What motivates the father in "Barn Burning" to burn barns and instigate the rug incident?

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In “Barn Burning,” Abner Snopes, the father of Colonel Sartoris Snopes, commits vandalistic actions—burning barns and ruining an expensive rug—that result from his deep-seated anger and feeling of injustice for stratification in society.

Faulkner describes Abner’s appearance and movements as “stiff.” Abner is harsh toward his own family and unbending in his resolve to avenge any wrongs he feels. As an itinerant sharecropper, he depends on and is indebted to wealthier landowners for making his living and supporting his family. At the beginning of the story, he is on trial for burning down landowner Mr. Harris’s barn in retaliation for Mr. Harris making him pay to return his escaped hog. Previously, Mr. Harris purchased for Abner the wire for fencing that he needed to contain his hog. This gesture seemed to offend and injure Abner’s pride, and Abner burned down Mr. Harris’s barn.

Before even meeting the next wealthy landowner (Mr. de Spain) whose land he will work and who will own his "body and soul for the next eight months," Abner purposely ruins de Spain’s expensive rug. Abner refuses to be intimidated by the large and fancy white house and literally leaves his mark on the rug—first by smearing manure on it and then by ruining it later under the guise of cleaning it. Abner remarks as he leaves de Spain’s house, ‘“Pretty and white, ain't it?" he said. "That's sweat. Nigger sweat,”’ implying disgust for the rich white man’s status over his black servants. He does not plan to repay the de Spains for their ruined rug, but calmly implies vengeance by saying, “Well, we'll wait till October anyway,” foreshadowing his burning down of de Spain’s barn.

Another reason for Abner’s anger is his lack of connection to society; he is always an outsider. After the trial early in the story, the town seems to have turned against him and his family. Upon exiting the courthouse, someone yells, “Barn burner!" No one helps the son when he is struck, and the family leaves to a silent, watching crowd. In fact, Abner wanted to leave because he “[didn't] figure to stay in a country among people" who are or do something he disagrees with. Also, Abner was a mercenary solder in the Civil War and had allegiance with no one. He felt no tie or loyalty to either side and fought only to enrich himself.

Finally, Abner’s anger that motivated his destructive actions seem to stem from a stubborn sense of self-respect that incites rage. His son describes Abner as “wolflike” with internal “ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions.” That righteousness combines with his hot-headed nature and attraction to lead to him burning others’ property. His son observes that “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.”

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On the most basic level, Abner is motivated by anger. He feels that as a sharecropper, he has been cheated by the upper classes, and he seeks vengeance upon them by burning their property. However, his anger extends even to his family, especially the women and children, suggesting there is more to his motivation than mere anger—he wants power to alleviate his own feelings of inadequacy and impotence above all.

Abner's inferiority comes from more than just his social class, though. One of his legs was shot and disabled during the Civil War, adding to his feelings of powerlessness, since it drags behind him. His physical challenges combined with his lack of influence within the sharecropping system add up to a frustrated man who believes he can only strike back through violence and destruction. Fire is the main weapon in his crusade.

The most ironic thing about Abner is that he is angry about class tyranny yet is himself a tyrant. He bullies his family. He disowns anyone who challenges his authority, even his vulnerable children. By attempting to fight a monstrous system, Abner has only succeeded in becoming a monster himself and leaving a trail of innocents in his wake.

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Abner Snopes is the antagonist in "Barn Burning," and he also appears in other works by William Faulkner like The Hamlet, The Mansion, The Town, and The Unvanquished.

Abner is one of a series of characters that show how the Old South has declined. Just as Major de Spain serves as an example of the decadence of the white, aristocratic South, Snopes serves as an example of the decay of the moral fiber of the poorer whites in the South following the Civil War.

Both de Spain and Snopes fought in the Civil War, but the former served as an officer in the Confederate Army, while the latter fought as a mercenary. Snopes bears a deep and ingrained resentment against the upper classes, who he thinks treat free whites almost as badly as they treat slaves. With the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, Snopes' pride has been further injured by the way lower-class white men no longer at least rank higher than blacks. Instead, white sharecroppers and freed slaves now compete for similar work.

Snopes is motivated by a deep class resentment. He sees the upper classes as exploitative and unjust and sees both his grinding poverty and the wound he received when trying to steal a horse as ways in which the upper classes mistreat the poor.

As well as being bitter and resentful, Abner may well be in physical pain from his wound. He also is portrayed as an alcoholic, which contributes to his impulsive behavior.

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Abner is a scary guy.  He rules his family with an iron fist both physically and psychologically.  At one point in the story, Abner takes his son Sarty to the side.  Abner tells Sarty that he should never betray his family and blood, and then hits Sarty because he knew Sarty was going to tell the truth in court after the first barn burning.  

Abner is a broken man.  Perhaps that is why he is so angry all the time.  First, he is broken physically.  He has a lame leg that he drags behind him.  Abner is also a broken man psychologically.  He feels beaten down by the class system that he is a part of.  He is a sharecropper who is forced to move from plantation to plantation.  He works the land and his only real payment is a small portion of the crops that he raises.  He and his family are barely scraping by in this system.  Because of his body, his lack of wealth, lack of options, and no real positive future, Abner has become a bitter, angry, violent, and abusive man.  

The reader doesn't really have any specific insight into why Abner burned the first barn down, but after reading the rest of the story, it's clear that his reasons for the first barn were probably not much different from his reasons for the rug and second barn.  

He sees the big huge beautiful white house and its owner as a symbol of everything that is beating him down.  De Spain has made his wealth on the sweaty backs of those under him.  He gets richer and Abner gets poorer.  The rug incident is Abner's way of telling de Spain what he thinks of de Spain and his wealth.  The second barn is Abner seeking vengeance against de Spain for his 10 bushels charge for the damaged rug.   

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