Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The story is not narrated by the ten-year-old Sarty, but Faulkner calls attention to the boy’s thoughts and thus to the inner conflict they represent by italicizing them. Subtle word choices also help trace Sarty’s move toward maturity and responsibility. Hearing the shots that announce his father’s death, Sarty first cries, “Pap! Pap!” but seconds later shifts to the more mature sounding “Father! Father!”
Images of cold and heat, of stiffness and metal, help characterize Abner Snopes. Snopes walks stiffly because of a wound suffered when he was caught stealing a horse during the war. However, stiffness describes his character as well as his walk. His voice is cold, “harsh like tin and without heat like tin.” His wiry figure appears “cut ruthlessly from tin.” This man who burns barns seems to save his fire for his crimes; all else he does without heat or emotion—whether it is talking, whipping a horse, or striking his son. Even the campfires he builds are niggardly. For him, fire is a means of preserving his integrity and “hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.”
A little of Snopes’s stiffness seems to have carried over to his son at the end of the story. When Sarty awakens after the night of the fire, he is described as being a little stiff. For Sarty, however, the stiffness will not last: “Walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun.”
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Any discussion of William Faulkner in a historical context necessarily involves a discussion of modernism, the philosophical and artistic movement to which Faulkner, perhaps reluctantly, belonged. Modernism is generally considered the peculiarly twentieth-century school of artistic expression, and it is associated in literature with, for example, the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound the painting of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso the music of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, and the prose fiction of James Joyce Marcel Proust, John Dos Passos, and Faulkner. In each of these cases, one observes a conscious breaking with traditional ideas about style, content, and purpose. In the poetry of Pound, as for example in his Cantos, experience is broken in pieces, and the reader is faced with a collage of fragments, allusions, declarations, and epiphanies; so, too, in the poems of Eliot, who also typifies the moral atmosphere of modernism, which could be summed up as despair over the condition of humanity in the aftermath of the soul-wrenching and materially devastating First World War (1914-18). Eliot's
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The most noticeable feature of Faulkner's style, in ''Barn Burning'' and elsewhere, is his syntax or sentence structure. Faulkner's sentences tend to be long, full of interruptions, but work basically by stringing out seemingly meandering sequences of clauses. The second sentence of ‘‘Barn Burning’’ offers a case in point: It is 116 words long and contains between twelve and sixteen clauses, depending on how one parses it out; its content is heterogeneous, moving from Sarty's awareness of the smell of cheese in the general store through the visual impression made by canned goods on the shelves to the boy's sense of blood loyalty with his accused father. It is the subjectivity of the content—sense impressions, random emotions and convictions—which reveals the purpose of the syntax, which is to convey experience in the form of an intense stream-of-consciousness as recorded by the protagonist. The reiterated ''and ... and ... and ...’’ of these sequences creates a type of organic flow, as of a raw, unanalyzed encounter with the world and its variety of people and things.
Point of View
Faulkner was a perspectivist: That is to say he liked to tell a story from some particular point of view—or sometimes, as in the novels, from many divergent points of view, each with its own insistent emphasis. ‘‘Barn Burning’’ offers a fairly controlled example of the application of perspectivism....
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Compare and Contrast
1941: Fire damage to personal property in the United States is estimated at $286,000.
1997: Arson is the second leading cause of residential deaths in the United States, claiming 740 lives. Personal property losses from arson total nearly $28 million.
Early 1900s: Although the United States is shifting from an agrarian to an industrial society, a large portion of the country's gross national product results from agricultural production. Due to the abolishment of slavery, many landowners turn to tenant farming for their workforce. There are an estimated 250,000 sharecroppers in the United States.
1990s: Many farmers begin to sell off large parcels of their land to real estate speculators because of high land values. Most food production is left to large corporations.
1930s: William Faulkner's regionalist Southern subject matter, featuring the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, meets with criticism on two fronts: Northern critics find Faulkner's work too narrow, while Southern critics feel his work casts the South in an unfavorable light.
