Discuss Faulkner, Modernism, and Barn Burning.
Faulkner uses techniques of Expressionism, which is characteristically Modernist. Expressionism was an art movement wherein images were distorted and exaggerated to communicate emotion. Throughout the story, there are several instances where the main character, Sarty, is experiencing some intense emotions. In those moments, Faulkner distorts the imagery in order show just how the child is feeling.
The first intense moment for Sarty is when he is put on the witness stand to testify against his own father, because he is the youngest, and so the men likely believe he will be the most likely to tell the truth. In this world of Faulkner’s, “blood” protects “blood” as a way to show loyalty, and anyone disloyal is cut off from that. His dad is also physically abusive, as the story soon after shows. But Sarty feels convicted to tell the truth. To Sarty, the burden of testifying is tangible, and the technique of Expressionism emphasizes this. Faulkner writes,
. . . he saw the men between himself and the table part and become a lane of grim faces, at the end of which he saw the justice, a shabby, collarless, graying man in spectacles, beckoning him. He felt no floor under his bare feet; he seemed to walk beneath the palpable weight of the grim turning faces.
Faulkner includes imagery about sight and touch, and both of these point to how heavy this burden of testifying is to Sarty. The room with men watching is distorted into a “lane of grim faces,” and their stares become something tangible, a “palpable weight” as they turn toward him. In reality, he should not be able to feel the weight of their gazes, but since Sarty feels pressured to tell the truth, the image is distorted into a literal weight. Also notable in this quote is that Sarty feels “no floor under his bare feet,” which shows how detached and surreal the moment feels to him. He feels he has no volition in going up there—instead, it is as if he is being drawn up.
This technique is repeated again where Sarty is beat up by another boy for being a “barn burner.” The chaos of the moment is captured by stitched-together images that show how startled Sarty is in being attacked:
Again he could not see, whirling; there was a face in a red haze, moonlike, bigger than the full moon, the owner of it half again his size, he leaping in the red haze toward the face, feeling no blow, feeling no shock when his head struck the earth, scrabbling up and leaping again, feeling no blow this time either and tasting no blood . . .
In this excerpt, the red dirt of the ground, the full moon, and the bigger boy’s face become at once distorted and stitched together, very reminiscent of a German Expressionist painting depicting the confusion of a battle. The angles seem askew, because all within one painted scene we see the moon, a face, the ground, and the blood on Sarty’s lip.
Later, when Sarty sees the plantation house, he is overwhelmed with feelings of joy and peace. The extraordinarily large and beautiful house seems stable, like a sanctuary for Sarty, whose daily life amounts to chaos, crime, and abuse. Yet, we can see from the distorted image that Faulkner gives of Sarty’s dad that the little boy still fears his father:
. . . this, the peace and joy, ebbing for an instant as he looked again at the stiff black back, the stiff and implacable limp of the figure which was not dwarfed by the house, for the reason that it had never looked big anywhere and which now, against the serene columned backdrop, had more than ever that impervious quality of something cut ruthlessly from tin, depthless, as though, sidewise to the sun, it would cast no shadow.
The size and strength of Sarty’s dad is distorted; he seems “impervious” and “cut ruthlessly from tin.” In other words, his dad seems unstoppable; any attack upon him would be an attack on a tin man with no heart. His dad also seems “sideways to the sun,” or to “cast no shadow.” This description of sunlight is...
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