1. Maybe he will feel it too. Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe he couldn’t help but be.
This quotation occurs as Snopes and Sartoris slowly approach the de Spain house and Sartoris, overwhelmed by the peace and joy he feels in the presence of the large home, wishes for the eradication of sorrow, envy, jealousy, and rage from his family life. Similar sentiments are echoed later, during the incident with the rug. Sartoris hopes that his father will learn a lesson from having to pay for the carpet’s replacement and will finally “stop forever and always from being what he used to be.” Both of these statements reveal that Sartoris has a core of morality that is separate from Snopes’s influence. Although Sartoris’s loyalties are divided through most of the story, Faulkner makes it clear where his wavering sympathies ultimately lie: Sartoris desires to conform to a generalized sense of justice that applies equally to all, not the moral relativism of his scoundrel father who expects the family to lie on one another’s behalf. Sartoris believes in the capacity for change, even in his father’s case. His journey in the story involves his gradual acceptance that some individuals are unwilling or unable to reform their criminal ways.
2. Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish—corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses—gone, done with for ever and ever.
This quotation occurs after Major de Spain has informed Snopes that he owes twenty additional bushels of corn for destroying the rug. It is notable for the way Faulkner’s narrative voice is able to vary throughout the story, approximating and mimicking the thoughts of Sartoris, his ten-year-old protagonist. The “for ever and ever” adds a childish lilt to the end of the phrase and underscores the impossibility of Sartoris’s hopes ever being realized. Sartoris wants all the shame and burdens his father has heaped onto the family to merely disappear, to be erased. However, Snopes’s transgressions are too vast to simply “vanish” as Sartoris hopes. Snopes’s anger and sense of inferiority are not expressed merely through fire; rather, as is evident in this brief list—“corn, rug, fire”—he does not discriminate when it comes to destroying the property of others.
The quotation also reinforces the idea of a lack of peace in Sartoris’s life; he is always aware of the reality in which he lives. The joy and peace of the de Spain property are fleeting, quickly giving way to the dark-coated, limping figure of the father arriving to unsettle the home. Faulkner fully captures young Sartoris’s indulgent fantasies as well as the truly painful struggle he undergoes. Divided between family loyalty and loyalty to the law, he feels as though he is being torn apart by teams of horses pulling in opposite directions. Sartoris yearns for all of this—his father’s transgressions, his own tumultuous emotions—to simply disappear. In a way, these things do disappear in the end, but only after Sartoris takes action by warning de Spain about the imminent fire. Sartoris himself eliminates them rather than waiting passively for them to vanish on their own.
Brief Biography of William Faulkner
William Faulkner grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, part of a family that had been in the American South for generations. He was in the Air Force during World War I before studying at the University of Mississippi (though he never graduated). He began writing mostly poetry, and in 1924 he published a collection of poetry entitled The Marble Faun. He worked for a time at a bookstore and for a newspaper. But he is most known for his fiction, his “golden period” beginning with the publication of The Sound and the Fury in 1929 and lasting until Go Down, Moses in 1942. Most of the works written during this period are evidence of Faulkner’s fascination with the presence of the past (particularly the Southern past), the way history presses on individual people, and the bleak, immoral, or amoral attitudes of the downtrodden. During this time, Faulkner also supported himself and his family by writing screenplays for Hollywood. For almost all of his life, however, Faulkner lived in Oxford, Mississippi. In 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his acceptance speech is recognized as one of the best in the prize’s history. He died of a heart attack, following a fall from a horse, at the age of 64.
Historical Context of Barn Burning
While “Barn Burning” was written at the end of the 1930s, a decade during which the Great Depression created its own set of struggles for many people in the American South, Faulkner—here as in his other fiction—reaches back to an earlier moment for his setting. We know that Abner Snopes was wounded “thirty years before” during the Civil War, which sets the story around the late 1890s. In the decades after the Civil War, known as the Reconstruction Era, the euphoria that followed the liberation of slaves led to a more somber viewpoint. Many whites in the South strove, and were largely successful, in keeping black people in a position barely a step above slavery, whether through sharecropping, extra-legal violence such as lynchings, or discriminatory laws. Meanwhile, poor whites also continued to struggle, and some became increasingly bitter at having to compete with former slaves—and at being considered like them, rather than above them because of their race. While Reconstruction was meant to rebuild the South and reunite it with the North after the material devastation of the war, by the 1890s it was clear that the effort had in many ways been a failure.
Other Books Related to Barn Burning
“Barn Burning” can be understood as a prequel of sorts to Faulkner’s Snopes family trilogy, which explores the lives of a number of members of the same family as they struggle to ascend the social hierarchy—through any means necessary. These novels, The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959) concentrate mostly on Flem Scopes, the brother of Sarty who remains unnamed in “Barn Burning,” as well as a number of his cousins and other relatives. “Barn Burning” can also be positioned within what is known as the “Southern Renaissance” in American literature: this literary period sought to portray the South and its history in a more nuanced, often darker way than in earlier works (such as the glorification of the pre-Civil War South in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind); examples are Tennessee Williams’s works, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), which takes place in New Orleans as well as the books of Zora Neale Hurston, including the 1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God).
Key Facts about Barn Burning
- Full Title: “Barn Burning”
- When Written: 1938-1939
- Where Written: Oxford, Mississippi
- When Published: 1939 in Harper’s; 1950 in the Collected Stories
- Literary Period: Modernism, Southern Renaissance
- Genre: Short Story
- Setting: Yoknapatawpha, a fictional county in Mississippi that serves as the setting for almost all of Faulkner’s works.
- Climax: Sarty breaks free from his mother’s grasp and races up to the de Spain house to warn the Major that Abner, Sarty’s father, is about to burn down his barn—the first time Sarty blatantly challenges his father’s authority and chooses to follow his own values.
- Antagonist: Abner Snopes, Sarty’s father, is a complex antagonist—in many ways Sarty admires him and searches for his love and approval. But Sarty also, for most of the story, is too reluctant to admit that in another way he despises his father, whose resentment, defiance, and bitterness Sarty tries to avoid and replace with another set of values.
- Point of View: Faulkner is famous for his stream-of-consciousness technique, which moves in and out of characters’ minds in a way that can be both powerful and, at times, confusing. The third-person narration closely follows Sarty’s own perspective, and we do often gain access into Sarty’s thoughts at certain moments. But the narrator also informs us of certain things that Sarty does not know and could have no way of knowing. As a result, it is sometimes unclear whether the narration is taking Sarty’s perspective or is enacting a broader third-person narration.