An Overview of "Barn Burning"

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004

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 this rightness of his own actions.'' Faulkner's diction is important. The word "ferocious" is related to the word "feral," or "wild." Abner is literally a wild-man, someone unassimilated and perhaps inassimilable to society, which requires a suppression of ego and individual appetite for the net good of the community. Morality is reciprocity, and Abner's only notion of reciprocity is revenge for imagined or grossly magnified slights.

Take Abner's behavior on arriving at the de Spain plantation. ''I reckon I' ll have a word with the man that aims to begin to-morrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months.’’ Approaching the impressive manor, Sarty sees Abner bring his stiff left foot ‘‘squarely down in a pile of fresh droppings where a horse had stood in the drive and which his father could have avoided by a simple change of his stride.'' Abner now barges into the de Spain house, tracking manure on the rug; he frightens Mrs. de Spain and humiliates the servant. Everything in this chain of actions suggests deliberate provocation by Abner spurred by his own prior assumption that the de Spains have insulted him. But in Abner's "ferocious" psychology, the mere existence of the de Spains, with their fine house in contrast with the Snopeses' ‘‘battered stove’’ and ‘‘broken bed and chairs,’’ constitutes an insult; it strikes at Abner's haunting sense of his own diminution before others. Abner has thus immediately picked a fight with Major de Spain, a conflict which he exacerbates by ruining the rug further when de Spain bids him (reasonably) to clean it up. Abner's resentment, pumped up by his own provocative misbehavior, now incites him to the usual climax, setting fire to his rival's barn.

Another kind of imitation is at work in ''Barn Burning,'' however. This is the type of constructive imitation by which the child becomes assimilated to society. Sarty, from whose viewpoint Faulkner largely tells the story, has up until now had only his father as a primary model. In the first trial scene, however, something happens which undoubtedly affects Sarty. Mr. Harris, who has brought the charge of incendiarism against Abner, designates Sarty as one who ''knows,'' that is to say, knows the truth about his father's guilt. Harris wants the boy to testify. Sarty knows that his father ''aims for me to lie.'' In the end, Harris will not make the boy choose between lying for his father and betraying the paternal bond by telling the truth. Sarty feels reprieved from the "abyss" that such a choice would have constituted for him. Harris has thus provided a model of concession and decency not available to Sarty in Abner. Again, at the de Spain plantation, Sarty sees the manor as an image of order, ''as big as a courthouse '' exuding a ''spell of peace.'' The metaphor of the courthouse links the manor to Harris; the notion of ''peace'' contrasts with Abner's imposition of eternal dislocation and terror on his family. Sarty then witnesses his father's willful disruption of the manorial serenity.

When Major de Spain appears with the rug, he assumes an image which can only arouse Abner to further rancor. Sarty sees ‘‘a linen-clad man on a fine sorrel mare’’ with a ‘‘suffused, angry face.’’ Considering the provocation, de Spain maintains remarkable control; but Abner, despite his wife's pleas, insists on amplifying the insult by burning the rug with lye in a sham attempt to acquiesce in the employer's direction. When de Spain lays an indemnity of twenty bushels of corn against Abner, Abner surprisingly sues de Spain to get the indemnity dismissed. The justice of the peace upholds the charge, but he does reduce the indemnity, to ten bushels. This fails to mollify Abner, of course, who now determines to execute his usual retribution. He will burn down de Spain's barn.

Sarty is acutely aware of the probable course of events and for the first time articulates his own dilemma: ''corn, rug, fire; the terror and the grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses.'' On the one hand, there is the blood-bond between father and son. ''You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to,’’ Abner has told Sarty. On the other hand, there is an abstract morality, the foundation of community, modeled by Harris and by the life of the de Spain plantation. But Sarty now understands that the blood-bond entails his acquiescence in his father's violence and his own submission to an authority whose demonic character he begins to recognize. The nature of that authority is suggested by his mother's pathetic cries when she divines that Abner is about to go incendiary again: ‘‘Abner! No! No! Oh, God, Oh, God. Abner!'' By invoking God, Mrs. Snopes invokes the morality, the transcendental model of ideal human relations, which Abner's egomaniacal rivalry with all and sundry repeatedly and terrifically violates. Mrs. Snopes's cries also implicitly ask for deliverance from the cycle of violence.

