Women in Barn Burning by William Faulkner

At first glance, Faulkner’s artistic world appears to be emphatically masculine. It is filled with sullen, stern male characters doing rough and hard work, but at the same time, there is a certain place for female characters in his prose. “Barn Burning,” Faulkner’s short story of a mendicant American family in the late 19th century, draws a bleak gallery of female characters. In “Barn Burning,” female heroines are portrayed as depressed and weak-willed, largely insignificant for the story. However, with deeper insight, these characters prove to be crucially important for understanding the depth of the meaning of “Barn Burning”. Their characteristics illuminate a number of social and psychological issues that are relevant both during the time that Faulkner writes about and now. Faulkner deliberately underestimates the external role of women in “Barn Burning,” but in this way makes an important social statement of gender inequality.

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Womanhood in Post-Civil War South

Female characters in this Faulkner story can be perceived as being shaped by the social situation the author writes about. The Snopes are a disenfranchised family that practically belongs to the house they work for. Abner, the breadwinner of the family, himself is a hero largely deprived of basic human rights, perceived by the landowners as an inferior creature (Zeidanin & Matarneh, 2018). In the post-Civil War conditions, the father of the family feels humiliated, like a slave, but with white skin (Mellette, 2018). Hence there is an important passage in which Abner speaks about the “white sweat” that is so necessary for his oppressive employers (Faulkner, 1943, p.12). The women, who remain nameless throughout the narrative, unquestioningly obey Abner, the head of the family, which only emphasizes their low, insignificant role in society. As a result, the general female portrait in this Faulkner’s story is of an unhappy poverty-stricken woman with no rights or claims, the so-called “white trash” (Mellette, 2018). Women in Faulkner’s story turn out to be automatically below men, even if these men are at the very bottom of the social ladder.

A Sharp Contrast to Men

The psychology of Faulkner’s female characters in this story is shown deliberately weak and dim, as opposed to the turbulent nature of Adner. The women in the story seem to be overshadowed by his defiant behavior and radical actions, such as ruining the carpet in a new home or his acts of retaliation, expressed in arson. The men in Faulkner’s story are primarily people of action. Their reasoning is strict and precise, as it is shown in the opening scene of the story. “Barn Burning” begins with the interrogation of the protagonist’s father, where everyone speaks in brief, strict sentences, which serves as an example of their stern characteristics (Faulkner, 1943). Women, especially the sisters in the family, are shown as inactive and immobile as possible. While they are characterized by a kind of sexlessness, the absence of a pronounced feminine principle, they also lack the liveliness and will, inherent to a human being. The complete passivity of women in the story speaks of their inability to change what is happening around them and their feeling of powerlessness in a world ruled by men.

Instinctive Feelings in the Story

Although the male characters in the story act primarily according to their impulses and instincts, the women of the Snopes family do not seem to have this call of blood at all. Even when the female half of the family tries to keep Sarti from breaking free towards his “individual freedom”, their weakness and sluggishness prevent them from doing so (Nichols, 2018, p. 89). As can be seen from the narrative, the only functions female characters are capable of in the story are Abner’s orders. The same idea of the impossibility of realizing their potential is expressed in the description of their appearance. The unattractive twin sisters in the story are a grotesque metaphor for destructive passivity. Described by Faulkner (1943) as “broad, lethargic”, often compared to actual cattle, they literally and symbolically take up a huge amount of space (p. 13). It does not seem out of place that one of the symbols of the tragic situation of women in the Snopes family is the broken hereditary clock. Through this image, Faulkner demonstrates the time stopped for them, underlines the impossibility of changing the surrounding situation. Women in “Barn Burning” are not in a position to change their fate, while men in this story only seem to follow their primal impulses.

Criticism of Female Oppression

Taking free will and even femininity itself away from his female heroines, Faulkner evidently expresses his critical attitude towards the position of women in the late 19th century. Faulkner emphasizes that nothing the female heroines do in the story is done with pleasure, passion, or dedication. When, in one scene, she volunteers to help Abner clean the messy rug, he only tells her to go to “go back and git the dinner” (Faulkner, 1943, p. 13). Crying is present in almost all episodes with Sarti’s mother and is an expression of helplessness and exhaustion of the heroine. The women in the Snopes family are not only helpless, but also unable to help anyone including themselves. Yet one should not underestimate Ebner’s influence on the position of the women of the family, as Ebner can be seen as a patriarchal figure who embodies male oppression. He may be considered a “symbol of bristling autonomy,” so assured in his righteousness that it leads to the suffering of others (Nichols, 2018, p. 91). Thus, the core of the problem of women’s struggles in the story should be associated with characteristics inherent only to Abner.

Conclusion

Summarizing the above, female characters and their position in the story greatly help to understand the social problems outlined by Faulkner, although their role in the plot is markedly subtle and understated. Despite the fact that the story takes place in the 1890s, the problems that Faulkner develops in “Barn Burning” seem quite topical for the crisis era of the 1930s, when the story was written. The worldwide problem of the weakness and hopelessness of women stuck in the harsh social conditions may be considered as relevant now as it was at the time when the story was published. Faulkner is depersonalizing the female characters in the story, taking away their identity. By depriving them of their feminine and even human qualities, Faulkner sharpens the problem of gender inequality in an effort to evoke a sense of social and ethical injustice in the reader.

References

Faulkner, W. (1943). The collected stories of William Faulkner. Random House.

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Mellette, J. (2018). “It aint nothing but jest another Snopes”: White trash in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. Mississippi Quarterly 70/71(1), 41-60. https://doi.org/10.1353/mss.2017.0004

Nichols, M. P. (2018). Conflicting moral goods: William Faulkner’s “Barn burning”. In B. Peabody & K. H. Hale (Eds.), Short stories and political philosophy: Power, prose, and persuasion (pp. 89-106). 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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