What is the tone of William Faulkner's short story Barn Burning?
William Faulkner's short story Barn Burning is fairly representative of this esteemed author and product of the American South. Uncompromising in its depiction of the ugliness endemic to the culture of the Deep South during the years Faulkner was active, Barn Burning quickly establishes a tone of gravity and poverty. As Barn Burning begins, the scene is a small market that doubles, when the need arises, as a courtroom--details that suggest that Faulkner's setting takes place in a very small town of minimal means. That the story that follows is meant to evoke some very serious imagery is evident in the awkward but reasonably descriptive passage that follows in which Faulkner's young protagonist, Colonel Sarty Snopes, absorbs the smells of his surroundings at the same time he observes the gravity of the situation:
". . .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 . . ."
Sarty Snopes is watching a trial of sorts in which his father, a drunken exemplar of poor white trash, stands accused of burning down the barn of a farmer with whom he, the father, had a relatively minor dispute. In any rural agricultural community of the pre-World War II years, barn burning was a serious crime and those who stood accused confronted the seething hostility of the entire town. So central to Faulkner's story is the crime of barn burning that it would be incorporated into the 1958 film adapted from Barn Burning and other of Faulkner's stories, The Long Hot Summer. With such a crime at the center of his story, Faulkner leaves no question as to the severity of the position in which Sarty Snopes's father finds himself.
Also representative of a Faulkner work are the references to the racial hostilities and segregation that existed in this particular time and place, such as when the presiding judge or officer of the court questions "Mr. Harris" about the chain of events leading to the destruction of his barn:
"Where is the nigger? Have you got him?"
"He was a strange nigger, I tell you. I don't know what became of him."
The black man may be implicated in the crime, but the perpetrator and main suspect is Sarty's father, and it is the father's reputation as a barn burner that will taint Sarty Snopes's life.
The tone Faulkner establishes in his story is one of suspense, physical danger, economic tension, and continued racial segregation. Sarty is growing up as a silent witness to his father's crimes but increasingly questions the older man's morals. He must live under the shadow of a notorious barn burner, and that is too much to ask of any son. And loyalty to one's blood is one of the themes Faulkner explores. As Sarty grows and develops the ability to think for himself, his loyalty to a father perpetually at the center of storms has to be reinforced. As his father tells him one day, "You're getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you."
Ultimately, Sarty's conscience takes precedence over his blood ties to his father and his act of betrayal towards his father leads to the latter's death. Father's defiance of authority and brutal responses to perceived slights on the part of others have become too difficult to countenance, and he is shot to death before he can burn his last barn. Barn Burning's tone is certainly bleak, befitting the subject matter.
When we think of the tone of a given work of literature, we are referring to the attitude a writer takes towards a subject, a character, or the reader. I think it is clear that the grimly serious nature of the tale, and in particular, the kind of existence that Sarty has. Because of his father's penchant for barn burning and his clear resistance or conflict with any form of authority, he finds himself cut off from society and isolated. In addition, he has to constantly struggle with his own sense of right and wrong, and whether to disobey his father by revealing his guilt. This is of course what he nearly does at the beginning of the story, and his father realises this, and beats him for it. However, by the end of the story, this is what he decides to do, and we are left with a moving image of Sarty looking up at the constellations above him and then walking away from his father and family, without looking back.
Such events suggest a serious tone to this excellent work. There is no indication of irony or humour. Sarty is presented as a characer growing up in a grim, unforgiving world that is shaped by the malice of his father that forces him to grow up well before his time and to make a decision between his family and his morality that nobody should be forced to make.