Sarty's actions—escaping from his mother, whom Abner has charged to keep him confined to the house, running to the de Spain manor to warn the Major about his father's likely plans—do not form a perfectly calculated or transparent whole; Sarty, a ten-year-old illiterate, responds to partly assimilated intuitions about right and wrong. It seems to be the case that he has no clear intention except to thwart an act of violence, and to thwart thereby the continuous dislocation and meaninglessness of his family's wretched life. De Spain, of course, takes heed quickly and decisively, shooting Abner dead in the very moment when he sneaks into the barn with his pail of oil. This occurs "offstage." Sarty is running away from the manor, in aimless flight, and is aware only of two gunshots, at the sound of which, recognizing (one guesses) what they mean, he yells ‘‘Pap! Pap!’’ and then again ‘‘Father! Father!’’

Exhausted on a hilltop as morning approaches, Sarty thinks with pity that his father, who had been a soldier during the Civil War, ‘‘was brave!’’ Faulkner obtrudes as narrator to contradict the lad: ‘‘His father had [in fact] gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.’’ The phrase ‘‘that war’’ might casually be read as, simply, the Civil War, but it must be treated carefully and credited with the ambiguity that it deserves, for ''that war'' was only chronologically the Civil War. Faulkner's comments make it clear that Abner fought his own war, against everyone, for his own purposes; his entire life was ''war,'' and war, as they say, is Hell. Is it coincidence that Abner's war-wound is a minie-ball lodged in his left foot? The Devil, in folklore, limps in his left (cleft) foot, and given his connection with fire there is something truly devilish about Abner Snopes.

Sarty's situation at the end of ''Barn Burning'' is still unenviable; but some progress has occurred which must be recognized as such. Sarty has, by an act of his own will, turned from a primitive bond (the supposed blood-bond) toward an abstract morality which, because it is not a person, tends to minimize the resentment of those who espouse it. The ‘‘slow constellations’’ which rotate in the sky as Sarty watches from his hilltop symbolize the raising (however meager) of the pitiable boy's consciousness. The price of wisdom is suffering, but the price of freedom, of whatever kind, is wisdom, and this, painfully, in some tiny measure, Sarty has gained.

Source: Thomas Bertonneau, ''An Overview of 'Barn Burning',’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Bertonneau is a Temporary Assistant Professor of English and the humanities at Central Michigan University, and Senior Policy Analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The Narrator of Faulkner's "Barn Burning"

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4029

Faulkner's short story ‘‘Barn Burning’’ poses a problem for me as a reader in that the narrator seems in several instances more intent upon explaining and justifying Abner's barn-burning than in registering the pain his family suffers in the context of these fires. The often quoted fire-building passage provides a good illustration:

The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, of a rail lifted from a nearby fence and cut into lengths—a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father's habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.

Though this voice seems in part to articulate Sarty's viewpoint, it speaks with a peculiar degree of detachment from Sarty's sensations. That is, if I try to imagine Sarty in this scene, I see a boy whose family has been forced to leave their home, huddled by a small fire in the cool night, and who has huddled by such a small fire even on freezing nights to evade the retaliation of angry landlords. I see discomfort, anger, even despair at the repetition of this situation and at the powerlessness of the family to change it. And yet this discomfort is never spoken by the narrator. ''Barn Burning'' seems so clearly to be Sarty's story, that a narrator who focuses less on the child than on the motivation of his violent, even abusive parent seems incongruous.

Karl F. Zender explains [in College Literature] this incongruity as the author's effort to get us beyond Sarty's limited perspective: the narrator is modeling for the child how he should learn to regard his father. Zender writes that ''the story invites us not ... to limit ourselves [to Sarty's perspective on his father] for it provides ... a model not only for Sarty's development but for our performance as readers of Faulkner's fiction ... [The story] invites us to move by stages to a condition of active, intuitive, passionately engaged reading ... [which] means overcoming our distaste for Ab to the point where we understand anew the 'mainspring' of his character.’’ Similarly, Richard C. Moreland argues [in Faulkner and Modernism] that the narrator urges us to read Ab's own history and potential humor better than Sarty does, adding that what Ab himself is instructing Sarty to understand is what is excluded by the structures of Southern oppositions of master, slave, white, black. Likewise, Zender reads Abner's coercion of Sarty, his insistence that Sarty participate in his vendettas against his landlords, as attempts to instruct Sarty on the ''injustice of (the) family's subjection to the quasi-slavery of turn-of-the-century tenant farming.’’ Though Abner's lesson may be lost on Sarty, Zender argues that it should not be lost on us: the ''peace and dignity'' of the plantation is purchased with the sweat of blacks and tenant farmers like Abner.

