In "Barn Burning," how does the point of view create tension?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

William Faulkner's "Barn Burning" has a third person narrative point of view. This means that an outside observer is narrating events to a reader instead of one of the story's characters being the narrator. Often, a third person narrative point of view is third person omniscient. This allows the narrator to know anything and everything about each character; however, that isn't the case with this particular short story. The third person narrative perspective is more specifically a third person limited point of view. We are told a great deal about Sarty. We know his actions and his thoughts, but we do not know those kinds of details about other characters. Think of it like watching events from just over Sarty's shoulder instead of looking at events in the story from a top down "godlike" perspective. We see things through Sarty's eyes, but he is not the person telling this story, and that is why it is third person limited. Another interesting detail about this narration is that readers do get a very personal look at Sarty's thoughts. The narrative puts his thoughts in italics, and that allows for a deeper level of credibility to Sarty's thoughts. We know what Sarty is thinking because Sarty is essentially telling us.

I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can't.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a great example of a story with a great narrative choice. The point of view is third person limited, which means that the story is written in the third person, but that the narrative is focused on one character alone: Sarty Snopes. This means we see everything from Sarty's point of view and can see his feelings, thoughts and motives. We watch the drama of this story unfold from his perspective. What is fascinating about this narrative choice is the way that we watch along with Sarty his father's antics and the way that it is strongly suggested that Abner will commit another crime of barn burning in revenge for the perceived slight that Major De Spain caused him. The way in which we are not given access to Abner Snope's thoughts, but can only see his actions from Sarty's point of view gives it a kind of terrifying tension as we suspect what Abner is plotting but only find out at the very end of the story when Sarty makes his honourable betrayal of his father. Note the way this partial narrative works in the following extract:

"He won't git no ten bushels neither. he won't git one. We'll..." until his father glanced for an instant down at him, the face absolutely calm the grizzled eyebrows tangled above the cold eyes, the voice almost pleasant, almost gentle:

"You think so? Well, we'll wait till October anyway."

Here we see the elder brother on the verge of confessing his plan but stopping at the last minute as the father stops his words and covers up his plan. We only hear and see what Sarty hears and sees, so we are left with only the suspicion of what Abner will plan to gain his revenge against Major De Spain, which serves to increase the tension as we wait to see whether he will actually burn yet another barn.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial