Barn Burning Themes
by William Faulkner

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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. 

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 1,324 words.)