At a Glance

  • 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.

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(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 modernism, the philosophical and artistic movement to which Faulkner, perhaps reluctantly, belonged. Modernism is generally considered the peculiarly twentieth-century school of artistic expression, and it is associated in literature with, for example, the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound the painting of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso the music of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, and the prose fiction of James Joyce Marcel Proust, John Dos Passos, and Faulkner. In each of these cases, one observes a conscious breaking with traditional ideas about style, content, and purpose. In the poetry of Pound, as for example in his Cantos, experience is broken in pieces, and the reader is faced with a collage of fragments, allusions, declarations, and epiphanies; so, too, in the poems of Eliot, who also typifies the moral atmosphere of modernism, which could be summed up as despair over the condition of humanity in the aftermath of the soul-wrenching and materially devastating First World War (1914-18). Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) offers the paradigm of the modernist consciousness. It is often said that modernism expresses the alienation of the twentieth-century soul, its dislocation, its detachment from traditional sources of moral and intellectual authority, its search for new values to replace those rendered obsolete (as the modernists typically saw it) by massive...

(The entire section is 2,570 words.)