I would agree with both critics that the narrator is trying to model, even control our response to Abner—to mitigate our dislike of the man, just as Abner is trying to control Sarty's response to himself. But for me, reading the narrator's voice as the model for our response to the characters, exposes the narrator's failure to attend to many of the physical and emotional needs of the characters: the narrator is as defensive, as capable of neglect and abuse as the Snopes men are. If we examine closely the context of the voice—that the narrative arises in an abusive situation as a defense—a strategy for controlling abuse, we can appreciate the similarity of the narrative voice to the abuse it defends against. If we heed too carefully the narrator's instructions on how to read Abner, we fail to hear the voices that the narrator and the men he speaks for abruptly silence.

For instance, consider the scene in which Abner deposits Sarty in his mother's grip for fear Sarty will warn de Spain of Abner's intention to burn the barn. Zender reads this action as the desperate attempt ''at personal risk, to confine his son inside an infancy in which doubts about his father's courage and fairness could not occur,’’ as ‘‘enclosing Sarty inside the embrace [as a] last urgent expression of a fatherly need, even a love, never spoken in its own form.’’ Clearly Zender is following what he sees as the narrator's lead in understanding the mainspring of Abner's behavior. And the narrator, if he's not quite so sympathetic to Abner in his telling of the incident, at least allows such a reading by detaching from the pain and humiliation Sarty must feel as he is dragged by the collar across the floor of two rooms:

Then the boy was moving, his bunched shirt and the hard, bony hand between his shoulder-blades, his toes just touching the floor, across the room and into the other one, past the sisters sitting with spread heavy thighs in the two chairs over the cold hearth, and to where his mother and aunt sat side by side on the bed....

‘‘Hold him,’’ the father said.

In this instance, the narrator's silencing of Sarty's pain would correspond to a strategy frequently used by victims of abuse: a refusal to feel pain or anger or the impulse to resist, or any other response which might incur further abuse. And furthermore, Zender's reading of the incident from Abner's viewpoint corresponds to a strategy used by victims to help them predict and control abuse. For instance, if Sarty were to try to understand and control his father's behavior, he might well rationalize Abner's behavior as love (as Zender does) and figure that the one way to keep Abner's love, to control his anger, is to stay small and dependent: to do what Abner expects before he demands it. It is a strategy we see throughout the earlier parts of the story, used by Sarty and voiced by the narrator. But what is lost in the narrator's and Zender' s readings of Abner, in Sarty's early attempts to read Abner, and in all of their refusals to feel Sarty's pain is the violence done to Sarty.

Most readers, I think, feel Sarty's abuse anyway, resisting the narrator's efforts to control their response to Abner. And Moreland himself acknowledges Abner's brutality in a footnote, admitting that ‘‘Ab's violence toward blacks, toward women, and toward his son Sarty is obvious throughout the story. It is not in defense of this violence but in an effort to understand it—the 'savage blows ... but without heat' that I might add that Ab seems here to be passing on, in a more explicitly despotic, violent form, the naturalized, axiomatic social and economic violence he feels directed against himself"(emphasis added). But the very footnoting of their emotional experience reveals the marginalization of Abner's family's pain which the narrator's focus upon Abner entails.

This silencing of personal pain and the intentional focusing upon the experience and motivation of another are for me what the narrator speaks. It is a strategy used by all of the Snopes men in their dealings with abusive, powerful others. Looked at in this way, the narrator's voice is not discordant but articulates the strategies, if not the pain and anger, of the powerless in their attempts to control abuse.

The narrative begins in a "courtroom," as Sarty agonizes over his inability to please both groups of men who demand compliance: the Snopes men, who demand loyalty; and the Justice and his likes, who demand honesty. As he sits hungry among cheeses and tinned cans of meat whose labels he cannot read, Sarty seems sealed in his body and its fierce pull, unable to label his experience, his conflict, unable to understand its dynamics or to begin to resolve it.

