family

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.

Longing to read when books keep me from doing so…

Stack of booksBookstores are dangerous places for avid readers.  If you’re anyone like me, then you have a long list of books you’d like to read.  Compound this list with the new books you check out from the library or the books that arrive by mail from your late night online shopping spree, and your monster-of-a-list keeps growing.  I told myself at the start of the year that my resolution would be to read 10 books before I purchased anymore.  I tried, I really did, but I only read 8 books before I started purchasing the next to be lined up.  Like so many others, I face a dilemma.  My problem is not that life keeps me from finding the time to read; rather, my rate of consumption does not match the rate at which books accumulate on my shelves.  You see, I am a book addict.

Sure, I find myself working a lot more these days, now that I have to commute to my place of employment;  I also want to spend time with my family whenever I’m not working; I have to invest into the garden, too, since Spring is upon us; and I have to sleep from time to time.  This last one is usually forced on me, as I find myself rereading a lot of pages from the books I have started just before dozing off.  If only reading worked like osmosis.  But, these are not issues in the same way that other books are.

I always manage to find time to read.  One solution to compensate for life’s callings has been to listen to audio books.  I simply tune in to an audio book from the Overdrive Media Console while on my way to work.  This simple app allows me to download audio MP3 books from the library I check out books from, and I listen to them on my hourly commute to work.  It’s great because I get to read a book almost every week, depending on its length.

No, where the real problem lies is when I finish reading a physical book.  The decision on which to pick up and read first is almost always a daunting process. I can never decide on which book because I own so many.  Quite a few of the books I pick up with the intention to read get placed on hold for more immediate books that I have come into contact with, either from the free BargainBook box at the library or from what I buy at the various bookstores I frequent.  There’s a used book store I like to visit that almost always contains a gem-of-a-book whenever I shop there, which I always feel pressured, self-imposed no doubt, to read once I bring it home.

Some books are more engaging than others, though.  I usually read multiple books at any given time to compensate for those that require more attention.  I like to read short stories, so I’ll read a story here and there (one over a cup of coffee in the morning, perhaps).  I have several collections of essays that I enjoy reading through.  I have been reading The Oxford Book of Essays off and on for well over a year now, but I don’t feel pressured to read it in its entirety.  They’re essays, after all.  Then, there’s the book I read just before I go to bed.  This one takes the longest to work through for some reason.  I have my books I simply want to read to savor and enjoy; my poetry books that I like to read when time permits for such leisurely reading; my books I need to read for work; my books to help advance myself professionally; my books for the personal research I’m doing.  Looking at it like this, I think I need to focus my reading habits a bit more.

But then, there are books like this one.  I am very excited to start reading this one book, the book I ordered from Amazon before I finished my reading resolution for the year.  Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands by Rizzoli exlibris publishing, 2013, finally arrived by post and what a beautiful book it is; so much so that I want to share some of its more enticing features with you:

The book cover is by Thomas Cole from The Voyage of Life: Childhood (1842) located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Eco book cover

The images throughout the book (shown below) are rendered in the most pristine quality, making their colors vibrant and an absolute pleasure to behold.

Eco page example

Here is another example of the beauty this book reveals.  This marvel of a work is from Gustave Dore The Celestial Rose (1867), out of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, canto XXXI.

Eco page example 2This book will most certainly be a real treat, and I will likely move it up my reading list to start it right away.

I love books like this one by Eco, but they don’t help me make headway with those other books I’ve been collecting over the past couple of months.  No, these books, like so many others before them, will be placed on hold, so that my curiosity about legendary lands, places I’d often read about as a boy, may be sated.  Books like these only further my dilemma, but it is a dilemma I can learn to deal with.  I may be slow and methodical in the way I read, what with all of the other obligations keeping me from working through my reading list; I may also find myself curious about newer books that are being published (or older ones that were once forgotten), but I love to savor a good book, regardless of what life throws my way.  That, and I love to be surrounded by books, knowing full well that there will never be a dull moment in the near future.  After all, there’s always a good book to be read.

