Barn Burning Summary

Barn Burning” is a 1939 short story by William Faulkner about a vengeful, abusive father and his son.

  • Ten-year-old Colonel Satoris "Sarty" Snopes has an abusive, alcoholic father who beats Sarty mercilessly and burns down his employers’ barns.
  • They visit the house of Major de Spain, a rich gentleman. Resentful of de Spain, Snopes tracks dung onto one of de Spain's carpets.
  • A judge orders Snopes to pay a fine. Snopes makes plans to burn de Spain's barn. Sarty attempts to warn de Spain but hears shots that night and assumes his father has been killed.

Summary

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Last Updated February 1, 2024.

“Barn Burning” is a short story written by American author William Faulkner, first published in Harper's Magazine in 1939. It unfolds through the perspective of Sartoris Snopes, an impressionable boy who struggles to square his moral compass with that of his father, Abner Snopes, who penchant for violence: Abner likes to burn barns as a form of vengeance against those he feels have wronged him.

The story opens in the Peace Court, as Abner is on trial after being accused of arson by Mr. Harris. The judge asks for proof, and Harris recounts an incident where he detained Abner’s hog after it trespassed upon his cornfields and charged a dollar for its return. In retaliation, Abner sent a black man to leave Harris a threatening message: “Wood and hay kin burn.”

The judge asks Harris if he can produce the messenger in question, but he fails to do so. Harris then calls on Sartoris, Abner’s youngest son, as a witness. The latter walks forward nervously, torn between his conscience and his keen awareness that his father expects him to lie. The judge asks for his name—Colonel Sartoris Snopes—and then remarks that this is a fortuitous sign, as his namesake is a local historical figure renowned for his virtue. However, the judge soon dismisses Sartoris because he hesitates to speak.

Without Sartoris' testimony, the trial ends with no evidence to rule against Abner. Despite the favorable ruling, the judge advises Abner to leave the country. When they step outside, a boy calls them “barn burners” and physically assaults Sartoris. Before he can retaliate, Abner pulls him back and tells him to get in the wagon. The rest of the family—Sartoris' older brother, sisters, and mother—embark. The mother tries to wipe Sartoris’ blood from his face, but he asks to be left alone. Quietly, he hopes this episode will mark an end to his father’s propensity for violence.

That night, after setting up camp and having supper, Sartoris’ father leads him up a slope for a private conversation. Abner reveals that he sensed his son’s desire to tell the truth during the trial. He then strikes Sartoris, telling him that being a man involves sticking up for your family.

The next day, they settle into their new home; after, Abner takes Sartoris to visit their landlord, Major de Spain. Upon seeing the grandiosity of the landlord’s house from a distance, a sense of peace fills Sartoris. He imagines it as a place far above the power of his father’s aggressions.

Abner steps on a pile of horse droppings but still pushes into the landlord’s house, leaving a trail of footprint stains on an expensive rug. The servants ask him to leave, telling him Major de Spain is not home. The two make their way back. Abner resentfully remarks that Major de Spain’s estate was built on “black sweat” and adds that “maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it.”

A servant brings the dirtied rug to the Snopes’ home for cleaning. Abner soaks it in lye and scratches its surface with a piece of stone. When he and Sartoris return the rug, Abner loudly drops it at de Spain’s doorstep, making enough noise to wake up the home’s inhabitants.

The next morning, Major de Spain visits the Snopes family, seeking recompense for the rug’s damages. Since Abner cannot conceivably afford its original price of a hundred dollars, Major de Spain demands an extra twenty bushels of corn in addition to their original contract. Sartoris attempts to placate his father by saying it was not their fault and that perhaps they...

(This entire section contains 889 words.)

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will find some way to avoid the penalty.

Abner and his two sons return to the Peace Court to press a suit against Major de Spain, claiming that the toll of twenty bushels is exorbitant. During the trial, Sartoris panickedly erupts and states that his father did not burn anything. However, the Justice misunderstands this to mean that Abner burned the rug. Ultimately, he rules against Abner’s suit but cuts the requirement of twenty bushels to ten. On their way home, Sartoris again tries to soothe his father, saying they will not allow anything to be taken.

After eating supper, Sartoris overhears his mother asking Abner to stop. He peeks through the door and sees his father filling up a can of kerosene. When Abner spots him, he tells his son to fetch more oil. Sartoris returns with the can and pleads with his father to send another messenger instead of starting a fire. Abner drags him inside and tells the mother to restrain the boy—otherwise, Sartoris might warn de Spain.

Despite the mother’s efforts, Sartoris overpowers her and runs swiftly to the de Spain’s estate, crying out the word “Barn!” De Spain immediately rides his horse toward the barn, outrunning Sartoris, who is also hurrying towards the scene. Before he can reach the barn, he hears the sound of two gunshots. Sartoris stops in his tracks, cries briefly, and then runs to the top of a hill, where he sits to think about his father until morning. Eventually, he gets up and decides to walk on without looking back, soon disappearing into a forest filled with the birdsong of whippoorwills.

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