In William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning,” a possible theme that could be interpreted is how strong loyalty to one’s family can be, no matter the details of the dynamics, but also the moral dilemma of how stressing that loyalty is to uphold. The short story is rich with literary devices and lessons that teach the reader a variety of lessons and themes.
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897. He was an American poet and novelist, as well as a railroad financier, politician, soldier, farmer, businessman, and lawyer throughout his life. As a young man, to no surprise, Faulkner enjoyed reading and writing, as well as drawing. However, he never earned his high school diploma, despite being very intelligent. It is supposed that school bored him too much. In 1918 he joined the British Royal Flying Corps and trained as a pilot in the first Royal Canadian Air Force after he moved to New Haven, Connecticut to live with a friend of his: Phil Stone. Faulkner trained on Canadian and British bases, and just before the war was over he finished his service in Toronto, never facing combat, although he was known to stretch truths and embellish stories of dramatic acts and battles. Faulkner was a skilled writer, eventually winning a Nobel Peace Award. He died July 6, 1962 of a heart attack.
Faulkner establishes the theme of justice and loyalty in the first scene where Abner Snopes stands trial in a makeshift court set up in a dry goods store. The trial is largely inept, and the jury can hardly be seen to have punished Snopes by forcing him out of town and goes free without any jail time. In this scene, Sarty’s outward show of loyalty is revealed when he refuses to testify against his father despite being called to the stand in court. However inwardly, Sarty consciously has to correct himself that the plaintiff is not only his father’s enemy, but Sarty’s too. This conscious reminder that he must give himself seems to hint at the moral stress that Sarty faces when he supports his father despite the wrongs he has committed. Upon leaving the courtroom, he attacks a boy half again his size who calls Snopes a barn burner, which also shows how outwardly Sarty shows his support of his father. Throughout the story, a pattern is established. He keeps trying to defend, through his speech and actions, his father to whom he knows he owes his life, and who he shares a bond with. But while the pull of family ties is strong, Sarty is old enough to have started to realize that what his father does is wrong. The struggle goes on throughout the story as Sarty continues outwardly to defend his father while inwardly his doubts grow stronger and stronger. Social inequality also fuels the central conflict in ‘Barn Burning,’ as the root of the problems. Abner Snopes, Sarty’s father, is a poor, itinerant worker with a family to feed, resents anyone of a higher social station. His habit of barn burning seems to come from his frustration and wounded pride. He’s quick to take offense and lashes out strongly once he feels slighted. He acts out with no regard to how Sarty might feel, automatically expecting Sarty’s unquestionable support and loyalty even if it means Sarty, who is a very young boy, must lie to figures of authority.
In the story, Sarty describes his own inner conflict as like being pulled two ways between two teams of horses. On one side is the pull of familial loyalty. On the other side is truth and justice. When the Major de Spain command the fine, Sarty protests to his father that de Spain should have told them how to clean the rug, that the fine is too high, and that they will hide the corn from de Spain. His outbursts in his father’s behalf almost cause more trouble for Snopes when Sarty loudly protests that his father hadn’t burned the rug, when the issue at hand this time is the damaged rug, not a burned barn. When the fine is lowered, he still protests that the major will not get a single bushel. His thoughts, however, and what Faulkner projects will be his future thoughts once he has grown, reveal the ultimately stronger pull of truth and justice. When, after the first trial, his father strikes him and tries to convince him that the men who bring him to trial are only after revenge because they know that ultimately Snopes is in the right, Sarty says nothing, but Faulkner knows that twenty years later, Sarty will tell himself that had he’d said they wanted only truth and justice, his father would have struck him again. The de Spain mansion immediately appears to Sarty as a symbol of hope that perhaps here is a power too great that with which his father cannot even hope to contend. What he cannot yet comprehend, in his childish innocence, is that the greater the wealth, the greater the gulf between the landowner and the landless Snopes, and thus the greater his father’s anger that Snopes keeps tightly in check until it bursts out in the flames of the fires he sets. Sarty still seems to be supporting his father when he runs to get the oil to burn de Spain’s barn. During the short trip, however, he decides that he can neither simply run away nor stand by carelessly as his father burns the barn. He returns with the oil to face his father openly for the first time, and he takes his stand firmly on the side of truth and justice when he runs to warn the major. By the end, he has turned his back both literally and symbolically on his home and on what remains of his family. His turning away from his family, however, is presented as a sign of hope as he walks off into the woods as dawn breaks and morning bird’s calls replace those of the birds of night.
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