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“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner Essay

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Updated: Oct 24th, 2018

William Faulkner has written a variety of fiction stories that examine the lifestyles of individuals who live in the closed society. These societies are rooted in traditional values, and are found in the south of America. Among these stories is “Barn Burning” where Faulkner examines the occurrences that follow once a person loses their bond to the world and its ideals.

Generally, it is the desire of every person to belong to a cohesive healthy family. Every family exhibits its relationships as a top concern, the needs of a family and associated activities prevail over all other activities.

Some people exist in dysfunctional families which do not demonstrate warmth cohesiveness or friendship. William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” examines the conflict that exists between father and son. Basically, the apprehension in Barn Burning is brought about by the generational gap existing between the two (Maxwell, 2005).

It is a common phenomenon in most of the families nowadays for father-son relationships to fall apart. In most cases, the occurrence tends to get worse due to the actions of the father. William Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” is a story of ethical development that also shows an ailing relationship between a father and a son.

Sarty is a young man who tries very hard to identify and set his own code of morality. Although a father-son relationship should be built on legitimate respect, loyalty, and admiration, the opposite is evident in the short story. The idea of love, respect and loyalty was absent in relationship between Abner and Sarty (Skei, 1999).

Faulkner has a unique writing style that helps in symbolism, scope and continuity, and this is clearly evident in his short story “Barn Burning”. In the second sentence of his story, Faulkner shows us his most unique writing feature, long sentences. The second sentence of the story is more than one hundred long, with multiple clauses that allow the reader to break when reading.

According to Faulkner, the perception and thoughtfulness of individuals is easily questioned due to its varying nature, based on the influence of both the environment and other people. Faulkner’s writing also leaves the audience with uncertainty of the results of the actions taken. For instance, at the end of the story, Sartoris is observed to be free of his father’s influence, though the aftermath of this newly acquired freedom on both him and his family is unclear (Skei, 1999).

This second unique attribute of Faulkner’s stories as observed in “Barn Burning” is achieved through his selection of syntax. The combinations of long sentences that wander and deviate before coming to an end and the sentence structure have a great effect on the reader’s inability to reach a definite conclusion when reading the story.

This feature is aimed at creating a sense of intricacy in the story “Barn Burning”, which is necessary on order to vividly portray the challenges that people go through in their day to day activities that seldom have definite resolutions.

The long sentences used by Faulkner in the story “Barn Burning” are observed to loop, thereby creating a style that shows the indecisiveness of the characters, and the diversity of their thoughts. A sample of the second sentence on the story is shown below.

“The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read….”(2)

This portion of the story indicates numerous thoughts; each portrayed in a clause of its own, but connected to create a flow of ideas. By using clauses to disrupt the continuity of the sentences, Faulkner is able to create the impression of how disorganized personal thoughts are.

That one particular sentence informs us of how confused Sartoris is, and goes on to tell us about the place where the events are happening. According to Maxwell (2005), “Sartoris’s impressions reflect the hunger, fear, and guilt he feels, an impoverished child watching his father’s hearing from the back of a general store”. Sartoris’s awareness of his feelings is brought into light when his hunger is awakened by the smell of food in his surroundings. He becomes more concerned of his loyalty to his family, and this makes him sad.

Another feature of the story “Barn Burning” is the use of third person in narrating the story. The narrator of the story appears to have a little information regarding the occurrences and the characters involved. In this story, the narrator puts more emphasis on the actions and thoughts of Sartoris, by narrating through Sartoris’s perspective.

The narrator even informs us of Sartoris’s thoughts, which are italicized in the story. In doing so, Faulkner makes the story more reliable, and helps us, the readers, to identify ourselves with Sartoris by knowing what he is thinking. This can be illustrated in line 86 of the story.

I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can’t. I can’t […]” (86)

This helps us to identify with the turmoil that Sartoris is facing, and try to make the choice for him. It is also clear that he would like to distance himself from his father.

The narrator also tells us about Sarty after the convicting testimony, until he was thirty years old. The mentioning of his age by the narrator is significant in that we get to know that Sartoris managed to live with himself after his convicting testimony against his father. In addition to this, the narrator tells us that Sartoris never forgot the events that took place, and he had to live with the memories.

This perspective gives the story “Barn Burning” an aspect of hope, since we get to see that the victim, Sartoris, is alive and coping with life. The narrator also uses another perspective to tell the story. The narrator informs the reader of things that Sartoris is unaware of, mainly regarding his father.

This information helps us understand Abner’s character, and the choices that he made. The narrative voice is significant in creating symbolism, while giving the reader a better understanding of the events that occur. An example is when the narrator tells us that it was midnight when Sartoris was seated on a hill trying to figure out what to do. The time in this case shows the transition from one day to the next. Similarly, Sartoris was about to make a decision that would change his life.

Faulkner uses the element of modernism in this story by using internal monologues such as Sartoris’s thoughts. The story moves fast, from the first day to the last, though there are many instances where the narrator deviates from the main story and informs us of Abner’s past, as well as Sartoris’s future, and it is up to the reader to put the pieces together and understand the events, from both the perspective of Abner, and Sartoris.

The narrator helps us understand the situation that Sartoris was faced with, at the age of only ten years. He felt obliged to make a prudent decision, like an adult should, yet he was only ten years old. His decisions at this tender age result in his leaving home. Naturally, the reader is concerned about the survival of Sartoris, and when the narrator mentions him at the age of thirty, it is a relief, and this gives the story a sense of hope, as it comes to an end.


Maxwell, W. J. (2005). Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Skei, H. (1999). Reading Faulkner’s Best Short Stories (Literary Criticism). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

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