What is modernism, and how does Faulkner use its characteristics in "Barn Burning"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the central traits of modernism is alienation—alienation from the past or alienation from other people. Modernist texts try to reinvent narrative to some degree out of a realization that older narrative forms cannot explain or represent this alienation.

In Faulkner's story, the Snopes are alienated in many ways....

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

One of the central traits of modernism is alienation—alienation from the past or alienation from other people. Modernist texts try to reinvent narrative to some degree out of a realization that older narrative forms cannot explain or represent this alienation.

In Faulkner's story, the Snopes are alienated in many ways. For one thing, they are alienated by the class system and pervasive racism of the South. Snopes' penchant for setting fires, or his treatment of the rug, is an expression of his alienation from a society that has cast him off, and of his belief in his own superiority. Snopes is also alienated from his past. While he prides himself on his connection to Colonel Sartoris, that connection does not earn him any respect, and it contributes to his bitterness and anger.

From a formal perspective, the story can be considered "modernist" in that it uses a kind of stream-of-consciousness approach to telling the story from Sarty's point of view. Sarty is mystified by his father's behavior and by his own culpability in it; Faulkner's point is not to explain how "bad" Snopes is, but to capture the chaotic mental state of Sarty, who is trying to come to terms with his heritage, his dysfunctional family, and his own sense of identity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Faulkner portrays this story of conflict through a modernist aesthetic, through experimentation with the following:

  • Consciousness: through use of stream-of-consciousness, shifts in point-of-view (free-style narration)
  • Time: episodic, non-linear storytelling
  • Space: temporal shifts; 4-dimensional writing that defy the laws of traditional framing

Faulkner is a master of modernist experimentation in the novel, related to his obsession with time.  He says the past always stays with us: "The past is never dead.  It’s not even past."

In "Barn Burning," the narrator jumps backward and forward in time, and suspends time:

  • Abner’s wartime activities are repeatedly mentioned “prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity” (bottom 1791-92)
  • The family carries an old clock stopped at 2:14 “of a dead and forgotten day and time” (1792)
  • Narrator speculates how Sarty “might have” thought if he were older (1793, 2nd main para.)

Faulkner also experiments with point-of-view, framing the novel in long sentences that jump around and focus on multiple perspectives.  Just look at how many sights and sounds catch Sarty's (and the reader's) eyes and ears in the second sentence:

The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish - this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father's enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

"But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?"

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team