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Barn Burning | Context

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William Faulkner's writing is steeped in the legacy of the Old South—its economy, politics, social structure, and values. The people and landscape of Mississippi, where Faulkner was born and lived most of his life, provided much of his subject matter.

The Civil War and Reconstruction

The Civil War (1861–65), which ended approximately 30 years before the time in which "Barn Burning" is set, destroyed much of the property and economy of the South. Troops from both sides had appropriated crops, livestock, and personal property, and bloody battles scarred the land. The following era of Reconstruction, in which the South struggled to rebuild and regain prosperity, was also tumultuous. Freed slaves searched for work, competing against poor whites and former soldiers. At the same time, former slave owners, unprepared for the post-war economic reality, struggled to replace their lost supply of free labor on farms and plantations. Blacks and poor Southern whites were often treated brutally by the upper class and could not escape the cycle of poverty created by sharecropping. In addition the 15th Amendment of 1870 granted blacks the right to vote, a freedom that unsettled many whites and increased racial tension. Yet despite the Constitution, Southern blacks and poor whites were often disenfranchised by legal or illegal means. Industrialization brought job opportunities but also depressed agricultural life, creating tension between country people and townsfolk.

Economy

Plantations and smaller farms had been the norm for more than a century, with an entrenched Southern "aristocracy" at the top of the social hierarchy. After the Civil War an underclass of former slaves and poor white workers kept this agrarian economy afloat; few opportunities existed for people to change their circumstances or build better lives. Poor families like the Snopes family in "Barn Burning" often moved from place to place to find work as tenant farmers, barely eking out a living. However, during the last quarter of the 19th century, the economy was shifting away from agriculture toward industrialization, and conditions at the time "Barn Burning" takes place were not good for farmers.

Patriarchal Society

The Old South was deeply entrenched in conservative values in which patriarchal systems were the norm. Family clans often had one strong, single, male leader and other males in supporting positions. In smaller nuclear families, the father was the authority figure and expected unquestioned obedience. While other Faulkner works explore the role of the female character in an agrarian society with great sensitivity, "Barn Burning" emphasizes the male's role in making unilateral decisions for the family—in this case through the family's patriarch, Abner Snopes.

Racism and Classism

Racism and discrimination are a continuing legacy of the Old South. Entrenched racism comes into play in "Barn Burning" in Abner's treatment of Major de Spain's servant and in his racial epithets. The role of the tenant farmer was looked down upon much like that of an indentured servant. However, as a tenant farmer, Abner and the Snopes family have more complicated racial relations than the de Spain's do. For the Snopes family, blacks represent economic competition, people who will work often for much less than poor white farmers. For this reason Abner feels a deep enmity toward blacks, even if they hold a higher social standing than he (as the de Spains' servant arguably does). However, in a broader sense, Abner's bitterness and scorn are motivated more by class inequity. He realizes, even if only subconsciously, that the culprits in this classist system are the wealthy landowners who control the land, the jobs, and the money.

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