunities before they had a chance to grow.

Although he begins the story completely identifying himself with his family and particularly with his father, the actions of the story continue to drive the boy further away from this association to achieve a sense of individuality independent of his father’s influence. Having made up his mind that he will lie on the stand at the beginning of the story to protect his father, Sartoris is never actually brought to this point, but watches in astonishment as his father refuses to even attempt to make the seemingly fair amends that were handed down. He stands and watches in horror and shock as his father, unprovoked, deliberately damages the property of Major de Spain and intentionally works to create further damage rather than comply with a reasonable request for restitution. Watching this series of events, immediately upon the heels of the frightening court trial that drove the family out of their last home, Sartoris begins to conclude that he does not want to be the kind of man his father represents. Having witnessed this process, Sartoris is unable to ignore his inner sense of justice as he realizes that de Spain was justifiably angry over the loss of the expensive rug and that the man tempered his penalty imposed upon Abner in recognition of the family’s depressed state. However, Abner intends to burn down the man’s barn anyway. At this point, Sarty’s individuality bursts through as he decides to warn de Spain and run away from his family. “Sarty’s final, climactic decision to break away from his father’s rule is seen as proof of his own ultimate moral correctness against the demonic qualities of Ab (Zender cited in Pinion, 2003). By the end of the story, Sarty has become a full individual, disassociating himself from the community of his family and actively seeking a society more in keeping with his own inner nature.


Faulkner, William. (1989). “Barn Burning.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4td Ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company: 1621-1633.

Pinion, Randy. (2003). “Literary Analysis: Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’.” Helium. Web.

Stata, Raymie. (January 1992). “What is Individualism?” Introductory speech delivered at MIT Radicals for Capitalism. Web.

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