At a Glance

  • Loyalty: Sarty Snopes faces a moral dilemma: to be loyal to his father or to betray the family by warning Major de Spain about his father's plan to burn down the barn. The theme of loyalty is introduced in the first scene of the story, when Sarty refuses to testify against his father despite being called to the stand in court.
  • Social Inequality: Social inequality fuels the central conflict in this story. Abner Snopes, a poor, itinerant worker with a family to feed, resents anyone of a higher social station. He's quick to take offense and behaves terribly once he feels slighted. His habit of barn burning stems directly from his frustration and wounded pride.
  • Justice: Abner Snopes stand trial in a makeshift court set up in a dry goods store. The trial is largely inept, and the jury can hardly be seen to have punished Snopes by forcing him out of town. Snopes goes free without any jail time and isn't brought to justice until Major de Spain uses deadly force to end Snopes' barn burning streak.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,324 words.)