Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology,
Third Edition. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.
Summary of Work
Colonel Sartoris Snopes, son of Mr. Abner Snopes, is sitting in a courtroom. His father has been accused of burning Mr. Harris’ barn, and is standing trial for it. Mr. Harris claims that Mr. Snopes had a hog that was regularly getting out and so he told him that the next time the hog got out, he was keeping it. He gave Mr. Snopes some wire to patch up the pen so the hog wouldn’t get out. But Mr. Snopes didn’t fix the fence, the hog got out again, and Mr. Harris kept it and said it would be a one dollar fee to get it back. And Mr. Snopes sent a black man to tell him that hay and wood could burn, and that night his barn caught fire. His animals got out, but he lost the barn and the crop within it. Mr. Harris has no solid proof, and when the Justice of the Peace asks for Colonel Sartoris to testify, Mr. Harris doesn’t want him to. The Justice of the Peace didn’t find Mr. Snopes guilty for lack of evidence, but tells him and his family to get out of town.
They do, and that night his father smacks him and tells him that he knew if he had testified he would have told the truth, and he needs to stick to blood because that’s the most important, not the truth. The next day they are out and into a new place. The family sets up in the hovel, and Mr. Snopes goes to meet his new employer. But his new employer is not home. Instead of wiping his feet and coming in and waiting, he pushes past the black manservant and muddies an expensive French rug on the floor. Mrs. de Spain is very upset, and sends the rug out to them to tell them to clean it. He gets the women to clean it with cheap lye and water, and he drags the rug back to them in the evening; it is ruined. When Major de Spain gets home, he tells them that they have ruined a hundred dollar rug and that they will have to take 20 bushels of corn out of their crop to give to him in repayment. Mr. Snopes is upset, and goes that next day to the Justice of the Peace in town to sue his employer. The Justice is astonished and yet lowers the payment amount to ten bushels of corn. Mr. Snopes stays in town and they eat dinner there, and he says he won’t be paying even ten bushels. Colonel Sartoris knows that his father, who has burned things all his life, even when he was in the army, will probably be burning again.
That night his father gets a fire going and asks for his son to get the oil. Colonel Sartoris does, but he also doesn’t want his father to burn the barn. His father tells his mother to hold on to Colonel Sartoris, because he knows that he will run to tell someone. His father leaves, and Colonel Sartoris immediately starts to struggle against his mother’s grip. He breaks free and leaves, managing to dodge everyone in the house. He runs to the de Spain household and yells barn! And Major de Spain hurries to the barn, even as they can see it’s already too late; the barn is on fire. And Colonel Sartoris keeps running into the woods. He sits and falls asleep in his exhaustion. In the morning he decides to keep walking, leaving his family behind.
Brief Note on Themes
Like much of William Faulkner’s work, Barn Burning explores the atmosphere and living conditions of the Post-Civil War South. What happens to the poor soldiers who returned with little or nothing from the war? Fire is a cleansing power but also a mode of revenge for Mr. Snopes as he doesn’t want to be held accountable for any of his actions and at the same time doesn’t care that he’s living in squalor and does not seek to better his position. In his mind, he holds a position that should always be given a free pass; a position of power, and maybe perhaps because he fought in the war; it’s as if someone owes him. Fire becomes an equalizing force to show that everything can be destroyed in an instant and they, without their property, are no better than him.
The justice system is explored here. In the case, even though they know he burned the barn, he is set free for lack of evidence. Given the nature of things, even asking for the black man to testify probably wouldn’t have been enough given that black people’s testimony was little regarded at the time. And yet, if it had been a black person who burned the barn, he would have been lynched or put in jail. It highlights the privilege that poor whites have even in the law.
Youth and innocence and conscience are explored. Is the son always destined to turn out like the father, or can he be more and better than his father? Is blood more important than justice? And what is the cost of justice or truth?
And, do we owe people anything for their military service? Should we give people a pass for everything else they do because they served or make sure they’re always employed or have money or goods? In the Reconstruction years, there is a period of decline and insecurity for white people in power, and this insecurity also exists in all of white society. But as sharecropping is now the order of the day, it does set up a new system in the South, one that many poor whites utilized. The system itself was often pitted against blacks, but kept everyone within the sharecropping system poor except the landowners. So how do you deal with losing more of your crop and profit to your employer than you originally bargained?