Sarty feels potential relief from the weight of his body when he is asked to testify about his father: ''it was as if he had swung outward at the end of a grape vine ... and at the top of the swing had been caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless in time.’’ Telling about his father, he senses, would give him relief. But he lacks the literary and rhetorical skills to be able to satisfy both of the audiences in the courtroom. He cannot tell ‘‘the truth’’ and exonerate his father at the same time. Yet the need to control the anger of both audiences is crucial to Sarty. For a judgment against Abner means the family must move again, which provokes Abner's retaliation and his abusive treatment of his family. In addition, Sarty must control his own anger against his abusive father which, though it is not explored, we feel must exist, and probably impels him at some level to testify against this man who sacrifices the needs of his family to satisfy his own vendettas. The enormous job of using words to understand and control two sets of powerful and angry men and their demand for justice is overwhelming to the small, illiterate child. This job of using language to control anger is left to the narrator.

The narrator can do for Sarty what the young Sarty cannot: he can understand Abner's anti-social behavior, his anger, in a way Sarty as yet cannot; he can read, and therefore he can tell the truth about Abner's fires while placing him in the context of heroes respected by his audience. The narrator uses language and literature to speak in a way that appeases powerful men—but still at the expense of the abused body and its hungers. For Sarty's experience is eclipsed by narrative attention to Abner not only in the fire-building passage, but in the story as a whole. ‘‘Barn Burning’’ is told twenty years after the events described, and though we can infer from a brief reference to Sarty's thoughts as a thirty-year-old man that the narrator apparently knows what has happened to Sarty in this intervening period (‘‘Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, 'If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again'."), we get no glimpse into Sarty's life story. The mature Sarty has no present, only a past the narrative voice circles endlessly around—Sarty's telling the truth about his father.

The narrator's voice of literate understanding, this voice without a body or a life, this penetration into the feelings, motives, behaviors of powerful others, is a total erasure of self, the weightless liberation which Sarty dreams of in anticipation of telling about his father. ‘‘Barn Burning’’ lays bare that stories about powerful others may be an attempt both to placate the powerful and to escape personal pain. Here, both reading and writing—the construction of the meaning of an event—take place in a context of power relationships so threatening that the meaning constructed inevitably reflects the image of the powerful abusive audience. And the price of these strategies for identifying with the powerful in order to control them is emotional death—a numbing of the self to personal injuries which is symbolized in Abner's frozen leg. The narrator's storytelling is so focused upon intuiting its audience and controlling its response that the self and its injuries are momentarily forgotten.

The narrator expresses Sarty's defensive rhetorical impulse: he is able to placate both powerful audiences, remaining loyal to Abner and still telling ‘‘the truth’’ about Abner's fires. For he needn't answer right away—he has the space of the text to use as he chooses; he can withhold revealing Abner's guilt until an opportune moment. He can choose the time and method for telling about Abner's fires. When the narrator finally does admit to Abner's habitual fire building, in the fire building passage quoted above, he couches the admission in abstract language which resonates with heroic adjectives, with implicit reference to the most famous and heroic builder of fires, Prometheus. Storytelling, based as it is upon the carefully timed disclosure of events in order to manipulate audience response, is a strategy well suited to characters who feel the need to control the emotions of those around them. And Prometheus is an apt image here since, in his stealing the secrets of the control of fire, he is an archetypal symbol for the control of libidinal impulse.

We can see Abner using similar strategies to control anger, his own and that of his most powerful audience, his landlords. Abner is generally able to tolerate his landlords' insults and injuries without obvious anger because, we assume, he holds out to himself the promise of a burning barn, the promise of retribution at the time and place of his choosing, after he has secured another tenancy for himself. Not only does the promise of the fire enable Abner to control his own anger, the fires themselves enable him to control his landlord's angry response to him. The fires, set as Abner flees to a new location, control the landlord's behavior in a way other acts of vandalism might not: because of the value he places on his property, the landlord will extinguish the fire rather than pursue Abner. Abner understands his oppressors well enough to know that they won't fly off half-cocked and shoot him; they will safeguard their property first. The careful timing of Abner's fires to control his audience is voiced in the narrator's careful timing of the disclosure of those fires.

