At a Glance
- Sarty Snopes: the ten-year-old protagonist of "Barn Burning."
- Abner Snopes: Sarty's alcoholic father, who likes burning down barns.
- Mr. Harris: the plaintiff in the arson case against Abner Snopes.
- Major de Spain: Abner Snopes' last employer, who shoots him before he can burn down another barn.
- Lennie Snopes: Sarty's grief-stricken mother.
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.
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 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...
(The entire section is 2,100 words.)