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Faulkner, Modernism, and Barn Burning

The artistic period known as “Modernism” arguably began in 1912 and ended in 1939. Modernists, such as William Faulkner, (who penned "Barn Burning" in 1939) consciously rejected Realism, the dominant movement of  the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whereas Realists sought to perfect verisimilitude, Modernists wanted to observe life from different angles, metaphorically shaking it up and looking at reality through the lens of a kaleidoscope; each new twist of the knob flings characters into different times and places. In addition to rejecting straight forward interpretations of reality, Modernists also rejected almost everything related to Enlightenment philosophy; that is, that all things are ultimately knowable. Modernists also did not believe in a creator God, or for the few agnostics that adhered to Modernists tenets, at least a compassionate one.

Faulkner’s work is in the Modernist genre as his writing experiments with reality in arguably every way possible:  time, space, and even consciousness.

One of the ways that Faulkner experiments with consciousness is through his character, Sarty. As readers, we hear not only what Sarty says, of course, but also his thoughts, which, given Sarty’s reality, are limited in scope and restricted due to his emotional conflictions. To differentiate Sarty’s thoughts from his speech, Faulkner uses italics. For example, in the opening paragraph, as Sarty and his father are awaiting “trial” in the general store, Sarty, safely hidden behind a nail keg,  watches his father’s accuser and thinks to himself,

“(our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!”)

As the trial proceeds, Sarty carefully takes in every word. When it is his father’s turn to speak, Sarty realizes,

He aims to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair.  And I will have to do hit.”

Although this technique, exposing the internal as well as the external, is common place today, in Faulkner’s time, it was excitingly innovative.

Time is another way in which Faulkner embraces modernism. Realists told stories in linear fashion:  first this, then that, then that, then the end. Not Faulkner. His stories jump in and out of time, forward and back, backwards and forwards.  For example, Abner’s wartime activities come up time and again.  In this first example, not only is the reader taken backwards in time but also forward in consciousness:

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?

Sarty, because of his age and lack of experience, cannot see that there is something obviously amiss in his father’s activities. Speculating about what the boy “might have” thought is also an innovation of Modernism.

Later, the reader learns why Abner has not the skills of war but this still escapes young Sarty.  In defending his father to himself, Sarty cries out,

"He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris' cav'ry!" not knowing that his father had 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.

Another way in which Faulkner plays with time is in the clock the family insists on carrying around with them. It is broken and the time continually shows  “2:14.” Time is neither tracked or of much importance to the Snopeses. As Sarty recalls the items they always packed on their many moves, her remembers in particular

“the clock inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which would not run, stopped at some fourteen minutes past two o'clock of a dead and forgotten day and time, which had been his mother's dowry.”

Dowries show hope for the future; the bride brings something of value to the marriage to help the family get started. But this family, in its poverty and lack of education, will likely never get very far. It is appropriate, then, that time has no meaning for Sarty’s mother.  

Faulkner shakes the kaleidoscope again and moves the Snopes family forward in time, this time in bit of a humorous way. Abner is about to set off again:

His father mounted to the seat where the older brother already sat and struck the gaunt mules two savage blows with the peeled willow, but without heat. It was not even sadistic; it was exactly that same quality which in later years would cause his descendants to over-run the engine before putting a motor car into motion, striking and reining back in the same movement.

Manipulation of space is another feature of Faulkner’s Modernist work.  He chooses words to make the character of Abner two-dimensional. Unlike Sarty, readers are left out of Abner’s internal processes. He is flat and therefore, not truly knowable. Therefore, the father is repeatedly described as a “flat shape, “without . . .depth,” “depthless,” and  “as if cut from tin.”

Abner’s lack of dimensionality is contrasted starkly when he appears at Colonel Sartoris’s doorstep. Sarty watches his father approach:

“he looked again at the stiff black back, the stiff and implacable limp of the figure which was not dwarfed by the house, for the reason that it had never looked big anywhere and which now, against the serene columned backdrop, had more than ever that impervious quality of something cut ruthlessly from tin, depthless, as though, sidewise to the sun, it would cast no shadow.”

Abner’s stiffness is contrasted to the roundness of the columns and suddenly Sarty can see just how “flat” his father truly is.

All of these methods: space, time, and consciousness make Faulkner a master of Modernism.