Review of “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala [Audio]

WaveI don’t know what compelled me to download this book to read it.  I remember how shocking it was to learn about Sri Lanka and many of the other islands devastated by a tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake on 26 December, 2004.  I remember the shock and awe from watching  the news that Christmas holiday, as footage revealed beach-front homes being washed away in a matter of minutes.  One video that I remember was taken from the vantage point of a two-story building in the center of some town, where survivors of the rapidly advancing flood waters took cover in elevated places, watching and filming the street below as it channeled this massive and forceful current of muddy, oceanic water — cars and felled trees floating through the street with the slightest of resistance.  The vehement water took no notice to obstacles, destroying virtually everything in its path.  Those people caught in the aftermath, who weren’t drowned or killed by the suddenness of the tsunami, were displaced from their homes, traumatized by the experience of the Indian ocean assaulting the beachfront like an angry god, a conqueror, laying claim to the island for itself.

I think this is what intrigued me, lured me even, to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of those events.  I remember watching in disbelief as that force of nature devastated most of the coastal regions throughout that part of the Indian ocean and Indonesia.   Knowing this, and finding this book available at the library for download only set my curiosity in motion.  I had to read this book.  I wanted to know about this survivor, about what she endured, what she went through.  Reading the plot synopsis could have never prepared me for the vivid imagery of her experiences there in that beachfront hotel as the tsunami struck.  Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming account she tells of the ocean yanking her free of the jeep she rode to escape in with her family.  No — nothing could have warned me of the deep and awful pain of her loss, as she realizes that both of her parents, her two sons, and her husband — all of whom she was on vacation with for the holidays — would be lost to her forever.  This book, this memoir, has revealed something to me that no Gothic story could ever do:  ghosts do exist. They haunt through the memories of those who have suffered terrible and tragic loss from sudden and traumatic experiences.

I can understand why this heart-wrenching book was disliked by some readers, as this book is not for the faint of heart.  It is emotionally draining to think about her loss, and I feel this has a lot to do with the way the book has been seen by some readers.  To date, the social media website, Goodreads, reveals that this book was rated with 3-stars or less by 26 percent of readers within its community, from a pool totaling 4,917 people.  When singling out a few of those negative reviews, one reader saw it difficult to relate to the author, in saying that, “Wave is compelling, and extremely well written, but is just page after page of pain” (Greg).   Another reader confessed that “it’s hard to make a negative comment about this book without coming across as hard hearted…but I found it really hard to empathise with the author as she came across as cold, selfish and spoilt [sic]… I would hope that most people wouldn’t be as callous as she” (Avidreader).  Another commenter agreed with this reader, stating how, “I kept wondering throughout this admittedly well-written memoir how the thousands of others who lost families with less means made it through their grief…. I really liked and enjoyed the writing, but didn’t have much sympathy for the author because of this” (Lisa).  Some even go so far as to attribute Deraniyagala’s lack of empathy for those around her in the earlier parts of her memoir, when she was clearly in shock from her experiences, as a sign of her stature and wealthy status, what with her being a learned economics scholar from Cambridge and Oxford universities.  While I cannot attest to how this book will affect you, good reader, should you decide to pick it up and read it for yourself, I can say that the brutal honesty Deraniyagala writes in this book is not to appeal to you, as readers, in some way, but it is more for herself.   This memoir is about healing; it is about coming to terms with grief and living with those ghosts that haunt her.

Compound the loss of her entire family to that fateful Sunday morning with the traumatic experience of facing near death, herself, and you find this book is about expressing that which she cannot bring herself to express.  Throughout much of the memoir, she is reluctant to tell anyone of her experience, of her loss, for fear of letting too much reveal itself.  She doesn’t want to recall those painful memories, doesn’t want people to get too close to her, to pity her.  As Deraniyagala writes, “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate.”  And she is right.  How can anyone imagine such a surreal tragedy?  How could anyone possibly endure such  terrible loss and still remain a sane person?  How can we as readers relate to her experience and say we truly understand her situation?  Unless you have personally suffered too, there is no way to do this.  If you read this book, you are merely along for the ride.  This is her struggle with grief and the trauma of her survival when all others failed to do so; you might even add a dash of survivor’s guilt because of this, as a few points in the book tend to reveal.

