In "Barn Burning," what is the importance of this quote?
Later, twenty years later he was to tell himself, "If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again." But now he said nothing. He was not crying. He just stood there. "Answer me, " his father said.
The importance of this quote lies in the way that it uncovers the peculiar dynamic of the relationship between Sarty and his father, Abner Snopes. As we read the story, we become increasingly aware of the way in which Sarty and his family are trapped thanks to their father's cycle of vengeance and anger against those who are above him in society and he has to work for. This quote occurs after Sarty and his family have been forced yet again to leave a community after his father engaged in arson. Abner accuses his son of being on the point of telling the court that it was his father that burnt the barn. The appeal that Sarty would make twenty years in the future to "justice" and "truth" only serves to highlight the way in which Abner Snopes lives life by his own distorted and unscrupulous moral code where such concepts do not exist and family loyalty is the prime consideration. However, Sarty has learnt very quickly that such appeals would only yield further violence towards him and his silence speaks volumes.
In this particular quote, Sarty doesn't feel the need to answer right away (although, twenty years is a long time to keep silent). Faulkner allows Sarty to use the text as he chooses, revealing Abner's guilt on his own terms, yet remaining loyal to Abner throughout. If you notice, adult Sarty does not live in the present--he carries no real voice. Instead, the narration becomes an endless cycle, much like the cycle of abuse, in which Sarty focuses on telling the truth about Abner.
More importantly is what isn't said in those twenty years. As an abuse victim, the silence corresponds to the symptomology of repression or a refusal to 'feel." Abner has a history of physical abuse and Sarty knew that any response was the wrong one. As a child, Sarty would only know Abner's behavior as an expression of 'love;' it wouldn't be until he grew into adulthood that Sarty would understand Abner's need to dominate and control his family. And, as in many cases of abused children, it often takes years for the victim (Sarty) to recognize what that violence has done. So, Sarty is rendered voiceless for twenty years, powerless in his attempt to control the abuse--and in his abilitiy to voice it.
Because Sarty know exactly how to act/appear in front of his father, he also recognizes that:
It is not in defense of this violence but in an effort to understand it—the 'savage blows ... but without heat' that I might add that Ab seems here to be passing on, in a more explicitly despotic, violent form, the naturalized, axiomatic social and economic violence he feels directed against himself"(emphasis added).
The final understanding is that Sarty must have some control over his situation, his powerlessness, and his anger at Abner. Perhaps on some level it's what compels Sarty to testify against his father. As a child he his moral compass was black or white, right or wrong; he had no understanding of justice and vendettas. For Sarty the child, this amounts to a Catch-22...how do do the right thing, without angering the man who provides for his family.