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Critical Analysis Of William Faulkner’s Barn Burni Essay, Research Paper

Critical Review of William Faulkner’s”Barn Burning” William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning,” portrays the problems (an extreme case) of a sharecropping family in the late nineteenth century South. This story concerns itself primarily with a rupturing relationship between a father and son, presenting itself through stunning and sometimes very difficult to understand use of symbolism. “Barn Burning” is a sad story because it clearly shows the classical struggle between the “privileged” and the “underprivileged” classes. The story, “Barn Burning” intimately characterizes, by means of a third person narrative the emotions of a developing character, Colonel Sartoris Snopes (”Sarty”). “Burning Barn” involves a sharecropper, Abner Snopes (”Ab”) who is sickened by the society he is forced to make a living in and as a result of this intense exasperation he results to a, but by a no means condoned form of protest of vandalism by burning the property of those who he feels has wronged him. On the other hand, his son Colonel Sartoris Snopes (”Sarty”) is rather idealistic in the fact that he does not conform with his father’s bleak philosophy on life. The story begins with Abner Snopes being sued by his landlord for the destruction of his barn. Like the many times before, the Abner family is forced to move on. This situation is so commonplace to the Snopes’ that they are unmoved by their present plight unfolding in the story. However, the idealistic “Sarty” is deeply affected by the constant migrations, including the last one in particular which we get to observe firsthand through the narrator. Shortly after the Snopes’ reach their destination, “Ab” along with his son Sarty goes to introduce himself to his new landlord, Major de Spain. Before Ab enters the wealthy landlord’s mansion, he steps into a pile of manure and purposely wipes his foot on an expensive French rug within his home. When the Major becomes aware of the rug incident, he orders Ab to mend the rug. Out of spite, Ab removes the stain but knowingly damages the rug again by scrubbing it to harshly and causing a hole to appear. The Major, after noticing the new damages immediately arranges for Ab to compensate him for the damages by paying him twenty bushels of corn in addition to the corn he may have to pay to cover the expenses accumulated for that seasons harvest. Consequently, this infuriates Ab, but does not force him to vandalize the landlord’s property. Instead, Ab takes the matter into a tribunal. Nevertheless, the Justice of the Peace rules against Ab and orders him to compensate Major de Spain. Ab is enraged even further and prepares to burn the de Spain’s barn. Just as Ab begins to burn the landlord’s property, Sarty flees to inform the Major what his father is planning to do. While trying to return home to warn his father that Major de Spain was coming, Sarty hears gunfire and presumes his father to be dead. He then runs off into the woods, never to return home. Before an analysis of the “Barn Burning” a brief historiographical comment is warranted here. As the “Barn Burning” first appeared in the 1930’s a new generation of writers and intellectuals were coming of age. Gertrude Stein, famous author of this period referred to these young Americans maturing in this period as the “Lost Generation” (Brinkley 663). The Lost Generation’s argued that America as a result of modernization had transformed itself into a nation “utterly devoid of idealism or vision, steeped in outmoded and priggish morality, obsessed with materialism and consumerism, [resulting in] alienating and dehumanizing [the American people]” (Brinkley 664). To illustrate: Ernest Hemingway’s, A Farewell to Arms (1929) portrays an American officer in Europe decreeing that there is no justification for his participation in the war and deserts. Or even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby (1925) which shows a man striving to achieve wealth and prestige only for it to destroy him. In the same way, a group of white southern intellectuals engaged in a literary debunking effort of current American society. They were first known as the “Fugitives” and then later as the “Agrarians” (Brinkley 664). They resented the effects industrialization had on society and preached for a return to the attitudes and ideas of the antebellum South. Accordingly, this is the framework from which William Faulkner appears. Most of his writings suggest this very idea. As Cleanth Brooks points out: Faulkner writes, and often very sympathetically, of the older order of the antebellum plantation society. It was a society that valued honor, was capable of heroic action, and believed in courtesy and good manners. (4) Even though “Barn Burning” was a story portrayed in the late 19th century South, it easily could have been the 1930s South. Primarily, because the many rural settings in the south went unchanged, as if modernization