Barn Burning Characters

The main characters in "Barn Burning" are Sarty Snopes, Abner Snopes, Mr. Harris, Major de Spain, and Lennie Snopes.

  • Colonel Sartoris "Sarty" Snopes is the ten-year-old protagonist, who must decide whether to remain loyal to his arsonist father or whether to turn him in.
  • Abner Snopes is Sarty's alcoholic father, who likes burning down barns as revenge against those he believes have slighted him.
  • Mr. Harris is the plaintiff in the arson case against Abner Snopes.
  • Major de Spain is Abner Snopes' last employer, who shoots him before he can burn down another barn.
  • Lennie Snopes is Sarty's grief-stricken mother.

de Spain

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Major de Spain hires Abner Snopes to tenant his land as a sharecropper. De Spain is a property owner of some stature and thus the social opposite of Ab, who owns nothing and has virtually no social standing. De Spain bears the title Major as an ex-officer of the Confederate Army; here again, he is Ab's social opposite, for Ab was a private soldier (and not a very good one). The Major presumably owned slaves before the war; he still keeps black servants, some of them in livery in the house, others no doubt bound for a pittance in the yards and fields. He is a member of the Southern aristocracy, but with a qualification: his name, which connects him with neither the Protestant upper class nor the Bourbons or other French-descended grandees of the Old South; the name de Spain suggests the nearly-submerged Spanish presence in Louisiana and Florida, or even the creole, or ''light-skinned free blacks'' of New Orleans. If de Spain were a creole, an individual with some African ancestors, then his lording his stature over Ab would presumably be even more stinging for Ab than usual in such confrontations. But this is speculative.

De Spain rides a sorrel horse; Ab drives mules. Again the contrast is emphatic. But it is important not to deprive Major de Spain of his humanity by characterizing him as a stereotypical oppressor. Ab Snopes, after all, is the real villain of the tale. In fact, compared to Ab, the Major strikes one as a reasonable man. His reaction to Ab's deliberate provocation of soiling the expensive rug is simply to order Ab, his employee, to clean the damaged item. When Ab deliberately does further damage to the rug, de Spain is technically within his rights to demand payment in kind (the twenty bushels of corn). To his great surprise, the tenant sues him and asks for a lower punitive remission, which the judge grants. De Spain is a man subjected to uninvited exasperation, and one could even say that he restrains himself. He is also within his customary rights when he shoots the arsonist (Ab) dead when he catches him in the act.

De Spain keeps a fine house, which impresses Sarty with its order. In the context of ''Barn Burning'' de Spain might be said to stand for social and aesthetic order, two things which Sarty has been deprived of all his life.


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Sarty—short for Colonel Sartoris Snopes—bears the name of a famous Rebel commander from the Civil War under whom, perhaps, his father, Abner Snopes, served; Ab appears to have bestowed the name on his son for its public-relations value in the post-Civil War South, where the story ''Barn Burning'' takes place. The ten-year-old male child (he has two older sisters) of an itinerant sharecropper, Sarty has the intellectual development that one would expect—he does not analyze events and brings no book-learning to bear on his experience of the world; however, he does display evidence of natural, if undeveloped, brightness, of which his intense consciousness of physical aspects of the world serves as one sign. (See, for example, his intense perception of the interior of the general store in the opening scene of the story.) Sarty's emerging sense of morality—a characteristic not shared by his father—is also a sign of his brightness.

Sarty's father has raised the boy to be fiercely devoted to his family. Thus, during the hearing in the general store, when Ab faces Mr. Harris's charge of arson, Sarty sees Harris as his father's and his own enemy. (‘‘Enemy’’ is the term that Faulkner places in...

(This entire section contains 435 words.)

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Sarty's mind in the interior monologue which constitutes much of the narrative.) When an older boy hisses ''barn-burner'' at Sarty and Ab as they leave the general store-cum-courthouse, Sarty springs at him like a wild animal—and is immediately beaten back and bloodied by the stronger contender. Later, Sarty allows Ab to slap him, and he acquiesces to the tyranny that Ab exercises over the family, until the end of the story.

Somewhere in Sarty a spark burns, however, that will not be extinguished by Ab's dark tyranny. In particular, Sarty rebels, at long last, over the wrongness of Ab's habitual acts of arson. The notion of an abstract right and wrong, separable from persons but applicable universally to any and every individual despite the context, takes hold of Sarty and compels him to warn Major de Spain of Ab's intended fire-setting, even though he knows that this act will separate him from his father forever. The forced lying and the lack of love from his father have helped to turn Sarty in the direction of a new moral conception that transcends the demands of his father for family loyalty. At the story's end, Major de Spain catches Ab in the act of setting his barn afire and shoots him dead. Sarty's reaction is curious: He finds a strange serenity in his nighttime isolation on a hilltop as the constellations wheel eternally overhead.

Abner Snopes

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Ab Snopes enlisted as a soldier in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, but his choice of sides signified convenience and nothing more, for, as the reader is told, Ab had gone to war as a "private" in the ‘‘fine old European sense’’—for purely mercenary reasons, to get what booty he could. ''It meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.’’ Snopes took a musket-ball in his heel and limped afterwards because of it, but he does not deserve, as Faulkner makes plain, the usual respect due to wounded veterans (of either side). Snopes bears another, more important wound, of unknown origin, perhaps as old as original sin: He suffers from an inflamed ego and a thin skin, and he takes offense with the swiftness of a cobra striking. His life, indeed, seems to be a continuing hell comprised of offense, retribution, and flight. The barn-burning of the story's title refers to Snopes's habit of setting fire to the property of those who (in his eyes) slight him.

