In William Faulkner's "Barn Burning," does Abner give any indication that if he did not die in the end of the story, he would change?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In William Faulkner's "Barn Burning," Abner is a stubborn and pernicious tyrant.

The story begins as Abner faces charges of having burned down a barn, and while it seems obvious that he is guilty, there is not enough evidence to convict him. Though there is no sentencing, Abner is directed by the Justice of the Peace to clear out of the area. Colonel Sartoris (Abner' son and the character through whose "internal dialogue" we hear the story) struggles between what is the right thing to do and the "pull of blood"—loyalty to his father simply because they are kin.

As they leave the court, Abner's propensity to push on, with an evident lack of good judgment, is seen as he wields the whip on the mules pulling their wagon. He strikes twice, not for the need—he simply does so without waiting for the first strike to do its work.

His father mounted to the seat where the older brother already sat and struck the gaunt mules two savage blows with the peeled willow, but without heat. It was not even sadistic; it was exactly that same quality which in later years would cause his descendants to over-run the engine before putting a motor car into motion, striking and reining back in the same movement.

As they leave town, the boy's father turns on him:

"You were fixing to tell them. You would have told him."[Sarty] didn't answer. His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horse fly, his voice still without heat or anger…

What his father sees in Sarty foreshadows how the son will eventually do what he knows is right.

Abner goes on to explain to the boy that he has to remain loyal to his blood kin, or he will have nothing. His father does not recognize loyalty to family in the face of respectable behavior, but simply because of the connection of blood. In observing this attitude in Abner, we can infer that as long as there is a blood connection, things remain the same—without deviation from what one does or believes. For the reasoning here is simply tied to being related: there is no logic involved, no need to improve or change for the better. The boy has no power...

…to resist [the world] and try to change the course of its events.

Abner takes his family to his next job, to work for Major de Spain. But as stubborn and obstinate as the mules he drives, Abner thoughtlessly and purposely pushes past the servant at the door to the main house, ignoring the man's directions to wipe his feet (doing so again "without heat), and he dirties the rug. The Major is not at home, but when he returns and sees the mess Abner has made, he orders Abner to clean the run, a job which falls to the boy's sisters. Unable to fix the damage he has caused, Abner is charged to pay for the rug through his farming for the Major, and Abner is taken to court. This time the judge holds Abner accountable for his actions.

And as was the case with Mr. Harris at the beginning (and the barn that Abner burned), Abner takes out his unwarranted anger on his employer. Making Sarty stay home, Abner and his older son go to burn the barn. Sarty runs on and tries to warn de Spain.

In the end, Abner is lost—in being as stubborn as ever. There is no evidence that Abner (or anyone in the story) has the desire or ability to change except Sarty, who runs away.

Read the study guide:
Barn Burning

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