The main conflict in William Faulkner's story "Barn Burning" is between Abner Snopes and his son, Colonel Sartoris.
As Faulkner's story begins, the reader is immediately led to believe that the conflict that will dominate "Barn Burning" is between the Snopes and the town in which they live. In the opening paragraphs, the author depicts a man standing accused of burning his neighbor's barn—a serious offense in the agriculture-dominated American South. That man is Abner, and watching the legal proceedings taking place in the general store/courthouse is Sartoris, Abner's ten-year-old son. Initial questioning leads the reader to believe that Abner may very well be guilty of the charge of burning his neighbor's barn, with the testimony regarding the African American man's message to the barn's owner, Mr. Harris ("He said, 'He say to tell you wood and hay kin burn.' ") seeming particularly incriminating. Faulkner reinforces this notion with his depiction of the young boy's perceptions of the legal process and his father's position, first when Sartoris is merely observing and then when he is questioned directly by the justice:
". . .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 . . ."
. . . .
" 'Hey?' the Justice said. 'Talk louder. Colonel Sartoris? I reckon anybody named for Colonel Sartoris in this country can't help but tell the truth, can they?' The boy said nothing. Enemy! Enemy! he thought; for a moment he could not even see, could not see that the justice's face was kindly nor discern that his voice was troubled when he spoke to the man named Harris . . ."
Sartoris is growing up to view mainstream society as innately hostile to his father and, by extension, to him. As the story proceeds, however, the truth of his father emerges and with that the realization that the real conflict in "Barn Burning" is between Sartoris and Abner. The father’s rage at the world, frequently manifested in the hitting of his son, is explained as necessary to remind Sartoris of his responsibility to stand by his own kind, his own blood. Abner is a demanding, brutal veteran of the Confederacy and a desperately poor tenant farmer and holds within himself an enduring anger and bitterness that Sartoris fears. It is the realization that Abner is in fact a barn-burner, however, that provides the spark that starts the proverbial fire that divides father from son. In the following passage, in which Abner, angry over the justice’s decision that he must pay compensation to Major de Spain, the wealthy owner of the estate on which he labors, Major de Spain, for a damaged rug that Sartoris finally attains the full measure of the man he calls father:
"Go to the barn and get that can of oil we were oiling the wagon with," he said.
The boy did not move. Then he could speak. "What…" he cried "What are you…"
"Go get that oil," his father said. "Go." Then he was moving, running outside the house, toward the stable: this the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed him willy nilly and which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him. I could keep on, he thought. I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can't.
Sartoris and his mother know very well what Abner intends to do with the oil he has dispatched the boy to retrieve: burn Major de Spain’s barn. Sartoris escapes the house and rushes to Major de Spain to warn him of Abner’s intention to burn de Spain's barn. In the end, Sartoris is torn between revulsion at his father’s crimes and despair at what he continues to view as Abner’s victimization by society. The conflict in "Barn Burning" between society and the Snopes is central to the story’s narrative. The most important conflict, however, is that between father and son.