Review of “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

On 10 December, 1950, William Faulkner delivered his banquet speech before the audiences attending the Nobel Prize Committee at the city hall in Stockholm, Sweden.  One can tell from his address that he is seemingly out of his element, coming from the deep South of Mississippi.  Anyone can listen to his address for free from the Nobel Prize website.  In it, Faulkner addresses an audience fully aware of what post-war political tensions are capable of, what with the Cold War and the powers involved posed as a threat to civilization.  Yet, he talks about modern writers of his time losing touch with their connection to the “human spirit,” something he claims, “which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”  He goes on to add:

He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands (Faulkner, “Banquet Speech”).

Faulkner writes this because he believes it entirely to be the truth of writing.  This isn’t some thought that he embellishes for the sake of the Nobel Prize Committee, but a philosophy that he has based his writing and life off of. In one instance, it is even recognizable in his earlier work: “Barn Burning,” a short story published in the June 1939 issue of Harper’s Magazine.  In this story, a conflict exists that sets the human spirit at odds with itself.  The struggle between what is morally right and a young man’s obligation to his family reveals the tragedy that exists within this literary piece.

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The tragedy here is as much an economic one, as it is about a family being torn apart by a boy’s father and his actions.  Would Abner Snopes have burned barns at all if he didn’t have a grudge against the system that keeps him and his family impoverished?  In fact, modern readers may have an easier time recognizing poverty’s role in the awkward position this family is in, rather than a man’s downward spiral because of spite and contempt.  Faulkner captures how poor these people are with descriptive imagery that tells us how cheap and worn their lives have become.  For example, expressions like ” flutter of cheap ribbons” and “drew from the jumbled wagon bed a battered lantern, the other a worn broom” shows us enough of their world through minor details, revealing the root of their problem.  It is poverty and the reactions he receives from those who are not impoverished that poisons the father’s actions.  He sees himself and his family as victims from the plantation owners who use them for menial labor, something that Snopes is begrudging of all throughout the narrative.  Just after arriving at their new (albeit temporary) home, father announces, “‘I reckon I’ll have a word with the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months'”(Faulkner “Barn” 221). Taking his son with him, they both make their way to see Major de Spain, the land owner he’ll be working for.  Sartoris, his son, sees the house of the Major de Spain as a sign of prosperity, a symbol of status and stability, something his life is devoid of; nevertheless, coming to this house gives him a sense of hope.  The negativity and contempt the father feels for his future employer, however, is clearly expressed both during, when he ruins the rug, and after, when he states: “He stood for a moment, planted stiffly on the stiff foot, looking back at the house. ‘ Pretty and white, ain’t it?’ he said.  ‘That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him.  Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it” (222).  This attitude he shows toward people of wealth is what creates friction in the story.

Contrary to statements like these, we learn from particular moments throughout the story that reveal he wasn’t always this way.  The tension in his character lifts at one point even when Snopes takes his sons into town, regardless of being late with the crops, unlike all the other farmers.  Stopping at the blacksmith shop, there is a moment where the reader is given a glimpse into Snopes’s former life: “His father and the smith and a third man squatting on his heels inside the door were talking, about crops and animals; the boy, squatting too in the ammoniac dust and hoof-parings and scales of rust, heard his father tell a long and unhurried story out of the time before the birth of the older brother even when he had been a professional horsetrader.  And then his father came up beside him where he stood before a tattered last year’s circus poster on the other side of the store, gazing rapt and quiet at the scarlet horses…” (Faulkner “Barn” 226).  The fact that he buys cheese for the three of them to eat and idles around a “tall rail fence… upon which men stood and sat” to watch horses trot back and forth in a ring seems out of character for the father up to this point in the narrative (227), quite in contrast to his stern demeanor toward his family witnessed earlier in the story.  Is this a moment into a former life, one that was prosperous and fulfilling, one that he ultimately lost touch with due to familial obligations or other reasons?  What ever this moment is, it is the source for his contempt.  He finds peace reminiscing about the days of his youth in these few moments with his boys.  It seems, though, that this is the source of his inner-turmoil, his regrets, his personal demons and why he takes his revenge out on people who did make it — by burning their barns, ruining their possessions, tarnishing the lives of others as his own life has been tarnished.

While the story seems predominantly about the Mr. Snopes, it is as much about his older son, “Colonel” Sartoris,  a boy who seems to be at conflict with this father’s actions.  The moral conflict rests between the father and the son, no one else.  All throughout the narrative, we get the sense that Sartoris is not happy with their overall situation — moving from house to house because of his father’s actions.  But he fears and respects his father’s motives for toying with fire at the same time: “The element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion” (Faulkner “Barn” 220).  While it is something he understands, there is a desire to reveal what is happening to the authorities, something his father picks up on in the beginning of the story and pulls him off to the side, away from the rest of the family to discuss.  Snopes strikes him with the flat of his hand and tells his son that “‘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?'”(220).   But Sartoris says nothing, thinking to himself, “‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again'” (220).  His father sees the same fire in his son and connects with him in many ways throughout the story.  The two of them are very much alike in how they respond to their environment: the father burning barns to express his repressed anger for his living conditions, and the son reacting rebelliously to this father’s lack of consideration for the family and for his emotional neglect.  All the other characters in the family are relatively passive and sheepish, settled in their misery with no one to help see their way out of it.  They rely on Snopes to survive, and he drags them into his downward spiral along the way.

Sartoris, his oldest son, is the one character in the story, though, who struggles with his father’s personal vendettas and constantly seeks to alleviate their burdens by convincing his father not to take his aggressions out with fire.  In the final act, where Snopes sets himself upon retribution toward Major de Spain for the high fine price from the ruined rug, Sartoris breaks away from the clutches of his mother and rushes off to the plantation to warn Major de Spain of his father’s intentions.  The act of betrayal towards his own bloodline is finalized when he hears shots ringing off in the distance.  Walking along the road, Sartoris walks away from the situation, liberated and free from the conflict embedded within his conscience.  The bond to his family is severed by his actions, and he never looks back at his family, reminders of the misery and emotional bondage enforced by his father.  Faulkner uses imagery and colors to work this motif throughout his story, too.  Although they are a white family, references to iron-like shades of black are constantly made throughout the story.  His father is often described as “a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tine and without heat like tin” (220).  This emotional emptiness on his father’s part is the poison that taints the well; it is the source of his anguish and his personal depression with the world around him.  It is the sickness of his human spirit.

Going back to that moment in Stockholm, Sweden, Faulkner finalizes his thoughts before the audiences of the Nobel prize committee as if he were referring to Sartoris, himself.  He says: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”  Having betrayed his father, the son walks into the night, among the whippoorwills and dark trees around him, and he does not look back.  He is immortalized in this moment of release, having saved his soul from the same moral corruption that haunted his father’s spirit.  His sacrifice is one that liberated, not only himself from the bonds of obligation at the expense of truth and justice, but also of his family.  Even though he walks away from them, he saves them from further punishments that might have came with his father’s neglect.  This can be seen as an act of mercy or of selfishness by the reader.  But in the end, he has learned his lesson in fear and is ready to take on the world before him, much in the same way Faulkner did himself when he sat down to write this story.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. “Banquet Speech” (1950).  Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Ed. Horst Frenz.  Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969. Nobelprize.org. Web. 05 Mar. 2013.

Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning” (1939). Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Ed. Ann B. Dobie. Boston: Heinle Thomson Learning, Inc. (2002): 217-229. Print.

Image source: “Barn Burning in Bellevue.” [Image]. Frompo. Frompo, 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

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