What is the central thematic conflict in Faulkner's "Barn Burning," and why does this conflict represent a true Modernist dilemma for Sarty?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The "central thematic conflict" of "Barn Burning," by William Faulkner is between Abner Snopes and his family, especially "Sarty."

The modernist movement reflected the work of...

...artists of the 1920s who had become disillusioned with America...

Modernist [writers] looked at writing differently than the authors and literary movements that had preceded them:

Instead of plot events, there is an emphasis on characters' consciousness, unconsciousness, memory, and perception...

With this said, we find that Abner "Ab" Snopes is a pyromaniac, and a poor father and husband. He resents authority—his response is to "get mad and get even." At the start of the story, Snopes has been charged with setting fire to a Harris' barn. He is guilty, but expects his son, Sarty, to speak up for him and get him off the hook. We find that Sarty is particularly unhappy with his father's tactics, and this creates a conflict not only in how Sarty perceives his father, but in how Sarty is forced to feel about himself.

When Mr. Harris tells the court to ask Sarty about what happened, the boy knows exactly what is expected of him:

He aims for me to lie, he thought...And I will have to do hit.

While they are deciding, Sarty feels trapped by the situation—obviously not a new experience for this family...

Now time, the fluid world, rushed beneath him again, the voices coming to him again through the smell of cheese and sealed meat, the fear and despair and the old grief of blood...

Sarty resents what is required of him as his father's son—because he is related by blood. That is all they have in common. His father is a criminal.

Mr. Harris decides he cannot drag a boy into this affair, so the judge dismisses the case and tells Snopes to "leave this country." Snopes is already prepared to do so, but makes a vulgar comment as he leaves the courtroom. Then...

...as he passed a voice hissed, "Barn burner!"

Sarty (though he knows the accusation is true) goes after the accuser—another boy—who "hammers" Sarty. Sarty's father drags him along to the wagon that is already packed for their departure.  Sarty is torn between knowing his father is a menace and being his father's son, which is why he goes after the other boy for his insult. Sarty is conflicted.

The boy's mother is crying when they return;  their meager and broken up belongings are packed to move—again. Because Ab believes his son would have told the truth in court, he hits Sarty and sends him to bed.

Abner moves on to work for Major de Spain, arriving the next day; but as soon as he stops at the man's house, Ab starts trouble—staining a white carpet with dirty feet. He fails to clean it to his boss's expectation, and is fined in court for the damage. Ab goes off to burn de Spain's barn, and orders that Sarty be held at home so he can't warn anyone of what is to come. Sarty breaks loose, runs and warns de Spain, and then just keeps running. He has been forced to choose between his father (blood) and doing the right thing (society).

The thematic conflict is the struggle of whether blood is thicker than water—how far will Sarty go to defend his father, and where must he stop? From a modernist standpoint, the story concentrates less on the plot and more on Sarty's "coming of age"—when he makes a choice for himself, follows his own ethical compass, and leaves the life he knows. He has started to grow up, and in choosing to do the right thing, he must leave his family behind. He never looks back.

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