An Analysis of William Faulkner's 'Barn
William Faulkner's 'Barn Burning'
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
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As 'Barn Burning' opens, an adolescent boy named Sartoris Snopes is in court, hoping he will not have to testify
in the arson case against his father -- a charge of which Sarty knows Mr. Snopes is absolutely guilty. The judge,
whom Sarty perceives as kindly, is nonetheless Sarty's enemy because he is his father's enemy, and Sarty has not
yet separated himself from his father.
Sarty's family are itinerant farmers, but they move around even more often than is typical because of his
father's habit of burning something down every time he gets angry. Sarty realizes that there is something deeply
psychologically wrong with his father, but he underestimates his father's danger. When they arrive at the beautiful
plantation of Major de Spain, therefore, Sarty feels the de Spains are safe: 'People whose lives are a part of this
peace and dignity are behind 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.' Sarty does not know that his father can just as
easily bring down a big plantation as a cow barn.
It would be easy to say that Sartoris, in the end, must make a choice between right and wrong, between the
'peace and dignity' represented by the de Spains with the squalor and misery of the Snopes family, but it is more
than that. At the story's beginning, when Sarty was ready to testify that his father did not burn down that barn,
he would have done it because a son's job is to stick to his father. At the story's end, he warns Major de Spain
that his father is about to burn down his beautiful plantation, even though he knows that this will bring his
family down once and for all, even though he knows that this means he will never be able to go home again. This is
heavy knowledge for a boy -- but Sarty is able to do it because he now sees that he is not his father, and
the route he wants to travel in the world is nothing like his father's path.
"Barn Burning" can be found in the collection "Selected Short Stories."
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