Abner's fires are both a mechanism for and a numinous symbol of his control over rage—his own and his landlords': the ''niggardly'' fires he builds for his fleeing family remind Abner to control his rage. The well controlled fire is symbolic of the passion, the energy, he must control and use to his best advantage in his war with his landlords: it is ‘‘the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.’’ As he understands the careful use of fire, the conservation of it, the insulation of it so that it does not spread, so his fires remind him to understand and predict anger, his own and his landlords', to keep it contained, to insulate against its spread, and to indulge it only occasionally, and at a safe distance, when he has secured another tenancy.

Sarty has strategies as well for controlling anger, his own and his father's. In fact, so skilled is Sarty at avoiding his own anger we seldom, if ever, see it; and we may suspect that he himself is unaware of it. Immediately before Abner stains the de Spains' rug, Sarty has been hoping that the peace and dignity of the house will change Abner. Abner's failure to clean his boot deflates Sarty's romantic notions about the ability of the house to change the direction of Abner's life, and yet Sarty never registers anger at Abner over the stained rug or over Abner's vengeful scraping it clean; Sarty evades his own response by worrying about Abner's anger— by trying to anticipate his father's response:

"Pap," he said. His father looked at him—the inscrutable face, the shaggy brows beneath which the gray eyes glinted coldly.... ‘‘You did the best you could!’’ ... ‘‘If he wanted it done different why didn't he wait and tell you how? He won't git no twenty bushels!’’ ... [Sarty] whisper[ed] up at the harsh, calm face beneath the weathered hat: ‘‘He wont git no ten bushels neither. He wont get one. We'll...’’ until his father glanced for an instant down on him, the face absolutely calm, the grizzled eyebrows tangled above the cold eyes, the voice almost pleasant, almost gentle:

‘‘You think so? Well, we'll wait till October anyway.’’

Sarty's job of anticipating his father's anger is complicated by Abner's self-control. Sarty is often unable to predict his father's responses because Abner is so controlled that his rage seldom shows; his face is ‘‘absolutely calm," "inscrutable." But Sarty's survival depends upon his ability to see beneath his father's calm exterior, to intuit what his father wants him to do: to read him. In the opening scene, in the courtroom, Sarty's attention is focused on his father: ''His father, stiff in his black Sunday coat donned not for the trial but for the moving, did not even look at him. He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit.'' When Sarty finally risks telling the truth about his father's fires he tells de Spain when Abner is out of earshot. The careful reading of one's audiences and the careful timing of disclosures are strategies that both Sarty and the narrator use to control angry responses.

Just as Sarty and Abner struggle to control their own emotional responses and those of their enemies, so they control any expression of feeling by the females. When Sarty is tackled by another boy outside the courtroom, his mother cries, ''Does hit hurt?’’ yet Sarty silences her cry of pain just as he silences his own: ‘‘'Naw,' he said. 'Hit dont hurt. Lemme be'.’’ Likewise the women express disgust with their living conditions, and for this instinctive anger they are humiliated by Abner: ‘‘'Likely hit [their house] ain't fitten for hawgs,' one of the sisters said. 'Nevertheless, fit it will and you'll hog it and like it,' his father said.’’ Only the women express anger at having to clean the shit from de Spain's rug. And at least initially only the women express fear or guilt at Abner's fires: ‘‘the mother tugged at [Abner's] arm until he shifted the lamp to the other hand and flung her back, not savagely or viciously, just hard, into the wall, her hands flung out against the wall for balance, her mouth open and in her face the same quality of hopeless despair as had been in her voice.’’

In his wife and daughters and children, Abner and Sarty silence the anger, fear, despair and human sympathy which they fear would overwhelm them. The women's voices are reminders of vulnerability; the Snopes men deny these feelings in themselves, punish them in the females, and ritually display their understanding of and control over these dangerous impulses in their fires.

The narrative voice silences the emotional women just as Sarty and Abner do. Abner and Sarty let them cry, and then silence or humiliate them. So, too, the narrator describes the women as crying, their voices having the quality of ‘‘hopeless despair,'' but he splits off from their emotionality in a refusal to translate their grief into words (‘‘the hysteric and indistinguishable woman-wail’’). The narrator refuses to speak pain and labels that voice in others as hysterical and not worth attending to. The narrator, like Sarty, uses his telling to separate from despair, to silence it.

