In William Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning," what are Sarty’s hopes for his father?

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In William Faulkner’s short story “Barning Burning,” Sarty’s most immediate desire from his father, Abner Snopes, is that the latter should cease burning other people’s barns. The burning of barns is just the most obvious example of Abner’s generally hostile and destructive attitude toward others. It is, however, also the example of his behavior that causes the most literal instability in the lives of his family, including Sarty. Sarty’s desire that his father stop burning barns is, therefore, symbolic of a larger desire for stability, settledness, and, perhaps, even for some sign of affection, decency, and normality in his father.

At one point, Abner strikes Sarty, accusing the boy of almost having testified against Abner in a legal proceeding earlier in the day. Abner insists that the men who had put him on trial only wanted to retaliate against him. Sarty doesn’t reply, but the narrator notes concerning Sarty that

Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, "If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again."

Whether Sarty fully realizes as a boy that the other men only want truth and justice is unclear, but certainly Sarty’s behavior suggests that all he really wants is truth and justice and that he hopes that his father’s behavior will change so that Abner, too, will embrace those values – or at least move away the opposite values by which he now seems possessed.

Later in the story, the narrator twice suggests Sarty’s attraction toward “peace and dignity,” and although Sarty may not realistically hope to achieve either of these values from his father, he at least seems to hope that his father will allow others to enjoy them. Indeed, one of the most impressive things about Sarty, even at this young age, is that he does not seem fundamentally self-concernd; he seems to have a keen awareness of the rights and inherent dignity, worth, privileges of others. He is not merely concerned about the ways his father abuses Sarty and the rest of the family; he is concerned about the ways his father abuses others, outside the immediate family circle. When Sarty and his father approach the large white mansion that Sarty associates with “peace and dignity,” the narrator reports Sarty’s thoughts:

Maybe he [that is, Abner] will feel it too. Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe he couldn't help but be.

Sarty hopes that his father can change for the better and become a more ethical and moral person. This kind of change, of course, is probably impossible for Abner. Instead, it is Sarty himself who behaves morally by the end of the story – thus forever breaking his relationship with the father he still somehow loves.


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