Little Known Works of Famous Authors


John R. Taylor

Dr. McKinney

English  251


Barn Burning

A Son's Shame

            Anyone who had the fortune, or misfortune, I can't say which, of growing up in the deep south of a decade or so ago, has had a chance to feel, taste, smell, and sense that slower, quieter, and less pressured environment.  They would know what it was like to back up to a fireplace and burn their butt while their front froze.  The damp, almost wet feel of cold sheets would be a part of their memories of the humid winter nights, as would the heavy, almost suffocating  weight of countless quilts bearing down on them.  The sweet smell of honeysuckle in the spring like the dusty odor of dried tobacco in the autumn would be but a thought away.  Even the most blistering hot, sticky, and stifling summer day would be recalled with a bit of joy.

            William Faulkner has gained much fame for his ability to give those who have never experienced that time and place a feel of it.  In "Barn Burning" (1798-1812), the reader can not help but get a taste of the culture and flavor of  Mississippi around the turn of the century.    The life of a sharecropper, with its heartaches and trials, comes to life in this work.  But it is not that southern ambiance which is the point.  The theme of the story transcends all societies, cultures and times.  It would have equal meaning to a  poor family in New York who's drunken, abusive, and out of work father breaks the heart of a son who wishes so very hard that he could love and respect him,  as it would to a wealthy one in Hong Kong who's patriarch has accumulated massive riches by the sweat and toil of small children working in his shirt factory, and his son feel the same way as the New York son.  The grievous dilemma which young Colonel Sartoris Snopes faces is one that might well have grieved one of the first humans, and has been a blight on the planet every since.  Faulkner is showing us what a horror it is to try to love and respect a father that is dishonorable, base, and villainous.

            The world has long been filled with fathers that were unloving, mean, alcoholic, or  abusive.   The sons of those fathers tried hard to believe that they were loved and that their father's were good men.  Colonel Sartoris Snopes has that unreasonable longing, or at lest the hope that Abner Snopes would change.  He hopes for that change, and at the same time makes allowances for his father; when awed by the grandeur of the landlord's house he thinks to himself,  "Maybe he will feel it too.  Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe he couldn't help but be"(1803).  We all want to be loyal to our parents, if for no other reason than we are a part of them.  If they are evil and of little worth, how can we, being a part of them, be any better?  The young Snopes' conscience has not yet callused enough to let dishonesty not prick his soul a little, maybe much more than a little.   When he thinks he is going to have to lie for his father he feels "...frantic grief and despair..." (1799).  He thinks, "He aims for me to lie...And I will have to do hit."(1799).  Notwithstanding his frantic grief and despair, the boy is willing to lie for his father.  His father's enemy is his enemy.  Although he is torn early on between loyalty to his blood kin, and his desire to do good, at first he sticks by his father, all the while yearning that he will change.  As they are run out of yet another town he hopes, "Maybe he's done satisfied now, now that he has..."(1801)  He has the hope, but he really doesn't believe it will happen. 

            In the same way abused little children say that their parents love them  and try to believe it, despite cigarette burns and other heinous scares on their bodies, the young Snopes tries to come to the aid of his worthless parent.  After having blatantly soiled his landlord's expensive rug, and then with utter disregard for the property of others, ruining that rug by having his daughter's negligently and incompetently clean it, the son still takes up for his Pap, "You done the best you could! ... If he wanted hit done different why didn't he wait and tell you how?"(1806-7).  He tries to support the no-account Abner Snopes, although he truly knows that the man has never done his best at anything.  The head of the Snopes clan is both negligent an incompetent, but these faults the son is willing enough to over look.  It is the meanness, the evil, the barn burning, that he ultimately can no longer be a part of. 

            At the climax of the story, the barn burner knows that he has torn his boy's spirit too far.  Before he leaves to do his terrible deed he tells his daughter, "Hold him ... If he gets loose don't you know what he is going to do?  He will go up yonder," to warn the soon to be victims(1810).   At that point the reader gets a hint that Sarty is not the only one that has been torn when his aunt says, "Let him go! If he don't go, before God, I am going up there myself!"(1810). 

            In the end, even though the son does go up yonder and warn the folks at the big house that his father is going to burn down their barn, and has to run away because of it, he still has a loyalty, maybe love for his Pap.  He still tries to build the low man up.  "He was brave!  He was!  He was in the war!  He was in Colonel Sartoris' cav'ry!"(1811-12).  This he says not knowing that Abner Snopes went to war to gain booty from which ever side it came the easiest, not knowing this but surly suspecting it.

            In the real world,  thirty  years ago, a five year old boy stood staring down at the dime which lay in his open hand.  He wanted very much to answer his father, but he could not decide how the dime had came to belong to him.  After what to the boy seemed like hours, although it was probably no more than a moment two, the father, in his deep, stern, and always controlled voice said, "Son if the dime is yours put it in your pocket and let's go.  If it's not yours then put it back where you got it from."  With great relief the little boy ran back to the row of phone-booths and placed the dime carefully back into the coin return.  He then ran back to his fathers side.  Had anyone else question him about the dime he would have said that the rightful owner had forgotten it and sense it would be impossible to return it to him he might as well keep it.  That's what his mother had said.  But his father's standards were higher than that.  So high, some people thought he was silly.  Silly he may have been, but in those thirty years the boy has grown to be a man, and of the weaknesses and temptations he has had, honesty has not been one of them.  That integrity has given him a sense of self worth that has made his life full.  The father, long ago dead, never achieved greatness in the eyes of the world, yet the son saw a greatness that was unparalleled.  His father commanded the highest respect and honor.

            Faulkner has created a small poor man.  He is not small because he is poor.  He may be poor because he is small, maybe not.  What is for certain is that because of his lack of morel character he has disadvantaged his son much more than any economic oppression could have done.  As the real father gave to his real son the values that can left anyone out of even the deepest troughs of despair, the fictional father is trying  to curse his son with the bitterness, jealousy, and wickedness that can dam even the strongest to those troughs of despair. 

            William Faulkner has shown us how we are tied, more than we would sometimes like to think, to our blood kin.  If we are raised in a family with honesty like that of returning the dime to the phone booth we may still not be honest, but would it not be easier to be?  Sarty may grow up to be a good man, but doesn't he have a harder row to hoe?




John  R. Taylor

  **** Works Cited ****


Faulkner, William.  "Barn Burning".  The Norton Anthology of World

            Masterpieces.  Vol. 2 6th edition.  Ed. Maynard Mack

            New York; Norton, 1992.  1798-812.

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