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A Literary Analysis of William Faulkner’s Barn Burning Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 10th, 2019

Stories about the poor in the 1930s were seemingly mandatory. Faulkner’s Barn Burning was one of the stories that were written during that period. Barn Burning is one of several literary works by William Faulkner. The story revolves around the lives of the Snopes clan. The clan depicts the poor tenants that worked in the Whites’ plantations since the 1880s (Skei 35). The story largely depicts the socioeconomic relationship between the landowners and the tenants.

The author focuses on the relationship between Abner Snopes (Ab), a sharecropper, and his ten-year-old son, Sarty, as dictated by the socioeconomic factors of the community. Abner is depicted as a virulently angry man who embarks on burning barns as revenge for real or imagined injustices. The story recounts the slow, reluctant emergence of Sarty into rebellion against his father. Faulkner employed a unique narration technique, plot, setting, characterization and symbols to bring out the themes of the story.

With the help of a range of rather simple literature devices, as well as with quire a simple plot, Faulkner manages not only to develop an intriguing narrative, but also to provide sufficient foil for the further character growth, leaving the readers on a cliff hanger at the very end of the short novel.

In writing ‘Barn Burning’, Faulkner employed a very straightforward plot. Abner Snopes, 0’s father, terrorizes his own son. By so doing, he impels his son prematurely toward manhood when he (Sarty) must choose between the dictates of his own conscience and his father’s frontier justice. The story traces a boy’s traumatic experience. It begins with a dawning awareness of the bondage of blood ties and ends with a forceful assertion of independence. The reader’s interest is stimulated by the desire to know what the boy will do and why.

The author uses a setting that out rightly evokes the social status of the key parties in the story. It is characterized by the presence of the wealthy landowners and the comfortable lives that they live as opposed to the Snopes’ family that does not have a permanent place to stay.

To earn a living, the Snopes’ family has to work in the plantations of the land owning families as sharecroppers. The social differences play a pivotal role in causing Abner to start avenging for the injustices of the society (Hamblin and Hamblin xi). He begins to burn the barns of the wealthy landowners.

Besides burning the burns, he expresses his anger to the land owners-even strangers. This is evident in his disrespectful act of not only staining the de Spain’s rug with manure but also destroying it when asked to clean it. This is the point at which one starts realizing that the novel is more than a story about an average half-literate criminal. The first thing that meets the eye is the specific means that Abner uses to take his revenge on the people whom he disrespects and considers the ones to blame for his dissatisfaction.

Abner neither robs them of the valuable items which he would take into his possession as something that belongs to him for his hard work; nor does he start murdering the people whom he considers his enemies. Quite on the contrary, his dissatisfaction with the society makes him set a barn on fire.

The use of fire is rather symbolic, since the given element has quite a long record in the world history, starting with Herodotus and up to the recent notorious arsons; point being, fire is a symbol of complete destruction, with no turning back, and Faulkner knows it. Therefore, starting with the point at which Abner decides to put the barn on fire, he stops being a cartoony character and becomes a symbol of blind yet powerful force – a rebellion among the lowest of the low that have finally become fed up with their situation.

At this point, the fact that Faulkner wrote his novel in 1939, the year when the aftermath of the American Civil War peaked higher than ever, is worth considering. Therefore, it can be considered that the novel, with its characters, is a product of its time, just as dark and miserable as poor Abner. It is also worth mentioning that the presence of barns is the courthouse – the place where legal proceedings took place.

It is ironic in the sense that Abner is punished for his injustices to the wealthy yet the justice system does not consider the social injustices of the rich society to the poor. The landowners had amassed wealth and build themselves mansions whereas their workers 9the poor) lacked permanent homes, since they lived as squatters.

Despite a relatively simple plot, the novel actually touches upon a number of significant social issues which have survived the test of time and are topical even now, developing a satiric representation of these issues (Zender 48). One of these issues concerns the subject of crimes and the motivations of criminals. Indeed, while in certain cases, there is nothing behind a crime than a sick mind, most of the time, criminals appear to be completely sane and, therefore, are motivated by certain outside factors.

