At the end of "Barn Burning," what does it mean when the boy walks and does not look back?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The ending of this story has great significance. The tale of course explores the tension and conflict that its protagonist, the young Sarty, feels as he has to choose whether to obey the claims of blood and family or his own moral sensibilities of what is right and wrong. Unfortunately, is is the unscrupulous behaviour of his father in committing acts of arson that forces him to have to make this decision. At the end, having decided to go with what is right rather than obeying the bond of blood, Sarty is left to make his own way in the world by himself, which gives the ending definite symbolic significance:

He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing--the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.

The fact that Sarty did not look back as he walks off indicates that he recognises what a momentous decision he has made. To choose his own morals over his family is a decision that means it is impossible for him to go back to them. Having made his decision, he realises that it is unchangable, and he now faces his future alone as he walks steadfastly away and on into whatever fate holds for him. The way in which the "liquid silver voices" of the birds are described, however, suggests that this is not an entirely bad future to contemplate.