A Critical Approach To "Barn Burning" (by William Faulkner)
"Barn Burning" is a sad story because it very clearly shows the
classical struggle between the "privileged" and the "underprivileged" classes.
Time after time emotions of despair surface from both the protagonist and the
antagonist involved in the story.
This story outlines two distinct protagonists and two distinct
antagonists. The first two are Colonel Sartoris Snopes ("Sarty") and his father
Abner Snopes ("Ab"). Sarty is the protagonist surrounded by his father
antagonism whereas Ab is the protagonist antagonized by the social structure and
the struggle that is imposed on him and his family.
The economic status of the main characters is poor, without hope of
improving their condition, and at the mercy of a quasi-feudal system in North
America during the late 1800's. Being a sharecropper, Ab and his family had to
share half or two-thirds of the harvest with the landowner and out of their
share pay for the necessities of life. As a result of this status, Ab and his
family know from the start what the future will hold -- hard work for their
landlord and mere survival for them.
No hope for advancement prevails throughout the story. Sarty, his
brother and the twin sisters have no access to education, as they must spend
their time working in the fields or at home performing familial duties.
Nutrition is lacking "He could smell the coffee from the room where they would
presently eat the cold food remaining from the mid-afternoon meal" (PARA. 55).
As a consequence, poor health combined with inadequate opportunity results in
low morale. A morale which the writer is identifying with the middle class of
his times "that same quality which in later years would cause his descendants to
over-run the engine before putting a motor car into motion" (PARA. 20)
The Snope family manages to survive and find work. However, the work
offers little other than a chance for survival "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" (PARA 40). Like nomads they were forced to move constantly. Due to
seasons and crop rotation, in order to secure work they had to reserve land with
Ab's emotional instability is a predominant factor contributing to his
erratic behavior throughout the story. The family has moved a dozen times from
farm to farm, and at times forced to forfeit their agreement with the landlord
due to Ab's unacceptable behavior. A behavior which throughout the story is
transformed into a rebellion, by Ab smearing the landowner's carpet with horse
manure and then suing him for charging him too much for the damage. These acts
symbolize frustration with the system and a radical approach to rebel against it.
Knowing that punishment could not be avoided when committing such acts, Ab's
actions take on a more dramatic meaning as if he is trying to convey a message.
He is aware of the economic injustice and he must respond even at the risk of
him and his family being prosecuted or ostracized.
Ab's constant rebellion is displayed by a rough, sour character and
exemplified when he burns his landlord's barn down. He feels despair and loss,
and inflicts damage to whomever he happens to be working for.
Although the story centers on the feelings and thoughts of Ab's youngest
son Sarty, the economic implications of his entire family play a vital role in
justifying (not condoning) his father's behavior, which is the pivotal reason
for Sarty's controversial feelings on which the whole story is based.
Sarty's main dilemma is his loyalty to his family which collides with
his disappointment and suppressed dislike of his own father. He tends to hide
his feelings by denying the facts, "our Enemy he though in that despair; ourn!
mine and hisn both! He's my Father!" (PARA. 1) and "The boy said nothing. Enemy!
Enemy! he thought; for a moment he could not even see, could not see that the
Justice's face was kindly." (PARA. 10).
The story's emotional turns are clearly defined by Sarty's thoughts and
Ab's actions. Sarty's dilemma and Ab's frustrations continually grab the reader,
serving up a series of emotionally laden dilemmas: Given the circumstances of
the story, is Ab's barn burning justified? Should Sarty tell the landlord that
Ab was responsible for burning down the barn? Is the outdated sociological "
Blaming the Victim" theory valid? Is the lose-win arrangement between
sharecropper and landowner a morally acceptable one?
Burning a barn or any act of economic despair in the form of vandalism
is definitely not condoned. However the strange thing is the all of these
questions need not to be asked, if economic injustice was not prevalent