The imagery she weaves all throughout the memoir is haunting; the memories of her boys, of her husband, resonate all throughout the book, intermingling with her attempts to reminisce the life she once had.  Yet, she can never return to those moments before the tsunami.  As one critic for the New Yorker wrote: “‘Wave’ is really two stories in one.  The second story is about remembering the life of a family when they were happy.  The first is about the stunned horror of a woman who lost, in one moment, her past, present, and future” (Cole).  We get both experiences running parallel throughout the story as Deraniyagala asks herself questions like “Was I their mother?”  She tells us about other moments — intensely, emotionally rich moments, where she reveals insights into her previous life and what it was like to return to it:

I’ve pushed away thoughts of my children’s everyday hurts and fears, suggestions of their frailty and tenderness.  It’s easier to remember my boys with humor or to recall their cheek.  But now as I dare to peer more closely at them, they emerge more whole.

For years I’ve told myself it’s pointless to cherish my children’s personalities and their passions, for they are now dead.  But here in our home I am surrounded by proof of it all.  I unlock my mind a little and allow myself to know the wonder of them.

Deraniyagala repeatedly confides in her memorial to her family such revealing moments, where she seeks to come to terms with herself and the past she once had with her family.  The details she includes, ranging from the mud still on the doormat that would have been from her husband’s boots to the sounds of distant laughter resonating throughout a room, sounds from a time before the wave changed everything, seems to suggest what Cathy Caruth reveal as the enigmatic and confounding nature of trauma, in that we have not only confronted death, but we “hav[e] survived, precisely, without knowing it” (original emphasis, 64). Flashbacks from moments in the past return to haunt a survivor, often repeatedly, making it incomprehensible, she argues, to understand one’s own survival.  Linking this to Freud’s theory on the life and death drive, Caruth tells us that it is not the incomprehensibility of survival that creates an imposition for death, but a traumatic ‘awakening’ to life (64).  As a survivor, realizing one’s near-death experiences often leaves a person with little to no preparations for such moments, and the impact of this, the “failing to return to the moment of a [person’s] act of living” changes the future for that individual.  For Deraniyagala, her grief for the loss of family is what keeps her from moving on; it is the source of her personal trauma.  Her memories frequently haunt her, and the fact that she wrote this book nearly 9 years after-the-fact is a sign that she is still coming to terms with her loss but is nevertheless learning to live again.

There are moments in her writing where Deraniyagala tells us about shying away from or  utterly avoiding people who inquire about her family.  Only her closest friends know about her situation, and through them, she sees her boys grow older, the daughters of her London friends, an example of this.  She dreads their birthdays because the pain of knowing they’re no longer alive is too tormenting, always referring to each in the tense “would be.”  Whenever she is placed on the spot and someone asks about her family or her parents, she attempts to get out of answering their questions, a point she motions in the book as having caused a “pickle” when seeing the person a second time around.  “How are your parents?”  She would be asked, to which her response was “they’re fine,” always afraid to go into anymore detail than this.  But, this changes by the end of the book.  She confesses that it may have been the mojitos that loosened her up to reveal what she does, but she confides in a stranger, an inquisitive old Jewish man, asking about her family life, and this moment, much like the writing of this very book, is what reveals to us that she has found peace within herself and can move on with her life.  She tells us that it is becoming easier for her to live with the memories of her two boys and her husband, and that there is life beyond suffering.  One only has to endure to learn it.

I will be thinking about this woman’s story for a long time to come.  The use of the personal pronoun I not only makes it Deraniyagala’s story, but it makes it my own, and I cannot help but mourn the loss of her family with her, while celebrating the time I have now with my own.

Works Cited

Avidreader. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Cole, Teju. “A Better Quality of Agony.”  The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. New York: A.A Knopf, division of Random House, Inc., 2013. Digital Media Library. Audiobook. 17 Mar. 2014.

Lisa. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.