What is the final crisis or epiphany in “Barn Burning”?
The final crisis in William Faulkner’s short story "Barn Burning" is Colonel Sartoris Snopes's wrenching resolution of an internal conflict between loyalty to his domineering, lawless father and integrity to himself and society. In resolving this crisis, Sartoris has an epiphany of peace and freedom. He realizes that choosing justice and morality over blind filial loyalty frees him from a life of fear resulting from his father's tyrannical rule.
In “Barn Burning,” protagonist Colonel Sartoris Snopes experiences a final crisis of faith between filial loyalty and individual integrity. In settling this final crisis, Sartoris experiences the epiphany that breaking out of his father’s iron hand in the name of honesty and justice actually sets the boy free.
Abner Snopes is a domineering, abusive father who expects absolute loyalty from his family. At the beginning of the story, when Abner is on trial for burning down Mr. Harris’s barn, Sartoris feels compelled to lie in order to protect his father. He views the judge as
his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!).
He is so loyal to his father that he sees them both as one against the same enemy, even though Sartoris himself is free of guilt. Sartoris ultimately does not have to say anything to expose his father’s criminality. After the trial, Abner reveals that he thought Sartoris would betray him; he hits his son in order to teach him a lesson in family loyalty and tells him,
You're getting to be a man. You got to learn to stick with your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you.
Even though Sartoris realizes how reprehensible Abner's destructive fury is, he feels compelled to defend his father. Later, when his father is on trial for the smearing De Spain's rug with horse feces, Sartoris blurts out, "He ain’t done it! He ain't burnt—." The boy's exclamation is not only a lie, but also a non sequitur; Abner is being accused of defacing the rug, not burning it. Sartoris's cry, however, illustrates how Abner's vengeful pyromania has become ingrained in the boy's mind.
After they return home, Abner commands Sartoris to fetch a can of oil. Right away, Sartoris suspects that his father plans to set fire to De Spain's barn and hesitates:
The boy did not move. Then he could speak.
"What ..." he cried. "What are you ..."
"Go get that oil," his father said. "Go."
Then he was moving, running, outside the house, toward the stable: this is the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed him.
Sartoris automatically obeys his father but then realizes that he could
run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again.
But his loyalty to his father is too strong to resist. As Satoris protests, though, Abner discovers his son's rebellious nature and considers tying up his son before deciding to let his wife hold him. Sartoris battles the blind loyalty of other family members—his mother, his aunt, and his sisters—to escape and run to tell De Spain that Abner is planning to set fire to his barn.
Sartoris has a crisis of faith between loyalty to his malicious father and desire for justice. After running and warning De Spain and his slave about Abner's plan, Sartoris then flees in order to catch his father before De Spain overtakes him on horse. Is the boy trying to stop his father, or is he trying to warn and save his father from De Spain? He rushes on,
knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying "Pap! Pap!," … panting, sobbing, "Father! Father!"
Sartoris's final crisis of faith ends with him grieving his father, yet feeling
grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair. Father. My father, he thought. "He was brave!" he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: "He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris' cav'ry!" not knowing that his father had gone to that war [as a mercenary soldier].
The boy mourns his father and clings to a positive yet false memory of him. Nonetheless, Sartoris discovers that he no longer feels "terror and fear." He has an epiphany that although tragic, his father's death brings freedom and peace. The boy is free from his father's abusive rule of "terror and fear."
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