How does "Barn Burning" embody the conventions of modernism?

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Faulkner's "Barn Burning" is a modernist story in that it rejects the idea that literature can convey objective truth. Instead, it focuses on the subjective and fragmented experiences of particular characters.

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Modernism rejects the idea that literature can convey objective truth. Instead, it focuses on the subjective and fragmented experiences of particular characters. Thus, "Barn Barning" is modernist in conveying so much of the story through the consciousness of the young boy, Sartoris . His point of view is not an...

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attempt at objectivity but is how events look tohim. For example, the narrator often gets right into Sarty's head, noting for example, in the second sentence, that Sarty, who can't read, can only identify the cans of food in the story from the images on them. There is also a divide that appears between physical reality and how Sarty subjectively experiences it. He believes, for instance, that he can smell the meat inside the tin cans, though in reality he cannot.

Another aspect of modernism is the focus on the artifice of literary style, heightening the idea that words are not identical with truth, but are a way of getting at an elusive truth. This is shown when the narrator moves away from Sarty's direct thoughts, summarizing or conveying them in literary language that would not be accessible to the young boy, such as when we learn that Sarty feels the "old fierce pull of blood." This is not the language a child would use, but literary language communicating that Sarty feels he must side with his family.

Fragmentation is a third aspect of modernism, and we can see this in the juxtaposing of fragments of literary speech, such as the "old fierce pull of blood" with fragments of speech that are directly Sarty's, such as "ourn! mine and hisn both!" which exactly replicate Sarty's dialect.

In addition to subjective point of view, artifice, and fragmentation, modernists often sought to get into the skin of marginalized, poor, or oppressed characters, which Faulkner does in this story. He is not telling their story from afar, from an "objective" point of view as a nineteenth-century writer might, commenting from above and passing judgment, but getting down with his characters.

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What is modernism, and how does Faulkner use its characteristics in "Barn Burning"?

One of the central traits of modernism is alienation—alienation from the past or alienation from other people. Modernist texts try to reinvent narrative to some degree out of a realization that older narrative forms cannot explain or represent this alienation.

In Faulkner's story, the Snopes are alienated in many ways. For one thing, they are alienated by the class system and pervasive racism of the South. Snopes' penchant for setting fires, or his treatment of the rug, is an expression of his alienation from a society that has cast him off, and of his belief in his own superiority. Snopes is also alienated from his past. While he prides himself on his connection to Colonel Sartoris, that connection does not earn him any respect, and it contributes to his bitterness and anger.

From a formal perspective, the story can be considered "modernist" in that it uses a kind of stream-of-consciousness approach to telling the story from Sarty's point of view. Sarty is mystified by his father's behavior and by his own culpability in it; Faulkner's point is not to explain how "bad" Snopes is, but to capture the chaotic mental state of Sarty, who is trying to come to terms with his heritage, his dysfunctional family, and his own sense of identity.

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What is modernism, and how does Faulkner use its characteristics in "Barn Burning"?

Faulkner portrays this story of conflict through a modernist aesthetic, through experimentation with the following:

  • Consciousness: through use of stream-of-consciousness, shifts in point-of-view (free-style narration)
  • Time: episodic, non-linear storytelling
  • Space: temporal shifts; 4-dimensional writing that defy the laws of traditional framing

Faulkner is a master of modernist experimentation in the novel, related to his obsession with time.  He says the past always stays with us: "The past is never dead.  It’s not even past."

In "Barn Burning," the narrator jumps backward and forward in time, and suspends time:

  • Abner’s wartime activities are repeatedly mentioned “prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity” (bottom 1791-92)
  • The family carries an old clock stopped at 2:14 “of a dead and forgotten day and time” (1792)
  • Narrator speculates how Sarty “might have” thought if he were older (1793, 2nd main para.)

Faulkner also experiments with point-of-view, framing the novel in long sentences that jump around and focus on multiple perspectives.  Just look at how many sights and sounds catch Sarty's (and the reader's) eyes and ears in the second sentence:

The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish - this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father's enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

"But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?"

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