What is modernism, and how does Faulkner use its characteristics in "Barn Burning"?

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mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Faulkner portrays this story of conflict through a modernist aesthetic, through experimentation with the following:

  • Consciousness: through use of stream-of-consciousness, shifts in point-of-view (free-style narration)
  • Time: episodic, non-linear storytelling
  • Space: temporal shifts; 4-dimensional writing that defy the laws of traditional framing

Faulkner is a master of modernist experimentation in the novel, related to his obsession with time.  He says the past always stays with us: "The past is never dead.  It’s not even past."

In "Barn Burning," the narrator jumps backward and forward in time, and suspends time:

  • Abner’s wartime activities are repeatedly mentioned “prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity” (bottom 1791-92)
  • The family carries an old clock stopped at 2:14 “of a dead and forgotten day and time” (1792)
  • Narrator speculates how Sarty “might have” thought if he were older (1793, 2nd main para.)

Faulkner also experiments with point-of-view, framing the novel in long sentences that jump around and focus on multiple perspectives.  Just look at how many sights and sounds catch Sarty's (and the reader's) eyes and ears in the second sentence:

The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish - this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He 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!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

"But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?"

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