Like Captain Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! who tries to build his own world separate from the larger world, Ab has something like a God-complex, but he has none of Sutpen's creativity, and his madness expresses itself through dominance, destruction, and wrath. Ab's wife and daughters, for example, live entirely in his shadow, serving him in their apathetic way, showing little initiative or imagination as he bullies them and others. (Only Sarty, Ab's son, has a self equal to his father's.) But the God-complex is really only the surface manifestation of a complete lack of confidence. It is the insecurity of a man who sees himself as rejected by society and dejected under a sinister fate that makes him seethe with the sense of injury on every hand.

Although he never lays plans that might extract him from the cycle of itinerant land-tenancy—thus condemning himself to it—Ab nevertheless hates those who employ him. When he deliberately tracks dung into Major de Spain's manor house, for example, he is expressing his contempt for all those who, in his eyes and because of his own doing, hold some kind of sway over him; it is almost as if he invites conflict so as to find an excuse for his stealthy acts of retributive arson.

There is, finally, something paltry and brutal about Ab, whose thievery of fence-posts to make a fire merely results in a pathetic little blaze insufficient to warm his encamped family. He slaps Sarty and pushes his wife and daughter with a heavy hand; meanwhile, he harps on the sacredness of family bonds. Ab is a living failure and a living provocation, and the hell that he constructs for himself by maintaining a constant state of war with all other human beings becomes a hell for others—most significantly for Sarty and Sarty's mother and sisters, all of whom are fated to endure an endless amount of humiliation until Ab's death.

Lennie Snopes

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When we first meet Sarty's mother, Mrs. Snopes (who at one point her husband calls Lennie), she is wearing her Sunday dress, sitting in a wagon (loaded down with the Snopes's pathetic belongings), and crying. She has cause to cry: Her husband has been called to legal account on a charge of arson, the latest of such acts which have led, once again, to the uprooting of the Snopes family. Mrs. Snopes is sobbing because of the wretchedness of her life and the cruelty of her husband. On the wagon with the other household goods is a clock, described as her dowry, which has long been uselessly stopped at fourteen minutes past two o'clock. The broken piece of furniture serves as a metaphor for Mrs. Snopes's life, which came to a stop, spiritually, when she bound her fortune, for whatever reason, to Ab Snopes.

Mrs. Snopes has two daughters and a son, in addition to her ten-year-old son Sarty. On seeing Sarty and his father approaching, she moves to climb down from the wagon, but Ab orders her to stay where she is. This, too, is a figure of her life: Ab dominates her and their children totally and (on occasion) brutally; when Sarty appears with his father after the hearing, his nose is bloodied, courtesy of a blow from Ab. His bloody nose inspires her to maternal concern and affection; she wants to wipe Sarty's face clean, though he refuses her comfort.

When the family arrives at their shack on the de Spain plantation, it is Mrs. Snopes who unloads the wagon, like a beast of burden, and it is she, significantly, who utters a single word to her husband when he instructs Sarty to come with him to the de Spain manor. "Abner," she says, the implication being that her husband should control himself, which she probably knows that he will not do. Ab silences her with a grim look, but with this one word she demonstrates that she has a moral sense and a grasp, however crude, of her husband's psychology. If one asks where Sarty gains his moral insight, then—since it cannot be from Ab—it could perhaps have come from his mother. She also evidences love and a sense of tradition, in her own way, as Faulkner reveals that she somehow saved enough money to present Sarty with a Christmas present, a chopping ax.

Mrs. Snopes's moral test comes at the same time as Sarty's, when Ab orders her to keep hold of Sarty while Ab sneaks off to the de Spain barn to set it afire. The dialogue that follows suggests that Mrs. Snopes does not struggle very hard to keep Sarty from escaping to warn Major de Spain. Yet, as he escapes her, she cries, ‘‘I can't,’’ meaning that she feels that she should not let him go—but she makes no great effort to stop him. Her limits of self-assertion are smaller than Sarty's, but they model and anticipate his.

Other Characters

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Mr. Harris
Mr. Harris is Abner Snopes's current landlord-employer when the story ‘‘Barn Burning’’ opens. Snopes has burnt down Harris's barn and Harris has brought Snopes up on charges; the case is being heard by the local justice of the peace in the general store. Mr. Harris is a man affronted. He tells the story of his grievance himself. In paraphrase: Ab's hog got loose in Harris's corn and trampled it; Harris instructed his tenant to tie up the pig and even gave him sufficient wire to mend the pigpen. Abner simply left the wire laying around, with the pigpen ramshackle and no restriction on the hog. When the hog escaped again, Harris confined it to his own barn—keeping it in lieu of the damages it had caused. Abner then sent a man to Harris to deliver the message ‘‘wood and hay kin burn,’’ which Harris properly took as a threat. Shortly thereafter, his barn took fire and burned.

During the course of the hearing, Harris points to Sarty and tells the judge to let the boy testify because ''he knows,'' meaning that Sarty knows the truth—that his father is an incendiary. Harris thus functions as a catalyst in the awakening of Sarty's moral sense. Harris then declines to put Sarty to the test—to Sarty's relief—since the boy was in fact bursting with the truth and would have spoken it, to his father's chagrin. Sarty is thus morally in debt to Mr. Harris.

See Lennie Snopes

Colonel Sartoris Snopes
See Sarty

Mrs. Snopes
See Lennie Snopes