Typical of William Faulkner’s writing style, “Barn Burning” is a short story revolving around the main character Colonel Sartoris. When it comes to format, “Barn Burning” does not stray away from Faulkner’s typical style of the third person narration. Faulkner introduces Sartoris’ personal conflict in the first trial setting at the exposition. Colonel Sartoris is a young man who is in conflict with himself and expectations of his family. Torn between doing what is right and pleasing his villainous father, Sarty struggles to find a sense of belonging. “Barn Burning” explores the transition of Sartoris Snopes into manhood and the moral challenges that accompany this change. Subsequent to settling down on the De Spain’s farm, Snopes reminds his son that family comes first, and he should remain loyal to his family despite any circumstances. “You are now becoming a man” (Balty, 2011). Snopes tells Sartoris this while reminiscing over the trial scene in which Sarty almost spilled the beans.
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In “Barn Burning,” the young man Colonel Sartoris takes center stage as the protagonist of the story. William Faulkner portrays Sartoris as a young, naive man living under the antagonistic influence of his father’s upbringing. Abner Snopes is a bitter old man who believes that a man must employ violence as a means of protection once insulted. Contrary to his father’s vengeful preaching, Sarty believes in obeying the law; instead of emulating his father’s wayward habit, the young man employs insight before acting. In a bid to adhere to his own moral values and still please his father, Sarty employs caution in order to protect his father from the wrath of the law. For instance, at the exposition of the story, Sartoris refuses to speak when questioned about his father’s barn burning activities. The judge questions Sartoris, “I surmise any person named” (Balty, 2011), “Colonel Sartoris in this country cannot help but tell us the truth, can he?” (Balty, 2011). Unlike the rest of his family, Sartoris sees through his father’s manipulative nature. At the resolution of the story, Sartoris develops from an indecisive young man to a self-assured individual with an ambition to preserve his moral sanity. By fleeing away from his home into uncertainty, Sartoris remains the only character in the short story that experiences character development, while the rest of his family blindly submit to his father’s immoral teachings and tyrannical rule.
Without doubt, Abner Snopes is the principal villain or an antagonist in “Barn Burning.” Abner’s antagonistic characteristics persist throughout the entire story. Abner is an inherently bitter man who abhors anybody who is not blood-kin. Abner’s unreasonable, deep-rooted hatred leads him to use violence and force in order to express himself. Through a careful selection of diction, Faulkner uses words like “stiff” in reference to Abner Snopes’s emotionless state. Moreover, in the short story, William Faulkner’s physical description of Abner Snopes reveals the character’s vengeful desire and inhuman deeds that he dearly upholds. Being both physically and intellectually challenged, Snopes resigns himself to application of force and violence in quest of fulfilling his personal inadequacies. Not contented with restraining the anger and hatred within him, Abner imposes his vengeful ideologies on his wife and children with threats of disowning anyone who opposes his rule. A victim of an inferiority complex, Abner Snopes befouls anything that crosses his path in order to counteract his gradual emasculation. William Faulkner compares Abner Snopes to a wasp “He lifts his hands curled like a claw” (Balty, 2011). Abner Snopes intentionally steps on horse dung and tracks it everywhere in the De Spain’s house in order to feed his inferiority sense.
Family loyalty is a profound theme extensively discussed in “Barn Burning.” Sartoris is in a constant moral dilemma over whether to remain loyal to his family’s immoral beliefs or obey the law. Contrary to Sarty’s moral beliefs, his father insists on family loyalty regardless of the moral aspect in question. “Enemy! Enemy!” (Balty, 2011), Snopes refers to anyone who is not blood-related. Abner Snopes’s household seems to be the outcast in their society, but he seems not to mind this status. Focused on feeding his revenge, Abner warns Sarty that if he does not remain loyal to his family, his family will isolate him. Other social themes discussed in the short story include racial prejudice and search for peace. Abner Snopes looks down upon the black servant who works in the De Spain’s household.
Some of the stylistic devices employed in the short story include motifs and symbols. Darkness is a constant motif that appears in several significant episodes of the narration. Darkness in the context of “Barn Burning” represents the obscurity embedded in Abner’s thoughts and the desolation into which he drags his family. At the exposition of the story, William Faulkner uses darkness to represent the loneliness in Sarty’s heart. However, towards the end of story, darkness transforms from a medium of suffocation to a freedom passage, as Sarty escapes from his home in the dark of the night in order to start a new life. The word “ravening” qualifies as a motif in the short story “Barn Burning.” At the exposition of the story, the word “ravening” tends to suggest the pathetic living conditions of Abner’s family. Faulkner also uses the word “ravening” in describing Snopes’ parasitic and destructive nature (Balty, 2011).
On several occasions in the novel, Snopes uses fire as an expression of his anger. In this context, fire symbolizes Snopes’s inherent inferior state, as well as his passion and desire for power. The soiled rug in the De Spain’s house symbolizes a shift in Snopes’s criminal activities. Snopes uses fire in destroying people’s property; however, in this scenario, the soiled rug marks the beginning of Snopes’s intrusion into private households. At the rising action, Sarty warns De Spain that Snopes plans to burn his barn and escapes from home. Snopes later dies through De Spain’s gunshot.