Barn Burning Themes

The main themes in "Barn Burning" are loyalty, betrayal, anger, and morality.

  • Loyalty and betrayal: Sarty Snopes faces a moral dilemma: to be loyal to his father or to betray the family by warning Major de Spain about the planned barn burning.
  • Anger: Abner Snopes resents anyone of a higher social station. He's quick to take offense and his anger is always destructive, no matter how misplaced it may be.
  • Morality: Sarty Snopes begin the story on the cusp of moral independence. However, in order to act on his own morals, he must also distance himself from his immoral family. 

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

Young Sarty Snopes describes his own inner conflict as “the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses.” On one side is “the old fierce pull of blood”—family loyalty. On the other are truth and justice. The pull of family ties is strong, but Sarty is old enough to have started to realize that what his father does is wrong.

In the first courtroom scene, Sarty finds himself thinking of the plaintiff as his father’s enemy and consciously has to correct himself: “Ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!” Leaving the courtroom, he attacks a boy half again his size who calls Snopes a barn burner. Throughout the story, a pattern is established. Sarty keeps trying to defend, through his speech and actions, the father to whom he knows he owes his life and his loyalty. His thoughts, however, and what Faulkner projects will be his future thoughts once he has reached manhood, reveal the ultimately stronger pull of truth and justice. When, after the first trial, his father strikes him and tries to convince him that the men who bring him to trial are only after revenge because they know that ultimately Snopes is in the right, Sarty says nothing, but Faulkner knows that twenty years later, Sarty will tell himself, “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.” The de Spain mansion immediately appears to Sarty as a symbol of hope that perhaps here is a power too great—a power with which his father cannot even hope to contend. What he cannot yet comprehend, in his childish innocence, is that the greater the wealth, the greater the gulf between the landowner and the landless Snopes, and thus the greater his father’s jealous rage—a rage that Snopes keeps tightly in check until it bursts out in the flames of the fires he sets.

The battle goes on as Sarty continues outwardly to defend his father while inwardly his doubts grow stronger and stronger. When de Spain imposes the fine, Sarty protests to his father that de Spain should have told them how to clean the rug, that the fine is too high, that they will hide the corn from de Spain. When the fine is lowered, he still protests that the major will not get a single bushel. His outbursts in his father’s behalf almost cause more trouble for Snopes when Sarty loudly protests, “He ain’t done it! He ain’t burnt.” when the issue at hand this time is the damaged rug, not a burned barn.

Sarty still seems to be supporting his father when he runs to get the oil to burn de Spain’s barn. During the short trip, however, he decides that he can neither simply run away nor stand by idly as his father burns the barn. He returns with the oil to defy his father openly for the first time, and he takes his stand firmly on the side of truth and justice when he runs to warn the major. By the end, he has turned his back both literally and symbolically on his home and on what remains of his family. His turning away from his family, however, is presented as a sign of hope as he walks off into the woods as dawn breaks and morning birds’ calls replace those of the birds of night.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752

Alienation and Loneliness
In ‘‘Barn Burning,’’ Faulkner depicts a child, on the verge of moral awareness, who finds himself cut off from the larger social world of which he is growing conscious; this sense of alienation takes root, moreover, in Sarty's relation with his father, who should be the moral model and means of entry of the child into the larger world. Because of his father's criminal recklessness, Sarty finds himself, in the first part of the story, the object of an insult, and he attacks a boy who, in more ordinary circumstances, might be a school-companion or a friend. His father has taught him to regard others as the "enemy." Mr. Harris, the bringer of the arson charge, is thus ‘‘our enemy ... hisn and ourn.’’ In fact, Mr. Harris is simply a man who has been mistreated by an egomaniacal provocateur. The story concludes with Sarty alone on a hilltop at night, watching the stars. This, too, reflects the boy's loneliness, and lack of social ties, but it also suggests his liberation from his family on the basis of a moral insight which just possibly signifies a bridge to link him with the greater social world.

Anger and Hatred
Abner Snopes is anger embodied, ready to take offense over any interaction with other people, but especially with those whom he sees as his social superiors (which means most of them, since he lives at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder). Ab is locked into a hell of personal revenge, and his viciousness appears to have played a large part in the misery of his family. Readers witness the anger of others, too, but often this is anger with a cause, as in the case of the exasperated Mr. Harris, or even the haughty Major de Spain. Sarty also experiences anger—at his father—precisely on account of the father's maniacal anger at the world.

Loyalty and Betrayal
Abner's crude psychological stratagem for gaining the complicity of his family in his bizarre way of life is to press his claim of family ties, of loyalty. This surfaces in Sarty's interior monologue, in the first court scene, concerning enemies, ‘‘mine and hisn both.’’ But this represents only a degraded view of loyalty, since there is no moral requirement to be loyal to particular persons without qualification, not even to parents. Abner's criminality absolves Sarty morally from maintaining loyalty, a view to which Sarty himself eventually comes. In a technical sense, Sarty betrays his father to Major de Spain, but in a larger moral sense, Sarty expresses his real loyalty to normative ethics, in which revenge is an aberration and aggressive violence a sin.

Morals and Morality
Morality has to do with reciprocity among individuals and is encapsulated in ‘‘The Golden Rule,’’ that you should do unto others what you would have others do unto you. Ab Snopes persistently and willfully flouts morality so conceived. He beats his son, tyrannizes his wife, picks fights with people who have done him no harm, and is an arsonist. He was equally rabid and self-serving as a soldier, for he enlisted solely to make the best of the opportunity for looting. Morality is expressed ethically in the form of law, which requires an objective sorting-out of truth. ''Barn Burning'' traces Sarty's passage from immersion in the egocentric Hell of his father's life to his espousal of morality and law. This is also a passage from the natural state of animal solidarity to the cultural state of concession to institutions.

Order and Disorder
Abner Snopes's life, symbolized by his constant removal to new quarters on account of his quarrels with everyone and by the random wretchedness of the family's meager belongings, is a life of violent disorder. Ab cannot integrate himself into any aspect of the social matrix, and even as a soldier he was out for himself. Ab's tendency toward barn-burning sums up his warlike attitude toward social structure. Sarty trades this disorder for order, symbolized most powerfully during the first courtroom scene, when Mr. Harris points to him with the enunciation that this boy knows the truth. The objective truth, the account of what really happened between Abner and Mr. Harris, is the first revelation to Sarty of an order obtained by the individual's subordinating himself to abstract concepts of existence and proper behavior. In this sense, Sarty's denunciation of his father to Major de Spain is a cry for order, for the liberation of his family from the infernal disorder of Ab's criminal tyranny.

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