did not occur. Through Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” we get a glimpse into the injustices of the rural southern society for poor black and white alike. Specifically, the southern institution of “sharecropping” is introduced which is a form of tenant farming. The “sharecropping” system differs from other forms of tenantry in that “sharecroppers have no money or equipment. For this purpose, the landlords supplied the farmer with land, a house, a few tools, seed, and sometimes a mule. In return, farmers would promise the landlord a large share of the annual crop. During the late 19th century, which the story is based, a third or more of the farmers in the South were tenants; but when the “Agrarian Movement” was at its height during the 1920s, tenant farming increased to about 70 percent. In addition, Faulkner reveals the tendency and often the necessity of the tenant farmers to migrate (Faulkner 8). Another author of the time, John Steinbeck based his novel, The Grapes of Wrath on a poor white family migrating from their Midwestern farm to the west. Now we turn to the analysis of “Barn Burning.” William Faulkner uses a narrator with an almost limited point of view in telling the story through the thoughts and experiences of young Colonel Sartoris Snopes (”Sarty”). It is limited because the narrator only throws in his comments as needed and then they are references to how Sarty will think and feel in the future when he is older and able to comprehend better. For example, in a particular scene, early in the story after the first courtroom scene, Ab inquires upon Sarty about his intentions when the justice asked Sarty what happened. The narrator relates, “Later, twenty years later, he [Sarty] was to tell himself, If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again’” (Faulkner 8). Although the narrator never directly addresses the reader, the reader is given information that the characters do not yet know. The effect this has on the story is that it helps the reader to better understand Sarty’s character. The story outlines two distinct protagonists and two distinct antagonists. First lets begin with Sarty as the protagonist and Ab as the antagonist. Sarty desperately wants his father to refrain from vandalism and to settle down and accept things how they are. But Ab unable to do so, creates an unstable life for Sarty and for his family, thus tormenting Sarty. But at the same time, we could consider Ab as the protagonist and the cruel system in which he is forced to struggle in as the antagonist. The minor characters involved in the story only attributes to the reader viewing Ab as the antagonist. An illustration of this is how Ab treats the women (mother, aunt, twin sisters) folk in the story, requiring them to do most of the manual labor while he plots to burn barns.

Ab’s emotional unsteadiness is a predominant factor contributing to his erratic behavior throughout the story. Thus, creating friction in the family, and specifically with Sarty. Indeed, the family is forced to move a dozen times from farm to farm due to Ab’s unacceptable behavior. Thus, creating the basic conflict of the story. Sarty wanted this conflict to end, evidence of this is seen when Sarty and Ab were approaching the de Spain’s mansion. Upon seeing the mansion, Sarty sees the land as a tranquil place and envisioned this as the place his family would settle. Sarty reasons, “Maybe he [Ab] will feel it too. Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe he couldn’t help but be” (11). The main theme of the story as well as Sarty’s dilemma is either to be loyal to his family which includes putting up with his fathers emotional instabilities or to go against his family by informing on his father. Sarty tends to hide his feelings by denying the facts as he did in the first courtroom scene. For instance Sarty thinks, “our Enemy ourn [is ours]! Mine and hisn [his] both! He’s my father! Enemy Enemy!” The narrator, with his limited point of view points out that Sarty could not see that the Justices’s face was kindly. Indeed, Sarty is trying to make himself view the perceived enemy of his father as his enemy as well, but to little avail. Further he thinks, “He aims for me to lie,” thinking with frantic grief and despair. “And I will have to do hit [it]” ( 4). But its tormenting, because Sarty wants to do the right thing. To illustrate the main theme, Faulkner uses blood as a symbol and use it a familial sense. To illustrate, in the beginning of the story in the first courtroom scene, the narrator states that Sarty could “smell and sense just a little fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood” (3). So here it is, Sarty is in another situation because of his bloodline his father. He uses this again when his father warns him, “learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (8) The reader is able to conceive and arrange the incidents and actions of “Barn Burning” in a steady chronological order. We are introduced to the surface problem which is society, for if