In the same way the narrator refuses to tell Sarty's pain: ''he leaping in the red haze toward the face, feeling no blow, feeling no shock when his head struck the earth ... feeling no blow this time either and tasting no blood.'' And when Abner hits Sarty, the narrator focuses upon Abner and the way he hits, not on the way it feels to Sarty:

His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horse fly, his voice still without heat or anger.

The narration is a deliberate focusing upon the abuser, not the feelings of the abused. The narrator is the voice of Sarty's evasion of pain through identification with the oppressor instead of the oppressed as a technique of survival, but also as a means of detaching from pain. The narrator is also the voice of Sarty's effort to control the response of his audiences to Abner, to soften their judgment of him: Abner's brutality is less liable to outrage an audience that is not focused upon the pain that his brutality inflicts.

There are moments when Abner loses control of his anger: around his family of course, he is less controlled, since they are powerless: they do not threaten him with retaliation. But the staining of the rug with horse shit is one moment when Abner spontaneously vents his rage at his landlord rather than at his family. Abner's momentary loss of control when he stains the rug and his vengeful scraping it clean, connect him with both the narrator and Faulkner as writer. Abner, "stiff," "black," "flat," like ‘‘something cut ruthlessly from tin’’ whose stiff foot "strike[s]" with ‘‘machinelike deliberation'' the pale rug of the de Spains, leaving indelible "prints," suggests a typewriter whose stiff, tin-type leaves its print on a pale sheet of paper. He then ''erases'' the prints at the insistence of de Spain: he agrees to wash the shit from the rug. Though his act begins in angry protest against the conventions of aristocratic culture, a sort of written protest, Abner adapts, amends his message: he erases the heel mark, though he damages the rug in the process. Residual marks remain. The narrator has done the same thing. In the story itself he has erased Abner's passionate outburst against his landlord, '‘‘I dont figure to stay in a country among people who ...' he said something unprintable and vile.’’ Similarly, in a letter dated July 8, 1939, six months before his completion of ‘‘Barn Burning,’’ Faulkner, apparently at his publisher's suggestion (another type of landlord who skims a percentage from his tenant's labor?), agrees to what he calls the ''whitewashing'' of his just completed novel, The Wild Palms, by which he means the deletion of ‘‘objectionable words.’’ One of those words is "shit." In his letter Faulkner agrees to the ellipses, but demurs that ‘‘there are a few people whom I hope will read the book, among whom the preservation of my integrity as a faithful ... portrayer of living men and women is dear enough for me to wish not to betray it.’’ Faulkner's demurrer about the ‘‘preservation of my integrity,’’ which he will later use in reference to Abner's fires (‘‘the one weapon for the preservation of his integrity’’), and the possible similarity of the look of the ellipsis (...) in The Wild Palms which replaces the word "shit," to the abrasions in the rug left by Abner's rock as he scrapes off the actual shit may suggest Faulkner's identification with Abner, and the insistence of both men to leave the traces of their censored outrage. Perhaps at some level Faulkner sees himself and Abner as truth-tellers who betray their own integrity when they bend to the niceties of those upon whom they are economically dependent, when they erase the humiliating traces of their own instinctive humanity to placate their more powerful audiences. The personal cost of a voice which agrees to cauterize its feelings to control the anger of its audience is a betrayal of one's own integrity—of one's self.

Source: Susan S. Yunis, ‘‘The Narrator of Faulkner's 'Barn Burning',’’ in The Faulkner Journal, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 23-31.
Yunis is professor of Languages and Literature at The College of St. Scholastica.

Character and Symbol in "Barn Burning"

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1844

Allowing us to inhabit Ab's point of view is an act of artistic courage on Faulkner's part. It is a striking example of how much of the human condition lies inside the pale of his imaginative sympathy. But allowing identification with Ab also places almost intolerable pressure on the conclusion of the story, by forcing a single signifier to serve incommensurate artistic purposes. Once we have attained to intimate knowledge of Ab's true motives, the father that Sarty "forgets" can never again be only an interior, imaginary, symbolic figure. He must also be Adam, flesh and blood, Ab as social and physical reality. An uneasy sense of the explosiveness of this combination of symbolism and realism, and of the need to defuse it somewhat, reveals itself in various ways in the conclusion of the story—in the off-stage location of Ab's apparent demise, in the irresolution of the question of whether he actually dies, and (regrettably) in the narrator's censorious reminder, after Sarty affirms the truth of his father's bravery, that Ab went to war ‘‘a private in the fine old European sense ... giving fidelity to no man or army or flag.’’ These moderating touches have an air of existing independently of the story and of intruding into it. They gloss over the story's explosive tensions to some degree, but they do not greatly alleviate our sense that the action of the story pulls against itself in a troubling way.

