Faulkner's "Barn Burning" is set in the late 19th century when sharecropping was widely used in rural agricultural areas. Sharecropping was a system in which a wealthy landowner would allow poor families to live on and farm their land and keep a share of the crops. Faulkner wrote this story during the 1930s when the Great Depression was in full swing and tenant farmers created unions to secure protective rights.
Abner Snopes is one sharecropper who resents the wealthy landowners he works for. In the opening scene, Abner is in court accused of burning Mr. Harris's barn—which he did out of spite. When the family arrives at the new landowner's home, the home of Major de Spain, Abner once again spites the wealthy by deliberately treading manure onto the expensive rug. When asked to clean it, Abner makes it worse. Mr. de Spain wants Abner to pay him with twenty bushels of corn for the damage to the rug. Instead, Abner sues him and the judge reduces it to ten bushels. However, Abner is still angry and plans to burn Mr. de Spain's barn.
The power-play between the rich and poor in Faulkner's story makes it the most interesting. The wealthy landowners have a lot of power to wield. Because they own the land, they can turn out the sharecroppers whenever they please. They can set a quota for crops that the sharecroppers have to meet or face punishment if they don't. The relationship is unbalanced as wealthy take and the poor give. Twenty bushels of corn is a high price to pay—one that likely would have come out of the Snopes family's share. This form of punishment would have punished the whole family, not just Abner.
Abner knows that the wealthy have the upper-hand. In fact, he equates the job with slavery. He refers to Mr. de Spain as the man who will begin "owning me body and soul for the next eight months." He also remarks to Sarty after treading on the clean rug that the house was built on the sweat of black Americans, but now they want the sweat of white Americans. Abner's proclivity for burning barns and ruining rugs is his way of using power over the wealthy. The poor don't have houses full of expensive possessions nor do they have barns full of grain, seed, animals, and harvest. Sharecroppers don't even own the houses they live in. But Abner knows the importance of material possessions to the rich. He burns barns in an act of defiance because he knows the importance of barns in an agrarian society.
Abner's behavior is also drastically out of line with social norms. The wealthy and privileged are revered by society, and the poor were prejudiced. Twice in the story, Abner finds himself in court, and both times, he receives unjust punishments. Though he is not found guilty of burning Mr. Harris's barn, the judge orders him to leave town anyway, which is no small feat for a poor farmer with a family. We do know that he is guilty, but the judge does not, which is why a guilty verdict was not delivered. The second time, he is found guilty, and though the judge reduces his payment, the punishment is still disproportionate to the crime.