Discuss Faulkner, Modernism, and Barn Burning.

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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 almost Impressionism in that it shows the lighting of a specific moment, but the distorted nature of the description, which seems to flip the world around, makes it moreso Expressionism. Expressionism is not the same as Impressionism, which uses imagery to capture time and atmosphere, giving a visual “impression” of the moment in time. Expressionism requires that psychological tie; it must emphasize the inner psychological landscape of the person whose consciousness readers are being filtered through. The distorted image of Sarty’s dad like a huge, shadowless machine shows that the little boy fears his father as one would fear a heartless, unnatural man.

Faulkner uses Expressionist technique to show readers that Sarty is a boy immersed in trauma. To testify against his dad is traumatizing, and to be attacked by a bigger boy is traumatizing as well. He experiences false guilt, confusion, and detachment—all of which point to trauma. Even though the reader’s sympathy for the little man might be flipped when the find he has taken part against his dad, siding with oppressive tradition represented by the plantation, it is easy to understand why a traumatized little boy would buy into the false sense of security and stability that the sight of the plantation provides.

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The artistic period known as “Modernism” arguably began in 1912 and ended in 1939. Modernists, such as William Faulkner, (who penned "Barn Burning" in 1939) consciously rejected Realism, the dominant movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whereas Realists sought to perfect verisimilitude, Modernists wanted to observe life from different angles, metaphorically shaking it up and looking at reality through the lens of a kaleidoscope; each new twist of the knob flings characters into different times and places. In addition to rejecting straight forward interpretations of reality, Modernists also rejected almost everything related to Enlightenment philosophy; that is, that all things are ultimately knowable. Modernists also did not believe in a creator God, or for the few agnostics that adhered to Modernists tenets, at least a compassionate one.

Faulkner’s work is in the Modernist genre as his writing experiments with reality in arguably every way possible: time, space, and even consciousness.

One of the ways that Faulkner experiments with consciousness is through his character, Sarty. As readers, we hear not only what Sarty says, of course, but also his thoughts, which, given Sarty’s reality, are limited in scope and restricted due to his emotional conflictions. To differentiate Sarty’s thoughts from his speech, Faulkner uses italics. For example, in the opening paragraph, as Sarty and his father are awaiting “trial” in the general store, Sarty, safely hidden behind a nail keg, watches his father’s accuser and thinks to himself,

“(our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!”)

As the trial proceeds, Sarty carefully takes in every word. When it is his father’s turn to speak, Sarty realizes,

He aims to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit.”

Although this technique, exposing the internal as well as the external, is common place today, in Faulkner’s time, it was excitingly innovative.

Time is another way in which Faulkner embraces modernism. Realists told stories in linear fashion: first this, then that, then that, then the end. Not Faulkner. His stories jump in and out of time, forward and back, backwards and forwards. For example, Abner’s wartime activities come up time and again. In this first example, not only is the reader taken backwards in time but also forward in consciousness:

Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight?

Sarty, because of his age and lack of experience, cannot see that there is something obviously amiss in his father’s activities. Speculating about what the boy “might have” thought is also an innovation of Modernism.

Later, the reader learns why Abner has not the skills of war but this still escapes young Sarty. In defending his father to himself, Sarty cries out,

"He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris' cav'ry!" not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty - it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

Another way in which Faulkner plays with time is in the clock the family insists on carrying around with them. It is broken and the time continually shows “2:14.” Time is neither tracked or of much importance to the Snopeses. As Sarty recalls the items they always packed on their many moves, her remembers in particular

“the clock inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which would not run, stopped at some fourteen minutes past two o'clock of a dead and forgotten day and time, which had been his mother's dowry.”

Dowries show hope for the future; the bride brings something of value to the marriage to help the family get started. But this family, in its poverty and lack of education, will likely never get very far. It is appropriate, then, that time has no meaning for Sarty’s mother.

Faulkner shakes the kaleidoscope again and moves the Snopes family forward in time, this time in bit of a humorous way. Abner is about to set off again:

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.

Manipulation of space is another feature of Faulkner’s Modernist work. He chooses words to make the character of Abner two-dimensional. Unlike Sarty, readers are left out of Abner’s internal processes. He is flat and therefore, not truly knowable. Therefore, the father is repeatedly described as a “flat shape, “without . . .depth,” “depthless,” and “as if cut from tin.”

Abner’s lack of dimensionality is contrasted starkly when he appears at Colonel Sartoris’s doorstep. Sarty watches his father approach:

“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.”

Abner’s stiffness is contrasted to the roundness of the columns and suddenly Sarty can see just how “flat” his father truly is.

All of these methods: space, time, and consciousness make Faulkner a master of Modernism.

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