Making the readers consider the social factors which induced the lead character, notorious Abner Snopes, Faulkner does not reveal these factors himself – he describes the setting, the environment in which the character lives, the ideas that occasionally rush through his mind, and the few interactions which he has in his daily life, mostly with his son and his neighbors: “He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and his both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet” (Faulkner 1).

Thus, the reader is immediately immersed into the atmosphere of a dull, good-for-nothing life, which finally drives Abner to a rebellion. At this point, it becomes obvious that the novel is more than just a story of two crimes and a treachery; it is a study of human nature, in its ugliness and naivety.

A variation of narration strategies have been used in telling the story. Faulkner employs the ‘doubling’ techniques in which an anonymous, omniscient narrator fuses with the protagonist, Sarty Snopes, to texture the story the story with multiple narrative presence (Yunis 31). This includes the narrator, the ten-year-old traumatized Sarty and the mature Sarty whom the narrator makes recall his tormented childhood twenty years later.

The narrator has a sophisticated, intellectual and very poetic presence throughout the story. Barns, gins, stables and storehouses were the preferred targets of the arsonist, in that each was a real and symbolic accumulation of the things which the owners had stolen from tenants; namely, their labor. Labor was all that the tenants had to sell to the landowners.

Loyalty to one’s family is more important than to the law as depicted in Faulkner’s Barn Burning. The main characters namely Abner and his son have been used to portray the significance of family loyalty. Abner believes that family ties as well as family loyalty are more important than the governing laws of a given community.

In his opinion, family seems to be a unit that exists outside the society and, thus, has its own set of laws besides those of the society in question. Abner Snopes is depicted as a man who is loyal to no one other than himself. The above-mentioned is written in his military record. According to the official family report, Abner was a brave member of Colonel Sartori’s cavalry. However, the truth is that, although he might have originally joined the Confederate forces, he soon became a deserter.

He not only stole horses from both armies but also sold them to whoever would be interested in them. Abner is an unforgiving person who would punish anyone who opposed him. He would not hesitate to burn down the barns of rich people who opposed his ideas. He believed in the mystical powers of fire and used it as one of his most precious weapons:

The element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion. (Faulkner 3)

In the light of the above-mentioned, the social issues concerning the specific relationships between Abner and Sarty should be brought on. As it has been mentioned above, the way in which Abner treated Sarty left much to be desired; surely, he was not a model father and did not deserve his son’s love or loyalty, for that matter.

However, the fact that when choosing between an unknown victim of his insane parent and the latter, Sarty chooses the person who is in no way related to him makes one ponder over the idea which Faulkner tries to get across with this unusual twist of the plot. With the help of this plot device, Faulkner addresses the specific social moods which dominated the USA in 1920ies and 1930ies, namely, the despair that the entire state was shot through with.

Portraying the relationships that are completely deprived of any humanistic element and are built on fear, since fear was the primary motivation for Sarty to obey his father: “Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, ‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.’ But now he said nothing. He was not crying. He just stood there. ‘Answer me,’ his father said” (Faulkner 3), Faulkner depicts the society which has been driven to the state of utter and complete despair.

Though at first the boy relates to his father as to a member of a family: “He’s my father!” (Faulkner 1), further on, their relationships fall apart, just as the relationships within the American society of the early XX century. Indeed, the idea of patriotism has always been a distinct feature of the American nation; like a child related to the parent, the USA population related to their state.

However, when the years of the American Civil War came, dragging a number of economical, political and social issues, the people must have felt betrayed, just like Sarty felt when his father neglected him (Godden 194). Sarty’s treachery, however, casts a shadow on his character. At first, it seems rather unfair that Sarty, who was meant to be a positive character, turned out to be a betrayer.

However, what Sarty did was actually a question that Faulkner asked to the Americans of the Great American Civil War era concerning how far the devotion to the native land can stretch and whether the nation will endure the social, political and economical disasters of the time.