Faulkner's failure—or inability—to accommodate the demands of psychic growth to the realities of social existence is by no means limited to ''Barn Burning.’’ It characterizes relations between parents and children in much of his fiction. One thinks, for example, of the destructiveness of the encounters between Mr. Compson and Quentin Compson, Simon McEachern and Joe Christmas, and the Old General and the Corporal—to mention only relations between fathers (or father-figures) and sons. The accuracy of these depictions as descriptions of an aspect of human experience cannot be denied. But the exclusivity of Faulkner's emphasis may trouble us. One need not be a Pollyanna to insist that the symbolic father can be, and usually is, slain without irremediable damage being done to the social relation between father and son. The widespread absence of this optimistic view from Faulkner's fiction has implications that merit attention.

If we cast our minds back over American literature in search of a precursor for Sarty Snopes, one figure comes immediately to mind—Huckleberry Finn. The resemblances are obvious: a tyrannical father who dies, an initiation—extended in the one case, brief in the other—into an awareness of American social and economic injustice, a final journey into freedom. But the differences are equally obvious. Huckleberry Finn is gentler and more optimistic than ‘‘Barn Burning’’ not merely because Huck, unlike Sarty, escapes responsibility for his father's death but because the final condition of freedom into which he moves has a geographical and temporal plausibility Sarty's lacks. It is true that in important ways Huck Finn remains always a child. As James Cox argues [in Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, 1966], the subversive power of the novel lies in its enactment of the dream of a timeless condition of innocent, prepubescent, polymorphous pleasure. But it is also true that the "territory" toward which Huck ''light[s] out'' had a real existence when the novel was being written, one capable of sustaining an opposed dream of human growth and maturation. ‘‘Turn your face to the great West,’’ Horace Greeley counseled, ‘‘and there build up a home and fortune''—or, in Greeley's more familiar phrasing, ''Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.’’

By comparison, what space and time does Sarty move toward at the end of ‘‘Barn Burning?’’ The only space mentioned is the ‘‘dark woods’’ toward which he walks at the end of the story; the only time, the period ‘‘twenty years later’’ when he tells himself, ‘‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he [Ab] would have hit me again.’’ This space and time are symbolic, not real. The space, unlocatable on any map, is the dark terrain of the self through which Sarty must journey if he is to become a mature adult. The time is a moment somewhere beyond the completion of this journey. But this moment, like the space itself, connects only tenuously to any realistically construed understanding of Sarty's post-adolescent life. The truth and justice Sarty mentions can best be understood privatively, as terms without positive content, for we have no reason to believe that a truth and a justice so casually alluded to can encompass the after-trauma of inadvertent father-slaughter or the injustice of Sarty's family's subjection to the quasi-slavery of turn-of-the-century tenant farming. This truth, this justice, this vision of Sarty's future resembles Sarty's own naive hope that the de Spain mansion might embody a peace and dignity exempt from social and economic inequalities and from the rage that accompanies them. It intimates a successful completion for Sarty's journey into moral adulthood, but at the expense of diminishing that journey's complexity.

We risk breaking the butterfly on the wheel if we load large cultural implications onto a single short story. Nevertheless, behind ''Barn Burning'' looms the cultural transformation symbolized by the contrast between the story and Huckleberry Finn, and this transformation also looms behind literary modernism generally. The relation of modernist writers to their American heritage is, of course, ambivalent. They certainly exhibit an eagerness, in Ezra Pound's phrase, to ‘‘make it new,’’ to break free of stultifying conventions and outworn ideologies. But they also exhibit a pervasive melancholy over the passing of an earlier, more spacious, more optimistic America. Out of this melancholy arises (to cite three examples from among many) the urgent depiction, in Willa Cather's My Antonia, of a frontier arrested in a condition of pastoral timelessness; the equally urgent account, in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, of a quest for regenerative contact with an agrarian culture; and the elegiac description, at the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, of Gatsby's dream as ‘‘already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity... where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.’’

