Barn Burning: Symbols

In William Faulkner’s Barn Burning, symbolism helps the reader to understand certain emotions and relations in the story. However, in this article, we will focus only on two significant symbols: fire and blood.

Faulkner's Barn Burning symbolism.
Contents

Fire

Fire is a vital symbol in Barn Burning. It is also prevalent in Faulkner’s works and world literature in general. It is a symbol of civilization and, at the same time, a symbol of destruction. It can be used to warm the house or to burn and destroy. For instance, Abner Snopes uses the family’s oil lamp to burn Major de Spain’s barn. Symbolically, it can represent that he takes the source of light from the family to pursue his act of vengeance. But why? Fire is the only way through which Abner asserts his independence.  

The duality of fire demonstrates a conflict in the Snopes family. Abner is entirely powerless, yet he is an authoritarian figure. He tries to dominate every member of his family, but he cannot wholly suppress Sarty’s growing sense of self. Abner treats everyone with coldness and a lack of respect. However, he is not impulsive. His acts of violence are well calculated. He does not hit out of anger.

The fire Abner builds for his family when they camp is described as “shrewd.” His ability to control the size and strength of the fire demonstrates his desire to control his life. Indeed, fire is the only thing Abner has control of. 

Quotes about Fire

He said, “He says to tell you wood and hay kin burn.’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘That whut he say to tell you,’ the nigger said. ‘Wood and hay kin burn.’ That night my barn burned. I got the stock out but I lost the barn.”

Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight?

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.

Blood 

Blood is another powerful symbol in Barn Burning. It is used repeatedly to demonstrate family ties and loyalty. At the beginning of the story, Sarty feels “the old fierce pull of blood.” It probably means that Sarty has a blood bond with his father. He is even ready to lie for him. At this point in the story, the young boy still believes in the importance of blood ties and loyalty to them. Later in the story, Sartoris breaks these metaphorical ties even though it means having his father’s literal blood on his hands.

It is peculiar that Abner Snopes is described as “bloodless.” He may himself not care about his own family. However, he wants everyone to protect him and lie for him. 

Another episode in which blood appears happens right after the first court hearing. Some boy calls Abner a “barn burner,” and Sarty gets into a fight. He is bleeding but refuses to clean the red liquid off his face. The literal blood in this episode represents Sarty’s loyalty to the family. 

At the end of the story, Sarty gains the ability to free himself from the blood ties, and it causes death to Abner. Sarty prefers to stay loyal to his own sense of justice than to Abner. For Colonel Sartoris Snopes, truth ended up being more important than loyalty to his father.  

Quotes about Blood

He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit.

Again he could not see, whirling; there was a face in a red haze, moonlike, bigger than the full moon, the owner of it half again his size, he leaping in the red haze toward the face, feeling no blow, feeling no shock when his head struck the earth, scrabbling up and leaping again, feeling no blow this time either and tasting no blood, scrabbling up to see the other boy in full flight and himself already leaping into pursuit as his father’s hand jerked him back, the harsh, cold voice speaking above him: Go get in the wagon.

You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?

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