William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” is the story is about family bonds, and specifically, how these bonds influence the central character of the story. The story examines the internal dilemma and conflict faced by the protagonist, Sarty, imposed family and in particular by his father, Abner Snopes. William Faulkner masterfully employs concise imagery and eminent description in “Barn Burning” that allows his to construct deep and many-sided characters. Faulkner often uses symbolical comparisons when depicting his characters; he tends to attribute to them qualities typical of animal or parallels them to elements of the earth. Thus with the help of various literary devices the writer creates a chilling image for his antagonist while the hero is gentle and wins the sympathy of reader. “Barn Burning” is the story of a protagonist’s intrinsic struggle between his innate sense of right and the constricting ties of family relationships which tether him to his unlawful, coldhearted, cruel, domineering father, Abner Snopes.
The character of Snopes is created by means of various dramatic terms. He is not tall, but tough and strong “small and wiry like his father” (Faulkner 4); his appearance is rigorous and ferocious. Faulkner repeated appeals to Abner’s facial features “the harsh level stare beneath the shaggy, graying, irascible brows” (Faulkner 9), his dark manner of dress “in the hat and coat, at once formal and burlesque as though dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence” (Faulkner 20), “stiff in his black Sunday coat” (Faulkner 4),his unpleasant voice “the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin” (Faulkner 8), “his voice cold and harsh, level, without emphasis” (Faulkner 5) and heavy, deliberate walk “Now he could hear his father’s stiff foot as it came down on the boards with clocklike finality, a sound out of all proportion to the displacement of the body it bore and which was not dwarfed either by the white door before it, as though it had attained to a sort of vicious and ravening minimum not to be dwarfed by anything-the flat, wide, black hat, the formal coat of broadcloth which had once been black but which had now that friction-glazed greenish cast of the bodies of old house flies, the lifted sleeve which was too large, the lifted hand like a curled claw” (Faulkner 11) – all these elements are combined to present a foreboding figure.
Abner Snope is obviously coldhearted. He remains invariably callous in any predicaments and does not pay attention to the feelings of the members of his family, in particular, his son. After the accident when he was sentenced to banishment for burning Mr. Harris’ barn, he expresses no emotions to his family. He never apologizes, a reader will not find a single passage where may feel sorry. Throughout the story, there is not a time when Abner offers a word of encouragement to his family. He usually speaks with them in bitter and domineering tone of voice and what’s more never is grateful to anybody. As the story proceeds and Abner’s family arrive to their new house, these are his wife, her sister and his two daughters who unload the wagon: “and again, as on the other dozen occasions, his mother and aunt got down and began to unload the wagon, although his two sisters and his father and brother had not moved” (Faulkner 9). He takes his son and they go to to De Spain’s house where he comes into the house without permission, and next thing that he does is wiping his feet covered with horse droppings, thus sullying the rug. The host asked him to clean the rug, but Abner’s reaction to this natural request was unnatural – he further ruins the rug with a rock. His coldness towards his family is manifest when he orders his daughters to clean the rug in lye: “… the two sisters stooping over it with that profound and lethargic reluctance, while the father stood over them in turn, implacable and grim, driving them though never raising his voice again” (Faulkner 13).
Apart from being coldhearted Abner as a householder can be described as extremely domineering. He shows no respect to his wife nether to his children. He pushes his wife away when she tugs at his arm trying to restrain him from beating Sarty. The episode where Sarty describes the way his father walks reveals his despotic and inflexible nature: “Watching him, the boy remarked the absolutely undeviating course which his father held and saw the stiff foot come squarely down in a pile of fresh droppings where a horse had stood in the drive and which his father could have avoided by a simple change of stride” (Faulkner 10). He would not tolerate any other opinion other than his own. People with a different perspective immediately run up against the conflict from Abner. His family is forced to constantly to change place of living because his inability to get on with his landlords. He seems to enjoy the power he feels when he burns another people’s barns. And the only one victim of his misdeeds is his family, the only close people. Just like the fires he builds, uncontrollable, ruthless, and destroying everything is Abner’s attitude towards his family: “the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being” (Faulkner 7).
These background features entail Abner’s unlawful behavior. Thus the story opens with trial, where Abner is accused of setting fire to another man’s property. However, Snope’s act of breaching the law derives from the time when he was supposed to be in the battlefield fighting during the Civil War, yet, in fact, he pilfered horses from both sides of the lines. After Snope returned home, the habit of breaching the law remained with him and he continued his record of crimes with committing arson. As the trial goes on no evidence to rule against Abner could be found but nobody trusts him and he is advised to leave the country “This case is closed. I can’t find against you, Snopes, but I can give you advice. Leave this country and don’t come back to it” (Faulkner 5). Abner does not look too disappointed with such outcome and reacts in a vile way: “I aim to. I don’t figure to stay in a country among people who…” (Faulkner 5). The sly remarks from the crowd of “barn burner” (Faulkner 5) induced him to gather his family and send them to the wagon to get ready for travel. But again, when Abner together with his family arrived to their new house everything commenced with a bad start. Only after short time Abner again comes to court with the claim against Major De Spain’s fine which he considers to be too high for the damage he did to his rug “Ile brought the rug to me and said he wanted the tracks washed out of it. I washed the tracks out and took the rug back to him” (Faulkner 18). The court decides in De Spain’s favor fining him, “to the amount of ten bushels of corn over and above your contract with him, to be paid to him out of your crop at gathering time” (Faulkner 19). This fact sets off Abner’s anger. And as a consequence he decides to put De Spain’s barn on fire that night.
Furthermore, Abner’s character is displayed not only as being unlawful, cold-hearted but also as cruel. He hits Sarty, his son, when it becomes apparent that he is about to tell the truth about Mr. Harris’ barn. Another evidence of his cruelty is discovered during his visit to Major De Spain’s home, he enters the house, “flinging the door back and the Negro also and entering, his hat still on his head” (Faulkner 11). This ill-mannered behavior caused the incident with the rug, which consequently led to the burning of De Spain’s barn. The way he is going to the house, his manner reveals his cruel nature: “Then he was out of the room, out of the house, in the mild dust of the starlit road and the heavy rifeness of honeysuckle, the pale ribbon unspooling with terrific slowness under his running feet, reaching the gate at last and turning in, running, his heart and lungs drumming, on up the drive toward the lighted house” (Faulkner 23).
Coldhearted, domineering, unlawful and cruel, manner ascribed to the character of Abner Snopes are revealed throughout the story. Faulkner creates this character in ascending scale. From the very beginning of the story a reader can observe poor man’s feelings in those days. The development of character follows from being a coldhearted father and husband to an unlawful and cruel villain. Eventually such a destructing development leads the character to the death.
Faulkner, William “Barn Burning.” Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1950. 3-27.
Ford, Marilyn Claire. “Narrative Legerdemain: Evoking Sarty’s Future in “Barn Burning.” The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 51, 1998: 527.
Kirk, W., Klotz, Marvin. Faulkner’s People: A Complete Guide and Index to Characters in the Fiction of William Faulkner. University of California Press, 1963.
Magill, Frank. Critical Survey of Short Fiction. California: Salem Press, 1993.
Salyman, Jack, and Wilkinson, Pamela. Major Characters in American Fiction. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1994.