Abner is not only primitive but also violent. He holds a strong belief that the misery in his life was caused by the presence as well as the activities of the wealthy landowners.

Consequently, he avenges them by burning their barns. As the story unfolds, he unleashes his anger by sailing the rug of a stranger who had given him a job, namely, de Spain. When asked to pay for the damage he caused on the rug, his fury leads him to burning de Spain’s barn. His ruthlessness extends even to his family, which he does not show much concern (Bellingslea 289; Flora 102).

He rules his family with threats as well as promises of violence. He symbolizes the victims of the social economic injustices in the Mississippi community during the 1880s. The author portrays him as a victim of the brutalities of war that left him with an injured leg. His primitiveness is portrayed through his inability to express himself intelligently; he uses cruel means such as burning barns to express his dissatisfaction with the socio-economic injustices.

Colonel Sartoris Snopes also known as Sarty is the protagonist of the story. Due to the influence of his father’s beliefs, he is forced to grapple with moral issues during his young age. He also learns from his father that violence or rather ruthlessness is an essential aspect as far as manhood is concerned. However, as he grew up, he developed some deep sense of justice an aspect that made him to betray his own father. Unlike his father who loathed the wealth and lifestyle of the landowners, he associated the de Spain’s mansion with peace and joy.

The latter becomes a symbol of his future. His reaction to the wealth of the landowners and his father’s violence symbolizes the young generation that was willing to bring change to the society without harming anyone, a generation that believed that one needs to rise up beyond their challenges and the brutal in the society to bring peace and justice to the society. One can therefore conclude that Sarty, who is named after Colonel John Sartoris, represents those ideas of truth and integrity (Loges 43).

Lennie Snopes, Abner’s wife, is another main character in the story. She was opposed to the violent behavior against the society and family. Some of the hardships that she endured not only include her husband’s ruthlessness in the form of physical abuse but also poverty and crime. Despite the hardships, she remains to be the voice of reason as well as morality in the community and the family.

This is evident in the scenes where she tries to prevent her husband from destroying the property of the landowners who apparently were the sole source of the family’s livelihood. Although Abner always intimidates her, she continues to fight for justice and morality in the family. She portrays the strength of women in a male dominated society. Her ardent spirit to uphold morality had a positive influence of Sarty who embodied virtue.

The space and time that Sarty moves toward at the end of the story to is symbolic as well. Such a process yields a strained relationship between the parties involved (Ford 527). Faulkner employed a unique narration technique, plot, setting, characterization and symbols to bring out the themes of the story.

The narration strategy of the story helps the reader to connect with not only the present but also the expected future of all the characters especially Sarty, the protagonist of the story. The theme of the story include the significance of family loyalty and the socioeconomic gap between the rich and the poor in the American community during the 1880s and the first half of the twentieth century. Additionally, the story presents some of the evils or rather crimes that were created by the socioeconomic injustices in the community.

Unlike the other writers of the time, Faulkner presented his characters in Barn Burning from a much larger perspective. With the help of a specific plot and numerous implications, the writer takes the novel to a new level, where the personal and the social is intertwined from the audience to read between the lines and discover new meanings of the story. Thus, an entire era is told from a perspective of a few people living in the middle of nowhere – in the heart of the post-war USA.

Annotated Works Cited

Bellingslea, Oliver. “Fathers and Sons: The Spiritual Quest in Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’.”Mississippi Quarterly 12.3 (1998): 288-307. Print.

The article explores the family unit in Barn Burning. It gives a detailed explanation about the relationship between the protagonist and his father and the relationship’s implication in the overall theme of the story. It also highlights the symbolic aspects of the characterization. Consequently, it is resourceful piece of work as far analyzing Barn Burning is concerned.

Faulkner, William n. d. Barn Burning. Print.

This source contains the story that has been subjected to literary analysis in this paper. Barn Burning is one of literary works that were written after the 1880s and the artist, William Faulkner, focus on the socioeconomic status of the American community during that time. He is a renowned artist as far as fictional literary works are concerned.

