Barn Burning Essays and Criticism
by William Faulkner

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An Overview of "Barn Burning"

(Short Stories for Students)

Abner Snopes, in William Faulkner's ‘‘Barn Burning,'' is everyone's double, and that is the source of the misery in which he immerses his family and all of those with whom he comes into contact. Snopes feels challenged, it seems, by the pure existence of others and succumbs on each occasion to the demon of incendiary rivalry. At the conclusion of the first courtroom scene, for example, when the justice of the peace, failing to find Snopes guilty of arson against Mr. Harris, nevertheless orders him to ''leave this county,’’ Faulkner reports the following as Snopes' reply:

[Abner] spoke for the first time, his voice cold and harsh, level, without emphasis: ‘‘I aim to. I don't figure to stay in a country among people who...’’ he said something unprintable and vile, addressed to no one.

The utterance performs two rhetorical tricks revelatory of Abner's essential character. First, it wrests an order, directed at him by an authority figure, from the authority figure, and presents it as Abner's own prior determination, as if to say, ''You can't order me to leave since I've already decided to leave of my own volition.’’ Second, it attempts to reverse the moral judgment that the justice of the peace has ascribed to Abner by vilifying (‘‘he said something unprintable and vile’’) those who would condemn him; if you call me a barn-burner, Abner implicitly says, then I'll call you something even worse. A third observation might be added. Abner's vilification is addressed, Faulkner writes, ‘‘to no one.’’ Abner does not look his accusers in the eye when he insults them, he simply mutters the insult as if to himself. His rivalry is also, then, a cowardly rivalry.

The phenomena of doubles and rivals is extremely important to ‘‘Barn Burning,’’ as to Faulkner's work in general. Faulkner appears to have understood what philosophical anthropologists like Rene Girard and Eric Gans have understood: That human beings are mimetic (or imitative) creatures and that the problem of violence is directly related to mimesis (or imitation). Perhaps the most common type of problematic imitation in which people engage is acquisitive imitation. When Smith possesses something and makes a show of it, then Jones wants it, too, and to the extent that there is only one object of ownership, it is easy for Smith and Jones to come to blows in a struggle over possession (Smith defensively, Jones aggressively). But there are subtler forms of acquisitive imitation, as when Smith thinks that Jones enjoys a richer life, gets more attention, commands more prerogatives, or wields more authority than he. In such a case, what Smith ends up desiring is Jones's very existence; Smith becomes an unwitting double of Jones and challenges Jones for his very existence. If Smith then fails to become Jones by appropriating Jones' s richer life, and so on, then Smith might instead seek a kind of revenge against Jones for being—as Smith sees it—unjustly and unbearably superior, a model whose greater amplitude seems to mock Smith's perpetually wounded dignity. Social order, with its roots in religion, is based on channeling the imitative impulse in human nature; the net gain when people follow the laws that inhibit uncontrolled imitation is a lessening of conflict and a corresponding increase in peace and happiness.

Abner Snopes is not only at odds with other people, in this sense, but he is also at odds with the very notion of social order. Abner's son Sarty thinks, as they leave town for the de Spain plantation (their next domicile), that ‘‘maybe he's done satisfied now; now that he has....’’ But Abner, wounded by the perceived superiority of everyone to himself, cannot be satisfied; he remains trapped in a cycle of rivalry of which his fire-setting is the perfect symbol. Abner's injunction to Sarty ‘‘to stick to your own blood’’ is really a demand, by Abner to his family, that they actively endorse his ''ferocious conviction in...

(The entire section is 7,877 words.)