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Summary and Analysis of Barn Burning by William Faulkner
William Faulkner's 1939 short story "Barn Burning" can be a tough story to follow, Faulkner's long and meandering sentence structure and his tendency to bury details leaves some readers frustrated and ready to give up.
But a close reading of this short story reveals rich and deep characters including a father unable to control his anger and a boy who must decide where his love and loyalty actually lie.
The story opens at the county store which also serves as the courtroom in this small town. The narrative focuses on what must be the boy, Sarty's, sensations of cheese smells and angry voices.
Witnesses are explaining to the judge about a neighbor's pig. The pig belonged to Abner Snopes, Sarty's father. The neighbor said that the pig kept getting out and getting into his crops. He notes that he even gave Abner wire to patch the pigpen but that Abner never used it.
So eventually he gets tired of it and keeps the pig. He tells Abner that he has it and that he will owe him a dollar to get it back. Abner sends some hired help to the neighbor, Mr. Harris along with a verbal message:"Wood and hay kin (can) burn."
That night, Harris' barn burns and that is why they have brought Abner in to the judge.
The judge notes that there is no proof but Harris insists on bringing the boy up on the stand to try to get him to testify against his father. He gives his full name, Colonel Sartoris Snopes, and they note with a name like that, he is bound to tell the truth. (We later learn that Colonel Sartoris is a celebrated Civil War general from the county and that is who Sarty is named after.)
As Sarty is up there and feeling uncomfortable, the court has mercy on him and decides to not question him any further.
The Justice advises Abner to leave town and he indicates he was already planning on it.
As they pass by the crowd (his father limping from what he said was an old war wound) someone hisses "Barn Burner" and pushes the boy down, causing Sarty to fall.
Sarty seems confused by the fight and it is only after his father intervenes and tells him to get in the wagon that he understands what happened and realizes he's hurt.
Going back to the house, they pick up Sarty's distraught and cowering mother and sisters. His brother is already with them. They leave town for their new destination.
As the family is camping that night, after supper, Abner comes up to him and asks Sarty if he was going to tell the court the truth about the barn burning.
When Sarty doesn't answer he strikes him, telling him:
Sarty then confesses that yes, yes he was going to tell the court the truth.
The next day they arrive at their new sharecropper home which was "identical almost with the dozen others.....in the boy's ten years."
Abner has Sarty come with him as he goes up to the plantation house. Sarty is amazed by how big and beautiful the property is and it makes him happy to look at it.
Sarty watches as his father walks right through a fresh pile of horse manure and keeps right on walking.
The house servant opens the door as soon as they get there and tells him the Major isn't home. The servant cautions Abner to wipe his feet but he ignores him and walks in, purposefully dragging his dirty boots across the carpet by the door.
Major DeSpain's wife comes down the stairs and asks Abner to go away. He obliges but makes sure to wipe his foot some more on the rug on the way out.
A few hours later, Major DeSpain himself comes down to the house and though Sarty doesn't see the transaction, it is indicated that he leaves the soiled rug there for Abner to clean it.
Though his wife asks him to let her do it, he says he is going to. Abner then takes a stone and uses it to scrub out the stains but in doing so, purposefully scrubs so hard that he rubs the rug raw and leaves a trail that looks like a "mowing machine" had been on the rug.
Abner leaves the rug on the front porch but that afternoon Major DeSpain comes back to the house and is visibly angry.
He lets Abner know that he has ruined the rug which cost one hundred dollars. He then tells him that in order to pay for it he will have to give him twenty extra bushels of his corn crop.
For the rest of the week the family works on getting the property ready. Then, on Saturday they head back to town and back the same store where the opening scene took place.
Abner had called for the meeting claiming that twenty bushels of corn was too much to pay for the rug. Sarty, in his confusion yells "He ain't done it! He ain't burnt...."
But his father cuts him off and tells him to go outside.
The judge is confused for a moment and asks if the rug was burnt too but the father lets him know that it was not.
The judge then notes that Abner is responsible for the damage to the rug:
The judge does reduce what he has to pay to the major down to ten bushels of corn.
But Abner indicates that the Major will never get the corn from him.
When they get home that evening Abner tells Sarty to go get the oil that they were using earlier in the day to oil the wagon. Sarty complies but he's concerned.
Once he realizes what is happening, Sarty is upset. Abner comes into the house and tells the mother to hold Sarty and keep him there. But after the father leaves, Sarty wiggles free and begins to run.
He gets up to the house and bursts through the door. When he sees the Major he can only get out the word "Barn" over and over. He then runs out of the house as he hears the Major yelling for someone to get his horse.
As he is running away Sarty hears gun shots and finds himself crying, first "Pap!" and then "Father!"
He tries to comfort himself with the fact that his father at least had some bravery since he fought for Colonel Sartoris in the war but the narrator interjects with knowledge that Sarty isn't privilege too; Abner worked only for the highest bidder in the war and had no particular loyalty to the South.
When Sarty wakes up the next morning he realizes that the moment has changed his life forever and that he can't ever go home again.
As he walks towards the woods "he did not look back."
Analysis of Sarty and Abner's Relationship
The heart of this story asks the old cliche' of a question: Is blood thicker than water?
Abner warns Sarty that he has to stick to his own kind and his own blood--that of his sharecropper lifestyle and his barn burning father.
While Sarty's brother seems to be very much like his father, Sarty has a depth of feeling and understanding at ten years old that his father doesn't.
See Sarty All Grown Up in Long Hot Summer
Sarty's full name "Colonel Sartoris Snopes" illustrates the conflict raging within him.
He has the first name of Colonel Sartoris who was known as a hero as well as a good and honest man. This is in direct conflict with his last name. For he is a Snopes---sharecropper and barn burner.
But from early in the story the clues to where Sarty's loyalties lie are very clear. He admits, even as he knows his father will hit him, that he was going to tell them the truth about his father burning Harris's barn.
And at the crucial moment as he knows he has a chance, he chooses honor and doing right over sticking to blood.
Sarty, even at ten, knows that his choice has consequences but he is ready to accept those.
Movie Versions of Barn Burning
Tommy Lee Jones has an excellent version of Barn Burning that, while not exact, sticks very close to the original story. Sarty's conflicts within himself are clear and in the end, you see that Abner did survive the gun shots. Sarty is walking away as his family heads off in the opposite direction.
Another version of Barn Burning draws from the story but imagines what Sarty would be like grown up and running from his Snopes name. Though they change the character name, Paul Newman plays a grown up Sarty who wants to be trusted and loved. The movie combines three of Faulkner's stories, "Spotted Horses," "Barn Burning, " and Faulkner's novel The Hamlet.
Though it is not a retelling of the story, it does explore the implications of having to try to run from "blood" and your own father's reputation.
A Story Worth Reading
"Barn Burning" is a tough story to read. Faulkner buries details within the text that are important. He does not hand you the plot easily.
But the depth of the plot and the examination of age old questions of family and loyalty make it well worth the effort.
The beauty of Faulkner's writings are that the characters and ideas are haunting, memorable and alive and his language is both beautiful and haunting.