Barn Burning Analysis

  • William Faulkner's "Barn Burning" tells the story of Sarty Snopes, a ten-year-old boy whose father has a habit of burning down barns when he feels slighted. Though told in the third person, the narrative sometimes slips into Sarty's point of view, indicating his thoughts and feelings with italics.
  • Abner Snopes engages in a kind of class warfare whenever he burns down a barn. These barns invariably belong to someone of a higher social station, typically his boss, and symbolize relative wealth and status. In burning down the barns, Snopes is lashing out against those he believes to think little of him. In effect, he's attempting to soothe his wounded pride.
  • "Barn Burning" has several different settings. It opens in the dry goods store where Abner Snopes stands trial for burning down Mr. Harris' barn, then moves through the countryside until the Snopes arrive at Major de Spain's estate. As the son of an itinerant worker, Sarty has no real home and is used to moving around, living in ramshackle quarters.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Style and Technique

The story is not narrated by the ten-year-old Sarty, but Faulkner calls attention to the boy’s thoughts and thus to the inner conflict they represent by italicizing them. Subtle word choices also help trace Sarty’s move toward maturity and responsibility. Hearing the shots that announce his father’s death, Sarty first cries, “Pap! Pap!” but seconds later shifts to the more mature sounding “Father! Father!”

Images of cold and heat, of stiffness and metal, help characterize Abner Snopes. Snopes walks stiffly because of a wound suffered when he was caught stealing a horse during the war. However, stiffness describes his character as well as his walk. His voice is cold, “harsh like tin and without heat like tin.” His wiry figure appears “cut ruthlessly from tin.” This man who burns barns seems to save his fire for his crimes; all else he does without heat or emotion—whether it is talking, whipping a horse, or striking his son. Even the campfires he builds are niggardly. For him, fire is a means of preserving his integrity and “hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.”

A little of Snopes’s stiffness seems to have carried over to his son at the end of the story. When Sarty awakens after the night of the fire, he is described as being a little stiff. For Sarty, however, the stiffness will not last: “Walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun.”

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Linden plantation house in Natchez, Mississippi. Published by Gale Cengage

Any discussion of William Faulkner in a historical context necessarily involves a discussion of...

(The entire section is 901 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

The most noticeable feature of Faulkner's style, in ''Barn Burning'' and elsewhere, is his syntax or sentence...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1941: Fire damage to personal property in the United States is estimated at $286,000.


(The entire section is 177 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Read another Faulkner story, "Turnabout," in which an American aviator in World War I meets a British torpedo-boat pilot and experiences the...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

‘Barn Burning’’ was adapted as a film in 1980, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Diane Kagan. It runs forty-one minutes and can be purchased...

(The entire section is 29 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

The stories in Faulkner's The Hamlet form a cycle of tales dealing with the Sartoris and Snopes...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bassett, John E., ‘‘Faulkner in the Eighties: Crosscurrents in Criticism,’’ in College...

(The entire section is 336 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974.

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.

Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1994.

Hoffman, Frederick, and Olga W. Vickery, eds. William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Conversations with William Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Labatt, Blair. Faulkner the Storyteller. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

The Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Summer, 1997).

Parini, Jay. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Peek, Charles A., and Robert W. Hamblin, eds. A Companion to Faulkner Studies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Rovit, Earl, and Arthur Waldhorn, eds. Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner: The Novels. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner: The Short Stories. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.