society was not constructed as it was, Ab would not be forced to rebel against those injustices he perceive to be directed at him. Nevertheless, Ab, within his means is unable to change his situation, but to calm himself he rebels. By rebelling, Ab only contributes to the oppression that is already felt by his family from the constraints of society. After all, he transforms his family for the most part into wondering nomads. In fact, as a result of this, the family has no personal possessions, except for a broken clock that was the dowry of Sarty’s mother. Sarty realizes the power his father has over the family, and is aware of how the family suffers each time his father burns a barn and they are forced to move. However with the last move, Sarty is hopeful, as has been stated, Sarty thinks the de Spain’s are “beyond his touch ” (10). Notwithstanding, when Ab continues on with his vandalistic impulses, Sarty is forced to make a moral decision resulting in his instability and the instability of the story: should he betray his father by telling what his father is up to and feel guilty or continue supporting his father’s violent impulses, hence making himself miserable and feeling guilty? To this end, we see the action rising as Ab begins the process to burn the de Spain’s barn. Sarty, hearing his mother’s voice expostulating with his father: “Abner! No! No! Oh, God. Oh God. Abner!” forces Sarty to attention (20). His first thought when his father asked him to fetch the materials to start the fire was to: “run on and on and never look back.” But immediately he thinks, “only I can’t , I can’t” (21). It appears that Sarty somehow thinks he can stop his father. When Sarty sees he is unable to stop his father, he attempts to inform Major de Spain. Ab, sensing what Sarty was up to ordered Sarty’s mother to restrain Sarty while he went to destroy the landlord’s property. Sarty manages to escape and runs to warn Major de Spain. As he warns the Major, the Major attempts to restrain him as well, but Sarty eludes him; which leads to the climax. Sarty then runs back home with the intention on preventing his father from burning the barn by warning him that Major de Spain is coming. Again we see Sarty’s intentions, he wanted to scare his father from starting the fire. But as Sarty was running, he sees the Major pass by on horseback, and hears gunfire and presumes his father dead. Sarty would looks back and recalls of his father, “He was brave. . . he was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” But while feeling sorry for himself the narrator steps in and instructs us that Sarty was unaware of the ulterior motives which promoted his father to enter the war for the Southern cause. The narrator informs, that his father entered the war not out of honor but for a booty and it did not matter which side side he fought on, just as long he was granted cash up front (25). Out of this guilt, Sarty does not go home but continues running possibly out of shame that by doing the honorable thing he caused death to his father . Pulling it all together, Faulkner by his selection of characters, setting, and plot is able to illustrate and give meaning to his story succinctly. To illustrate: there is an advantage to using common people as Faulkner did in “Barn Burning.” This touches on what William Wordsmith argued in the early 19th century: Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heat find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated. (Smith 500) With this in mind, Faulkner very well could not have portrayed Abner’s lack of pride and contempt of society through a wealthy Southerner. This is also very vital to the plot, since it is the landlords way of life or class that creates the friction between Abner and de Spain. Also, the reader as a result of his family situation has compassion for Sarty. The other area in which Faulkner illustrates his theme is the plot. The story gets its emotion from Sarty’s thoughts and Ab’s actions. Sarty’s dilemma, and Ab’s frustrations is like a like tear jerker and almost leave you thinking. Given the circumstances which Ab has to contend, is it okay to burn the barn? Should Sarty tell the landlord that what Ab is planning to do? I guess to answer that, if injustice and oppression was not there, none of those questions would have to be asked. Nonetheless, we see a boy make a moral commitment to live an honest life. Sarty struggles with the idea of being loyal to his family or being acting out his conscience. With this object Faulkner accomplishes his task of expounding his perceived notions of the virtues and honor of southern men, which just so happens to be Colonel Sartoris Snopes.

Brinkley, Alan. American History. 9th ed. New York: Mc Graw-Hill, 1995.Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: First Encounters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1950 Smith, James Harry and Edd Winfield Parks. The Great Critics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,

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