Flora, Joseph. “Barn Burning.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Farmington Hills, MI: St. James Press, 1994. Print.

It gives an overview of the story. The overview id based on the characterization, plot, setting as well as the major themes of the story. It equips the reader with the knowledge that he/she would require before doing a detailed analysis of Barn Burning an aspect that it a relevant source of information.

Ford, Marylyn. “Narrative legerdemain: Evoking Sarty’s Future in ‘Barn Burning’.” Mississippi Quarterly 51.3 (1998): 527-533. Print.

The article explains the narration technique that has been evident in most of Faulkner’s literary works. However, the author narrows his analysis to the technique that Faulkner used in Barn Burning. In addition, it explains both the strengths and weaknesses of the third person narrator as used in the story.

Godden, Richard. William Faulkner: An Economy of Complex Words. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press, 2007. Print. In his book, Godden explores most of the works by William Faulkner. He gives all the thoughts, ideas and motives of the writer as expresses in his literary works.

The book gives a literary analysis of Barn Burning and links it to all the other stories that Faulkner wrote depicting the socioeconomic status of the American community towards the end of the nineteenth century and the quarter of the twentieth century. It also seeks to give the reliability of Faulkner’s Barn Burning in portraying the economy of the American community during that period.

Hamblin, Robert, and Charles, Hamblin. A William Faulkner Encyclopedia. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999. Print.

The book comprises of a literary analysis of Faulkner’s literary works. It gives an in depth view of the mind of Faulkner as portrayed in his works. Moreover, it links his real life experiences to some of the characters that he created in his fictional stories; among such stories is Barn Burning, which is, doubtlessly, a good source of information about the literary works of William Faulkner.

Loges, Max. “Faulkner’s Barn Burning.” The Explicator 57.1 (1998): 43-46. Print.

The article critically analyses Faulkner’s characterization in the story ‘Barn Burning’. Loges gives not only the specific character traits of the main characters in the story but also their symbolic meaning. It is thus a rich source of information as far as understanding the different character and their symbolic meaning is concerned.

Skei, Hans. “The Short Story Genre and Faulkner’s Contribution to It.” Twentieth Century Literature Criticism 170 (1999): 32-41. Print.

The article gives Faulkner’s contribution to literature using short stories. It also outlines the specific themes that were common in most literary works during the first half of the twentieth century.

The author, Skei, relates the relevance of Barn Burning to history of the American community by comparing it with other works by different artists. It also provides information about the symbolic features or rather aspects of the story used by Faulkner to paint a perfect picture of the community during that period.

Yunis, Suan. “The Narrator of Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’.” The Faulkner Journal 6.2 (1991): 23-31. Print.

The article provides detailed information about the narration technique employed in the story. It gives the specific characteristics of the narrator that make this particular story unique as compared to other stories by other writers. Faulkner. It seeks to bring out the specific competency of the author in the narration technique that makes him an outstanding artist.

Zender, Karl. “Character and Symbol in ‘Barn Burning’.” College Literature 16.1 (1989): 48-59. Print.

The article entails Faulkner’s characterization technique not only in Barn Burning but also in other stories that he has written. Additionally, it gives some of the symbols that are employed in the story and their role in enhancing the reader’s understanding of the different themes if the story.

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IvyPanda. (2019, December 10). A Literary Analysis of William Faulkner’s Barn Burning. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-literary-analysis-of-william-faulkners-barn-burning/

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"A Literary Analysis of William Faulkner’s Barn Burning." IvyPanda, 10 Dec. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/a-literary-analysis-of-william-faulkners-barn-burning/.

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IvyPanda. "A Literary Analysis of William Faulkner’s Barn Burning." December 10, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-literary-analysis-of-william-faulkners-barn-burning/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "A Literary Analysis of William Faulkner’s Barn Burning." December 10, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-literary-analysis-of-william-faulkners-barn-burning/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'A Literary Analysis of William Faulkner’s Barn Burning'. 10 December.

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