Critical Overview

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In one sense, criticism of ‘‘Barn Burning’’ has displayed a remarkable unanimity, for this story throws into sharp relief a young boy's existential choice involving the two notions of ‘‘blood relation’’ and "morality." Whatever conclusion individual critics draw about the tale, their arguments necessarily center on the meaning of that choice. In preparing to read the story and again in considering it afterwards, readers must ask themselves a key question: If family ties constitute a moral obligation on the individual, is there any higher morality which might require the individual to act against a family member? This is the question that ten-year-old Sarty confronts—and answers.

Early reactions to Faulkner's modernistic work in general reflected the uneasiness that modernism itself inspired in the older generation of traditional critics. As late as 1941, Warren Beck could write that Faulkner had been ‘‘severely criticized for his style’’ but was nevertheless a ‘‘versatile stylist.’’ Even so, Beck judged that Faulkner ‘‘remained guilty of carelessness, especially in sentence construction’’ and had ‘‘persisted in mannerisms.’’ Beck commented on a ‘‘profuseness of language ... elaborate lyrical descriptions [and] persistent lyrical embroidery.’’ The whole aim in Faulkner's writing, Beck wrote, was "perspective." Around the same time, Alfred Kazin referred negatively to Faulkner's ‘‘mountainous rhetoric’’ and his ‘‘discursive fog.’’ In 1954, reviewing The Hamlet, in which ''Barn Burning'' appears, Peter Lisca noted ‘‘the complex symbolism and character evaluation’’ inherent in Faulkner's style. But Lisca assumes the validity of Faulkner's style and does not express the reservations still present in Beck's assessment of a decade or so earlier.

Percy H. Boynton, writing at the same time as Beck, directed his attention not to style but to content, and called attention to The Hamlet as an instance of Faulkner's representation ''of a defeated and outdated gentry, victims of the northern enemy, of their own natures.’’ Boynton noted that, in the stories of the Snopeses in particular, ''degeneracy in itself' has become Faulkner's theme, so that he ''has come to fill several other volumes with pimps, prostitutes, and perverts in ultimate forms of decadence.’’

In respect to ‘‘Barn Burning’’ particularly, critics have recognized it as an especially clear statement of Faulkner's central, existential issue: The interior struggle of the individual to discern right from wrong and to act on the discernment. As James B. Carruthers has written, in William Faulkner's Short Stories (1985), Sarty becomes ‘‘aware of alternatives to his own and his father's choice of action.'' Carruthers's essay also points up a trend in criticism of this particular tale from The Hamlet, that of seeking to justify Abner's violence. Carruthers characterizes Ab as stern but not violent towards his family, as the victim, in some sense, of his social caste.

M. E. Bradford states that ''Barn Burning'' is ''a very important story'' in the Faulknerian oeuvre; but Bradford, unlike Carruthers, upholds the intuitive notion that Ab Snopes is a very bad man indeed: ‘‘The very real justice of Harris and the rural magistrate in the first trial scene, when taken in conjunction with the moderation of de Spain and the Peace Justice of his county ... marks how little is required of Ab'' and by contrast how truly monstrous is Ab's sense of absolute self-justification. In other words, one could say that the division among critics of this story lies between those who wish, for whatever reason, to excuse Abner and those who side with Sarty in his decision to embrace an external measure of morality rather than sustain blind (or blood) loyalty.

Karl Zender' s essay, ''Character and Symbol in 'Barn Burning'’’ (1989), shows some elements of the apology for...

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Abner. Understanding the story, this critic argues, requires our ''overcoming our distaste for Ab to the point where we understand anew the 'mainspring' of his character.’’ Zender readily admits that Ab is "vengeful" and "tyrannous," but claims that he is nevertheless motivated by ‘‘a desire for his son's affection.'' Zender believes that there is ‘‘partial justification’’ for Ab's fiery rage. By contrast, Susan Yunis (1991) complains that Faulkner himself is ''intent on explaining and justifying Abner's barn-burning.’’ Yunis represents a typical development in contemporary criticism: the putative discovery that canonical works of literature embody "oppressive" values and legitimate so-called patriarchal oppression. Yunis refers to ''the silencing of personal pain’’ effected by Faulkner's supposed refusal to give voice to Sarty's mother and sisters.

Yunis thus operates within a variant of the class-conflict school of socially oriented criticism. Edmund Volpe (1980) says, however, that ‘‘Barn Burning'' ''is not really concerned with class conflict. The story is centered upon Sarty's emotional dilemma. His conflict would not have been altered in any way if the person whose barn Ab burns had been a simple poor farmer, rather than an aristocratic plantation owner.’’

John E. Bassett's ‘‘Faulkner in the Eighties: Crosscurrents in Criticism,’’ examines recent trends in Faulknerian scholarship. Bassett summarizes the many contemporary techniques that have been applied to Faulkner, including semiotics, deconstruction, Marxist and Feminist hermeneutics, and reader-response criticism. Among critics, Faulkner remains one of the most-discussed American writers of the twentieth century.


Essays and Criticism