Student Question

What literary techniques, including irony and foreshadowing, are used in "Barn Burning"?

Quick answer:

The story is a dramatic and ironic tale of the emotional turmoil of a young boy, Sarty Snopes, who must go against his father, Abner Snopes in order to keep him from seeking revenge against Major de Spain.

Expert Answers

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Dramatic irony is evident in William Faulkner’s story because young Colonel Sartoris (Sarty) Snopes does not anticipate going against his father, but the reader suspects that he will do so. In the early courtroom scene, the author shows the boy torn about supporting his father’s story, as he clings to the idea of their collective well-being in opposition to the court, which he thinks is “our enemy.” In this instance, the authorities do not push the boy to testify. Later, we see his father hitting him and accusing him of willingness to oppose him. The contrast between the authorities’ compassionate stance and the father’s vindictive harshness encourages the reader to expect the boy might see the error in his father’s ways.

Because Abner Snopes is a serial arsonist, his earlier crimes foreshadow his decision to burn the de Spains’ home. In addition, Abner’s evident pride, as he seeks damages against the major after destroying his property, indicate his distorted sense of justice and further point toward his likely violent retribution. Another element of foreshadowing comes in Sarty’s identification of the de Spains’ house with the courthouse. When he sees their majestic home, his first impression is “Hit’s big as a courthouse.” Furthermore, at this moment he believes that the people inside “are safe from him” because of the “peace and dignity” in which they live. The desire for their safety will later prove to motivate Sarty’s action.

The rug also serves as a symbol of the vast distance between the Snopes and the de Spains, and Abner’s attitude toward it likewise foreshadows his future vindictive actions toward the wealthy family. As soon as Abner deliberately soils the rug, the reader can predict that this action will precipitate his decision to burn their house. Sarty’s thoughts after his father makes a mockery of cleaning it likewise predict the story’s end. “Maybe this is the end of it. ... [Maybe it will be] gone, done with for ever and ever.” He is correct that things will change forever: with his father’s death.

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