1990s: Regionalist Southern writers including Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Cormac McCarthy, are praised for the detail with which they portray their subject matter.
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Topics for Further Study
Read another Faulkner story, "Turnabout," in which an American aviator in World War I meets a British torpedo-boat pilot and experiences the war from the sailor's perspective. Compare the ‘‘conversion experience’’ of the aviator at the end of the story, when he wishes that the German target he is bombing were in fact the Allied Headquarters, with Sarty Snopes's ‘‘conversion experience’’ in ‘‘Barn Burning.’’
''Barn Burning'' relies on Sarty's point of view, and to a lesser extent on Abner's and the narrator's, to convey its events; but Sarty's older brother, his mother, an aunt, and two sisters are also present. Read the story carefully and try to construct an account of events as one of these others might see them.
Explore the symbolic expressions of fire in ''Barn Burning.’’ What are the properties of fire in general that make it an apt symbol for certain human traits? What particular manifestations of fire does Faulkner deploy in his story to give his readers insight into the character of Ab Snopes?
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What Do I Read Next?
The stories in Faulkner's The Hamlet form a cycle of tales dealing with the Sartoris and Snopes families, tracing their intertwinings and degenerations from the time of Abner Snopes to the early twentieth century.
Faulkner's Sanctuary (1931) is a novel of irrationality and violence that has been criticized for exploiting the violence that ‘‘Barn Burning’’ seems to condemn. Written as a potboiler, Sanctuary will also give a sense of Faulkner's more commercial side.
Like Faulkner, H. P. Lovecraft was an agrarian anti-modernist who took a keen and almost obsessive interest in the phenomenon of degeneration. Lovecraft's ‘‘Shadow over Innsmouth’’ (1936) is a story of inbreeding, isolation, and violence in a small New England town. Lovecraft's ‘‘Whisperer in Darkness’’ and ''The Dunwich Horror'' make use of a fictional American region, Arkham County, in Massachusetts, which has many points in common with Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. These stories appear in Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror and Others.
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) deals with the moral and emotional growth of a young girl in Alabama. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, To Kill a Mockingbird is regarded as an excellent...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bassett, John E., ‘‘Faulkner in the Eighties: Crosscurrents in Criticism,’’ in College Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1989, pp. 1-27.
Beck, Warren, ‘‘Faulkner and the South,’’ in The Antioch Review, No. 1, 1941, pp. 82-94.
‘‘Faulkner's Style,’’ in American Prefaces, Vol. VI, No. 3, Spring, 1941, pp. 195-211.
Boynton, Percy H., ‘‘Retrospective South,’’ in America in Contemporary Fiction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940, pp. 103-12.
Carruthers, James B., William Faulkner's Short Stories, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985, pp. 61-7.
Kazin, Alfred, ‘‘Faulkner: The Rhetoric and the Agony,’’ in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 18, Summer, 1942, pp. 389-402.
Lisca, Peter, ‘‘The Hamlet: Genesis and Revisions,’’ in Faulkner Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1954, pp. 5-13.
Volpe, Edmund, '‘‘Barn Burning': A Definition of Evil,’’ in Faulkner: The Unappeased Imagination: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Glenn O. Carey, New York: Whiston Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 75-82.
Beach, Joseph Warren, ‘‘William Faulkner, Virtuoso,’’ in American Fiction, 1920-1940, New York: Macmillan, 1941, pp. 147-69.
Beach devotes his attention to Faulkner's style; this...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.
Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1994.
Hoffman, Frederick, and Olga W. Vickery, eds. William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Conversations with William Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Labatt, Blair. Faulkner the Storyteller. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.
The Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Summer, 1997).
Parini, Jay. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Peek, Charles A., and Robert W. Hamblin, eds. A Companion to Faulkner Studies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Rovit, Earl, and Arthur Waldhorn, eds. Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time. New York: Continuum, 2005.
Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997....
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