Human life is full of conflicts, which often occur on the grounds of discrepancy between one’s own moral feelings and the obligations imposed on the individual by his or her social environment. In William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning”, such conflict unfolds in the heart of the main character, Colonel Sartoris Snopes (or Sarty, for short).
Witnessing his father’s unsocial behavior, Sarty initially demonstrates loyalty to his kin and does not reveal the crimes his father has committed. However, with the course of time the boy changes his mind and acts according to his own moral standards. Such shift in attitudes takes place as a result of Sarty’s maturation and developing an ability to make independent choices and take weighted decisions.
As seen initially, Sarty is a child who is fully subordinate to the requirements of loyalty to family imposed on him by his setting on the one hand, and by his father’s authority on the other hand. Faulkner’s choice of the archetypal setting of a wagon mowing constantly from one place to another renders the message of the instability and vacillations that Sarty is experiencing in the formation of his morals.
In the short ten years of his life, Sarty has experienced dozens of resettlements to new places, all of them being identically “paintless” and deindividualized (Faulkner 421). In an endless procession of days filled with constant working and “the terror and grief” from never achieving the desired peace and comfort, Sarty acquires the feeling of “being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses” (Faulkner 425).
On the one hand, he intuitively feels that rebellion against the social norms is not always the right way to achieve normal life. However, on the other hand, his young mind and body are led through the maze of resettlements by his father’s will and authority which he does not dare to oppose, before a certain moment.
The authoritative character of Sarty’s father, Abner Snopes, is one of the key formative factors that dictate Sarty’s behavior. Snopes executes his iron will on his family with a stiffness and rigidness that Faulkner constantly emphasizes.
The camp fires Snopes makes are always “niggard” and “shrewd”, and the way he speaks to his family is nothing more than in a “harsh, cold voice” (Faulkner 420, 419). Such emotional detachment from his family reflects Snopes’ physical estrangement from society.
By opposing himself to the rest of the law-abiding citizens, Snopes becomes an archetypal character in Faulkner’s short story, a man who has withdrawn into a shell of his pride and prejudice and does not want to recognize the generally accepted norms of behavior. The only way Snopes can survive in the world hostile to his uncooperativeness is through ensuring that he is supported by his family.
That is why he constantly controls his son’s moral decisions by imposing a belief on Sarty that the only way to succeed is through family ties: “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (Faulkner 420). In this belief does Sarty live until he realizes that it is not the ultimate truth.
The first sign of change in Sarty’s unflagging support of his father occurs when he is placed in a new setting, the splendid de Spain estate.
In order to demonstrate all the ridiculousness of Snopes’ rigid behavior, Faulkner provides a vivid image of his walking to the mansion as perceived through Sarty’s eyes, “… 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” (422).
This description is a symbolic illustration of all Snopes’ mistakes: by acting too narrow-mindedly and stubbornly he causes unpleasant things happening to himself and his family. Sarty gradually starts to realize that by avoiding those mistakes Snopes could have saved much trouble to their family and achieved the “peace”, “joy”, and “dignity” that Sarty intuitively dreams of (Faulkner 421).
Sarty’s dynamic character and the potential to change his behavior in compliance with his inner moral feeling is emphasized by Faulkner throughout the short story by mentioning the possible ideas Sarty would have were he older. At first viewing his father’s enemies as those of his own, Sarty is bound to go through “the terrible handicap of being young, the light weight of his few years” that do not allow him act according to his own choice (Faulkner 421).
But however strong Sarty was limited by “the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself”, there comes a crucial point at which he chooses to act his own way (Faulkner 427). By disobeying his father and running away, Sarty demonstrates the change in himself towards maturation and ability to take independent decisions.
In the final scene of the short story, Sarty is shown as a strong personality who answers not the narrow-minded ideals of kinship but his own moral feelings. The stiffness of his father’s ideas on life are contrasted to the “constant […] and ceaseless” movement of life around (Faulkner 429). Sarty chooses to follow the latter call and follow the road ahead of him without looking back at his past.
In “Barn Burning”, William Faulkner creates a powerful image of transition from childlike obedience to independent thinking by means of archetypal setting and characterization. The change in the setting prompts the change in the main character’s ideas and sets Sarty free of his father’s authoritarian control. By employing expressive literary means, Faulkner succeeds in rendering the idea of maturation and liberation from stagnant prejudices.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2009. 418–29.