Barn Burning


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Sarty's betrayal of his father in William Faulkner's story "Barn Burning" is justified. The reader is introduced to Sarty's father as he is being tried for burning the barn of Mr. Harris. Lacking evidence, the Justice of the Peace drops the charges against Abner Snopes, Sarty's father, and he is ordered to leave the country. A harsh image of Sarty's father is presented in the line, "he [Sarty] followed the stiff black coat, the wiry figure walking a little stiffly from where a Confederate provost's man's musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago" (2177). The reader is given insight into Snopes' shady past and learns he has never been a law-abiding citizen.

Sarty's inner turmoil centers around his sense of loyalty to his father and his own conflict with knowing his father's actions are wrong. Through Faulkner's use of stream-of-consciousness narration, the reader is aware of Sarty's thoughts. In one instance, Sarty alludes to Mr. Harris as "his father's enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair, ourn, mine and hisn both! He's my father!)" (2176). Upon hearing the hiss of someone accusing his father of burning barns, Sarty feels "the old fierce pull of blood" and is blindly thrust into a fight, only to be physically jerked back by his father's hand and his cold voice ordering him to get in the wagon.

As the Snopes' family leaves town, Sarty consoles himself with the hope that this will be the last time his father commits the act that he cannot bring himself to even think of : "Maybe he's done satisfied now, now that he has" (2177). Deep down, Sarty knows his father is not going to end his destructive rampage. Ten-year-old Sarty cannot understand the true reasons for his father's actions: "that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being," and, even more importantly, the fire served as "the one weapon for the preservation of [his] integrity" (2178).

Sarty's thoughts when he realizes he might be questioned regarding the barn burning reflect the fear and despair he experiences: "He aims for me to lie. And I will have to do hit" (2176). Later, Sarty's father violently reminds him that blood is thicker than water when he accuses Sarty of being ready to betray him.

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His father strikes Sarty "on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horse fly" (2178).

Abner Snopes, portrayed as abusive and violent within his own family, is a destructive individual who focuses his energy against the obvious social and economic inequality. To Sarty's father, Major de Spain's house magnifies the differences between those who have and those who do not. The grand house represents safety and peace to Sarty, and he is overcome with a feeling of euphoria: "Maybe he [his father] will feel it too. Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe he couldn't help but be" (2180). Sarty naively perceives his father as "no more to them than a buzzing wasp: capable of stinging for a little moment but that's all" (2179).


Sarty's hopes are dashed when his father purposely steps in the horse droppings, ruining the expensive rug. Once again, Sarty is reminded that he is virtually powerless to change the course of events in regard to his father, no matter how desperately he wishes to. Sarty could never have fathomed "that ravening and jealous rage" that consumed his father's being.

Sarty expresses his desperation as feeling 'the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses' (2183). When his father orders him to get the oil can, he is powerless to resist his father's command. Again, Sarty hears the hopeless despair in his mother's voice as she vainly pleads with his father not to commit this unspeakable act. Sarty's only alternative is to warn Major de Spain since he is unable to stop his father.
After his father's death, Sarty still tries to cling to an idealized image of him, crying aloud, 'He was brave!' (2187). Sarty could not have understood his father's madness and uncontrolled rage, but he did understand that he had to be stopped. Ultimately, Sarty's moral growth allowed him the courage to bring an end to the destruction of his father.






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