Barn Burning, Red Leaves, That Evening Sun

by William Faulkner
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1528

The immediate action of "Barn Burning" occurs during an eight-day period in the early 1890s, although the narrator recounts statements made by Sartoris Snopes, the Barn Burning; Red Leaves; That Evening Sun 37 story's most important character, from as much as twenty years later. During the action of the story, Sarty is ten years old, but since Faulkner uses him as a point-of-view character for his third-person narrator, the reader sees Sarty making judgments as both a child and as an adult. This dual perspective is important to the story, because Sarty's perspective on justice changes. As a child, Sarty sees his father Ab as a barn burner, a destroyer of the property of others; as an adult, Sarty begins to see that justice is complicated by the great differences in property caused by the sharecropping economy in which his father has worked.

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While Ab Snopes' actions classify him as a criminal, Faulkner also presents him as a social leveler. Sarty associates the de Spain mansion, which is big as a courthouse, with "peace and joy," but Ab sees the mansion in another way: "Pretty and white, ain't it? ... That's sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain't white enough yet to suit him. Maybe, he wants to mix some white sweat with it." As the narrator describes them, Ab's fires are a weapon used "for the preservation of integrity." They do not lead to any material advantage to him or his family, and in fact only further poverty. While sharecroppers, unlike slaves, are free, their opportunities to escape their poverty are not good. Ab has moved a dozen times during Sarty's lifetime—on at least two occasions the family has moved during a growing season—and their family circumstances have slowly deteriorated. Even though Ab is corrupted by rage and jealousy, he attempts to challenge economic inequities. His arson serves as a tool of his rebellion, just as litigation is another. When Ab sues Major de Spain over a rug that Ab himself ruins, he is seeking to get the better of de Spain through the justice system. Flawed though Ab is, he wants justice as he sees it.

In the end "Barn Burning" is more Sarty's story than Ab's. As a ten-year-old boy, Sarty wants to tell the truth, to be just, but he also wants to support his family. Ab appeals to Sarty's loyalty by making him participate in his violent dealings with property owners. Ab takes Sarty along when he first goes to the de Spains, when he delivers the supposedly clean rug, when he goes to town for the second trial in the story, and when he and Flem burn the de Spain barn. But the ten-year-old who refuses to go along with lies and fires becomes a man who no longer associates justice with wealth. Hunger, ragged clothing, and other details of deprivation begin to work on the older Sarty, perhaps making him more sympathetic to his father's perspective.

"Red Leaves," a powerful story about race, is set during the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, before the Native Americans of northern Mississippi, probably the Chickasaws, were forced off their land. Although "Red Leaves" covers three generations of leaders for the Indians, the story's present action dramatizes a funeral of a chief, Issetibbeha, and the ritual hunt for his personal servant, who will be slain at his master's grave once captured. Once again, narrative point-of-view characters are important. In the first three sections, the third-person narrator relates the story through the eyes of two Indian characters, Three Basket and Louis Berry; then, in the fourth section, the narrator switches to the perspective of the black man being pursued before returning to the Indians' point of view in section five. In the story's final section, the narrator combines the perspectives of both the Indians and the black man. Before the black man's perspective, the tone of the story is almost comic, as the Indians seem to be victims of the slaves supposedly in their power. The tribal elders even discuss their "Negro question" much as the Spanish questioned their projected enslavement of the Indians they ruled in 1550 during the Council of Valladolid. Some of the elders consider eating the slaves, but others negate that idea because "Once we started, we should have to eat them all. And that much flesh diet is not good for man." This irony is followed by the Indians' present policy, which is to raise "more Negroes by clearing more land to make corn to feed them, then sell them." Ironically, the Indians have no place to spend the money, and they appear to be content with what they have.

Although few white people appear in the story, "Red Leaves" is meant to critique the white practice of slavery, since the Indians have learned it from white people. Faulkner's point is not that the Indians are worse slave owners than whites; in fact they are probably kinder and more benevolent. The marriages of Doom with a woman of mixed blood and of Issetibbeha with a slave woman indicates an Indian sense of rough equality, but the racial practices instituted by whites corrupt that equality. Faulkner's real target is the white practice of slavery before the Civil War and the unequal segregation of Jim Crow laws in Faulkner's own time.

"That Evening Sun" examines the effects of racial bias on the Compson children at the end of the nineteenth century and, perhaps more importantly, on the black woman, Nancy, who sometimes works for their family. Quentin Compson, whom Faulkner uses as a narrator in The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! also narrates "That Evening Sun" in retrospective first person. As a character in the story, Quentin is nine years old, but as a narrator Quentin is in his early twenties looking back at events fifteen years earlier.

Though she is married to a black man named Jesus, Nancy, the black laundress and occasional cook for the Compsons, has prostituted herself and has become pregnant by a white bank cashier, Mr. Stovall, a deacon of the Baptist church. In public, when Nancy protests that Stovall has not paid her for his last three visits, Stovall beats and kicks her. However, she, not Stovall, is arrested. When she tries to hang herself in jail, Nancy is beaten again for attempting suicide. Later, Jesus, Nancy's husband, threatens Stovall in the Compson kitchen, and then leaves Jefferson, supposedly for St. Louis. The story's title, an oblique reference to W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," may be a clue to understanding the story, though in the song, the man is unfaithful, not the woman. From Mr. Compson's comment, Stovall is not Nancy's only white lover, and prostitutes usually do not give credit to their customers, as Nancy has with Stovall. Nancy's sexual behavior is even more puzzling because Nancy loves Jesus. When Mr. Compson suggests that Jesus will not return to Jefferson and has taken a St. Louis woman in place of Nancy, she is immediately jealous.

The bulk of the story, however, deals not with these matters but with Nancy's fear that Jesus is coming back to Jefferson to kill her. Her fear is so pronounced that it affects Dilsey, the Compsons' cook, and Mr. and Mrs. Compson. Several critics assume that Nancy will be killed by Jesus beyond the time line of the story. John Cullen, one of Faulkner's Mississippi friends, explains that Faulkner is dealing with an event that really happened. Dave Bowdry, a Negro who lived near the Faulkners, cut his wife's throat. However, the character Jesus never threatens Nancy. When the Compson children, whom Nancy has used to protect herself from Jesus, leave Nancy's house with Mr. Compson, she leaves her front door open with a lamp shining on her. Her actions seem more an invitation than a response to fear; very likely what Nancy is afraid of is not that Jesus will kill her, but that he will cease to care about her, that he has abandoned her. She has transposed that fear into an irrational fear of Jesus, a man who has never threatened her.

In this story, one can see that being white or black makes a great difference in a character's life. The Compson children throw stones at Nancy's house to get her to make breakfast; Nancy is arrested when she is beaten by Stovall, and she is beaten instead of counseled when she attempts suicide. Small wonder that at the turn of the century many novels were written about the phenomenon of black people passing as whites. To Nancy, sleeping with white men may make her feel white.

If Nancy is a victim of prejudice, the Compton's children learn about prejudice. Jason, the smallest of the Compson children, attempts to understand what the word nigger means. He knows the word is bad, but he has not associated it yet with skin color, for he asks Nancy, "Are you a nigger, Nancy?" And later, he asks, "I aint a nigger ... Am I, Dilsey?" What Faulkner shows in this story is not simply the racism of adults but children learning about their bias.

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