What happens in Barn Burning?

  • Ten-year-old Colonel Satoris "Sarty" Snopes sits in a general store, where his father, Abner Snopes, stands charged with burning down Mr. Harris' barn. A jury of his peers tries Mr. Snopes, a mean drunk with a habit of burning down his bosses' barns.
  • Sarty gets called to the stand, but the plaintiff lets him step down, unwilling to force the boy to testify against his own father. The Snopes are advised to leave town forever. That night, at their ramshackle camp, Snopes beats Sarty mercilessly, teaching him a lesson in loyalty.
  • Sarty and his father bounce around, looking for work. One day, they visit the house of Major de Spain, a rich, landed gentleman who hires Snopes. Resentful of de Spain's social standing, Snopes deliberately tracks dung onto one of de Spain's beautiful carpets.
  • A judge orders Snopes to pay a fine. Furious, Snopes makes plans to burn Major de Spain's barn. Sarty attempts to warn de Spain about his father's plans, but de Spain is already a step ahead of him. Sarty hears a few shots ring out and assumes his father has been killed.

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As the story opens, ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris Snopes (he is named for Colonel John Sartoris, one of the central figures in William Faulkner’s fiction) sits in a makeshift courtroom in a dry goods store and listens as his father is accused of burning a neighbor’s barn. Young Sarty is called to the stand, but because the plaintiff is ultimately unwilling to force him to testify against his own father, the case is closed, and the father, Abner Snopes, is advised to leave that part of the country. As the family—Sarty, his parents, two sisters, an older brother, and an aunt—camp out that night on their way to their next home, Snopes, for whom barn burning seems to have become a habitual means of preserving his integrity in the face of men who have more power and wealth than he does, is absolutely cold and unemotional as he strikes Sarty and accuses him of having been prepared to betray his father back in the courtroom. He warns his son, “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.”

Moving from one run-down tenant farmer shack to another has become a way of life for Sarty: He and his family have moved at least a dozen times within his memory. When Sarty and his father first approach the home of Major de Spain, on whose land they have most recently come to labor, Sarty finally feels that here are people to whom his father can pose no threat, that their mansion exists under a spell of peace and dignity, “rendering even the barns and stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive.” Snopes, in his pride and envy, however, immediately forces a confrontation between the landed de Spain and himself, the landless tenant. As Snopes and Sarty walk up the drive, Snopes refuses to alter his stiff stride even enough to avoid some fresh horse droppings and then refuses to wipe his feet...

(The entire section is 1,538 words.)