Faulkner fully participates in this work of mourning and remembrance. To a far greater extent than is commonly acknowledged, he descends from Emerson and Whitman, and his fictional avatars—Quentin Compson, Isaac McCaslin, Gavin Stevens—fight desperate, even if usually unsuccessful, rear-guard actions in the service of a nineteenth-century vision of America's promise. In the second half of his career, Faulkner's allegiance to this vision manifested itself in attempts to become, as he said in a letter written in 1942, ‘‘articulate in the national voice.’’ In a variety of willingly assumed roles—State Department Cultural Representative, university lecturer, writer of public letters—he sought to remind both his fellow citizens and a world audience of their great heritage—of what he called, in the Nobel Prize Speech, ‘‘the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of [mankind's] past.’’ And he sought as well to remind his readers and listeners of the social and ethical obligations these values entail.

This effort at recollection and reaffirmation was generous and courageous—more so, given the political tensions of the times, than is sometimes now understood. But it was also relatively ineffectual, and it is now not very convincing. This is so because the abstractions and ethical imperatives Faulkner invokes in the Nobel Prize Speech and elsewhere are as void of contact with lived experience as are the truth and justice of his comment about Sarty's future. As Richard H. King has argued [in Southern Literary Journal], Faulkner had a strong political impulse, but no very coherent political program or ideology, nor even any very strong belief in the usefulness of collective action. Hence his affirmations of traditional values do not arise out of a political commitment but out of the absence of one. They entail, in King's words, ‘‘a violent wrenching away from necessity ... which is only momentarily an intervention in history.'' They inhabit, that is, a transcendental vacancy, a timeless space outside and above, but only tenuously in contact with, the realities of mid-century American life.

As I have argued elsewhere [chapter 5 in The Crossing of the Ways, 1989], the emergence of Faulkner's desire to be articulate in the national voice was accompanied by a change in his attitude toward teaching. In the first half of his career—in The Sound and the Fury and ‘‘Light in August’’ especially—his scenes of instruction tend to be strongly colored with negative emotions. These scenes, which focus almost exclusively on parents and children (especially on fathers and sons), depict teaching as an act of violence, an imposition by force of a parental identity on the mind of a vainly resisting child. As Faulkner's career advanced, and his desire to inculcate moral and ethical values grew, he moderated this negative image of teaching, replacing it with scenes in which instruction is more-or-less freely given and received. But this shift never fully completes itself. Although in Go Down Moses Intruder in the Dust, and elsewhere Faulkner depicts positive and successful scenes of instruction, these always involve father-surrogates, never fathers. Only by moving outside the patrilineal line of descent, it seems, could Faulkner affirm the possibility of a life-sustaining transmission of values from one generation to the next. But this is a formal equivalent of the vacancy of his transcendentalizing rhetoric. It affirms the possibility of the transmission of values from one generation to the next, but at the expense of avoiding one of the more important questions about family life in our time: how fathers may legitimately and successfully teach their sons.

''Barn Burning'' occupies a pivotal position in the career-long transformation just described. What might be termed the first half of Faulkner's contemplation of the theme of instruction reaches its culmination in the closing chapters of Absalom, Absalom!, with the depiction of a life-and-death struggle between brother-brother and father-son modes of teaching and learning. ''Barn Burning'' inaugurates the second half of Faulkner's contemplation of the theme. Written in 1938, it is the first of his works of fiction to admit of the possibility of identification with an adult teacher as well as with a child pupil. In depicting this possibility in a father-son relation, in fact, the story comes closer than Go Down, Moses or Intruder in the Dust to exposing some of the more important psychic issues at stake in inter-generational acts of instruction. But the story also foreshadows the problematics, and the incompleteness, of Faulkner's presentation of scenes of instruction in his later fiction. Where is narrator sympathy invested in ‘‘Barn Burning?’’ Everywhere and nowhere. It is invested in Sarty, and in Ab, but never, sadly, in the two of them together.

Source: Karl F. Zender, ‘‘Character and Symbol in 'Barn Burning',’’ in College Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1989, pp. 48-59.
Zender is a professor of English at the University of California—Davis.

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Critical Overview