Barn Burning: Themes

Barn Burning by William Faulkner is considered one of his best works. In this short story, the writer traces traumatic events experienced by a young boy, Sartoris. It centers around his family and father, Abner, a poverty-stricken tenant farmer in the South. Because of Abner’s anger and resentment, Sarty is trapped between a feeling of loyalty to his family and his developing sense of justice.

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This article explores two significant Barn Burning’s themes: loyalty and morality and resentment and race.

Themes in Barn Burning by William Faulkner.

Loyalty and Morality

In Barn Burning, Sartoris has to decide whether to stay loyal to his family and his father, Abner Snopes, or be faithful to his sense of justice and law. For Abner, family loyalty stands, and blood ties stand above everything. That’s why it seems like the entire family exists outside of society or, to say better, conflicts with the community and others. Everyone is perceived as an enemy.

There are multiple occasions in which “blood” appears in the story, first, as an invisible connection that serves as bondage for the main character. Second, like blood in a literal sense. For instance, when Abner and his sons leave the court, Sartoris fights with a boy to defend his father. The blood on his face serves as a symbol of Sarty’s loyalty.

Throughout the story, Sarty’s sense of justice and morality develops, and it allows him to break free from his abusive father. As the climax for this theme in Barn Burning, Sartoris tells De Spain about the fire: he rejects Abner’s evil actions and runs into the wood at the end of the story. It’s peculiar that Sarty seems to have relationships only with his father. The rest of the family connections are very shallow. It contributes to his decision to betray them.

In many ways, the two court proceedings and the two barns set on fire express justice and morality in Barn Burning. Every character tries to pursue justice as they see it. Mr. Harris wants to punish Abner for the damaged property. De Spain intends to get 20 bushels of corn for the rug, Abner wants to punish the wealthy people for being wealthy, and Sarty refuses to accept his father’s violence.

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Quotes about Loyalty and Morality

He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; our! mine and his both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet.

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?” Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.” But now he said nothing. He was not crying.

Resentment and Racism

William Faulkner situated the story in the American South during the post-Civil War period. The society in which the characters have to exist couldn’t be more socially and racially divided. Abner Snopes, the Snopes family’s father, is a poor farmer who works on the land owned by wealthy landowners. Even though he is white, economically and socially, he is closer to ex-slaves. This situation makes Abner resentful and angry. He hates wealthy white people, but he also finds black people inferior to him, which lays the foundation for this theme in Barn Burning.

Abner makes racist remarks when he talks about black servants in Major de Spain’s house. Partially, this sense of white supremacy is passed to Sarty too. He uses offensive language when he speaks about blacks. Racism is embedded deeply in the mind of every white character in the story.  

What makes Abner resentful and angry is that his financial situation is not much different from the ex-slaves. However, he thinks that he is better than De Spain because he is not using “black labour.” Abner tries to teach Sarty about the injustices of the sharecropping system. In this new post-Civil War reality, the differences between “white” and “black” become more blurred. By using racist language, Abner tries to restore it.

The society in which Sarty lives is rapidly changing. However, it is not easy to escape the cycle of poverty in which the Snopes are trapped. The class war which Abner takes on makes it even harder for the family to make their ends meet. The Snopes represent an older South as the era of Industrialization comes to change it.

Quotes about Resentment and Racism

He was a strange nigger. He said, ‘He say 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.

People whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity are beyond his touch, he no more to them than a buzzing wasp: capable of stinging for a little moment but that’s all; the spell of this peace and dignity rendering even the barns and stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive . . .

The door opened so promptly that the boy knew the Negro must have been watching them all the time, an old man with neat grizzled hair, in a linen jacket, who stood barring the door with his body, saying, Wipe yo foots, white man, fo you come in here. Major ain’t home nohow.

His father spoke for the first time, his voice cold and harsh, level, without emphasis: “I aim to. I don’t figure to stay in a country among people who . . .” he said something unprintable and vile, addressed to no one.

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