Comparing and Contrasting “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning”
In William Faulkner’s short stories “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning” the characters are both guilty of committing terrible crimes. However, Miss Emily in “A Rose for Emily” and Abner Snopes in “Barn Burning” are both portrayed very differently from each other. A few things to consider while reading these short stories is how each of these characters is characterized, how the author generates sympathy for these characters, and the order in which the events in these stories occur.
The way Faulkner characterizes Miss Emily and Abner Snopes throughout these stories is very different. In “A Rose for Emily”, Miss Emily is characterized as a respected, helpless, and possibly mentally ill elderly woman whose pride has left her living in the past when her family was higher up on the social ladder. There are many examples of these traits being shown throughout the story. When the smell begins to emanate from Miss Emily’s house, a few men from town snuck over there in the middle of the night and “broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings” (Emily 81). This illustrates how helpless Miss Emily was to extinguish the smell by herself and how the townsfolk respected her enough to preserve her dignity. The fact that Colonel Sartoris had to invent the story that “Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying” (Emily 79), in reference to her taxes being remitted, illustrates how prideful she was, and her denial of her father’s death (Emily 81) indicates her unwillingness to let go of the past and the presence of a mental illness (while her sleeping with a dead body for roughly forty years is confirmation of her mental illness).
In “Barn Burning”, Abner Snopes is characterized as a psychopathic tenant farmer whose family suffers at the hand of his irresponsible decisions and fascination with burning barns. Many of Abner’s actions throughout the story are an indication of his psychopathic behavior. He shows no remorse for any of his actions throughout the story, and he also fails to take the way any of his family members feel about his actions into consideration. A good example of this is when Abner’s wife is begging him not to burn Major de Spain’s barn down. Instead of taking her plea into consideration, Abner “shifted the lamp to the other hand and flung her back, not savagely or viciously, just hard, into the wall. . .” (Burning 361). It’s also important to note that Faulkner included that when Abner threw his wife into the wall he didn’t do it “savagely or viciously.” This shows Abner’s lack of emotion behind his actions.
The way Faulkner generates sympathy in these stories and how he directs it at the characters varies as well. In “A Rose for Emily” it’s easy for a feeling of sympathy to arise in the reader. The whole story is built upon generating a feeling of sympathy so you can understand why the townsfolk felt the way they did when they discovered that Miss Emily was sleeping with the dead body of her ex boyfriend for roughly forty years. When Faulkner describes how the townspeople felt about a situation, it’s almost as if he’s dictating how the reader should feel about it. One example of this is when the smell finally subsides from Miss Emily’s house, Faulkner states that “That was when people had begun to feel really sorry for her” (Emily 81). Another example of this is when Miss Emily is seen in public again after she’s been sick for a long time after her father’s death. Faulkner states, “When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows- sort of tragic and serene” (Emily 81). These kind of statements guide us to also feel sympathetic towards Miss Emily.
In “Barn Burning”, there is no sympathy generated towards Abner Snopes. Instead, we feel sympathy for Abner’s family members. We see how Abner’s actions have affected them. His family has been forced to move twelve times (Burning 356) because of the decisions Abner has made. We feel anger towards Abner. He intentionally makes decisions that he knows will most likely be detrimental to his family. An example of this is when he visits Major de Spain’s house for the first time. When the servant asks Abner to wipe the
manure off his feet (which we could argue he stepped in on purpose), Abner says, ““Get out of my way nigger.”. . . without heat too, flinging the door back and the Negro also and entering, his hat still on his head” (Burning 356). He proceeds to track manure all over the fur rug, and when asked to leave Faulkner states, “with the same deliberation he turned; the boy watched him pivot on the good leg and saw the stiff foot drag around the arc of the turning, leaving a final long and fading smear” (Burning 357). By this example it is clear that Abner is trying to instigate a problem with his new landlord. He knows that nothing good can come from doing this, and that this action will most likely affect the well-being of his family.
The order in which the events occur in these two stories is also very important. In a “Rose for Emily”, if we knew that Miss Emily had murdered her boyfriend and slept with his dead body every night for the rest of her life at the beginning of the story; we would not have been able to generate very much sympathy for her. In contrast, since we know at the beginning of the story in “Barn Burning” that Abner burnt down his old landlords barn; we can build a lot more sympathy for the situation he’s gotten his family into.
These two stories may have many similar ideas and themes, but the way Faulkner presented them is very different. It’s important to realize these differences so you can understand the stories and the message that Faulkner wants to get across. The characterization, how sympathy is generated, and the order in which the events occurred in these stories all play a unique role in helping the reader process and develop an understanding of this message.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning”. Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. Robert Diyanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 79-84. Print. —. “A Rose for Emily”. Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. Robert Diyanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 352-364. Print.