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Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What clues in "Barn Burning" show Major de Spain's servant has a higher status than Abner Snopes?

When Abner Snopes first visits Major de Spain's elegant house, the servant, who answers the door, has the authority to prevent his entrance to the house. His command, "Wipe yo foots, white man, fo you come in here," show no subservience to Abner and in fact could be interpreted as condescension. It seems clear the servant does not consider himself inferior to Abner in social status. The servant's clothes, including a fine linen jacket, show he is better off economically, as well, or at least better cared for by his employer. Abner wears a worn-out coat "which had once been black" that is too large for him, a hand-me-down from some other man. In addition the servant's job seems if not necessarily easier, then more stable and certainly more comfortable than Abner's.

What does the description of the store in the first paragraph of "Barn Burning" reveal about Sarty Snopes?

Faulkner writes the store that serves as a courtroom "smelled of cheese" and "hermetic meat." The smell of cheese is most likely real, but the meat is sealed in tin cans on the shelves. It is impossible for Sarty Snopes to smell the meat, yet he imagines he does. The description shows the small, wiry, and probably underfed Sarty is hungry as a result of his family's poverty. Furthermore, Sarty reads with his stomach, "not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind." From this description readers can assume Sarty is illiterate. Sarty also notices "the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief." His internal worries about Abner Snopes's violent ways carry over into his external environment and how he perceives the world.

What do Mr. Harris's actions toward Abner and Sarty Snopes in "Barn Burning" show about his own character?

At the first trial Mr. Harris explains he tried to resolve the problem of Abner Snopes's runaway hog several times: by informing Abner of the problem, keeping the hog in his own pen until Abner could fetch it, and supplying wire for Abner to fix the pen. These actions show Mr. Harris as tolerant, patient, and helpful. However, tolerance, help, and patience get no results with Abner, so Mr. Harris tries punishment instead. The punishment is hard, but not extreme, and certainly not enough to justify Abner's burning down his barn. In the courtroom Mr. Harris calls for Sarty Snopes to testify against his father: "Get that boy up here. He knows." But on seeing Sarty's fear and despair, Mr. Harris can't go through with making him testify. Here he shows once again an understanding of Abner Snopes, and even more he shows compassion for a young boy whose life is already miserable; he does not want to make Sarty's life even worse even though he will leave the courtroom with no restitution for his loss. Mr. Harris realizes the type of person Abner is and is probably wise enough to leave well enough alone.

What is the significance of Sarty's given name, Colonel Sartoris Snopes, in "Barn Burning," and how does it show situational irony?

Sarty Snopes is named after a famed (fictional) officer from the Civil War, a man he believes Abner Snopes served under in the cavalry. During the first trial the justice says, "I reckon anybody named for Colonel Sartoris in this country can't help but tell the truth," showing the colonel was regarded as a man with an upstanding character. The statement reveals situational irony, or a discrepancy between expectation and reality, because despite the weightiness of his name, Sarty knows he must lie to save his father. However, Sarty wants to live up to his namesake and tell the truth. Colonel Sartoris's reputation as a brave war hero also contrasts with Sarty's meekness during most of the story; he whispers and cowers before his father and does not show the same bravery as his namesake is said to have shown. The final aspect of situational irony is that the story behind Sarty's name is a lie. His father never served under the colonel but was instead a horse thief out to line his own pockets. However, in a further twist of the same situational irony, Sarty does in fact live up to the colonel's bravery as he acts in accordance with own moral code against his father who, had he lived, might have inflicted serious harm on his son. And finally, at the age of 10, he summons the courage to leave home and fend for himself.

In "Barn Burning" what word choices reveal Abner Snopes's character?

Several words are used frequently to describe Abner Snopes: Stiff shows Abner is set in his ways and not interested in changing. He is also described as deliberately stomping on his injured foot, showing his anger and disdain. Abner's voice and eyes are both described as "cold," showing Abner operates in a deliberate, emotionless manner, rather than from the heat of passion. The words also reveal his manner toward his family. Abner is "unhurried" and moves slowly throughout the story. Even when he drops the ruined rug on Major de Spain's porch, he leaves the scene slowly. This action again shows his deliberateness; he acts as he does by choice and is not afraid to face the consequences. In fact it often seems as if he wants to get caught, which perhaps he does. Abner provokes his enemies and perceived enemies to escalate their anger so he can feel justified in his vindictive arson.

How are the two justices of the peace in "Barn Burning" both just and unjust?

The first justice of the peace shows he is just when he insists on proof Abner Snopes burned down Mr. Harris's barn. He will not simply take Mr. Harris's word for it, saying: "But that's not proof. Don't you see that's not proof?" Nevertheless, the justice is also unjust toward Abner. Even though he does not find Abner guilty, he more than suggests the Snopeses leave town: "Leave this country and don't come back to it." Although the justice says this is "advice," it is obvious Abner has no choice when the judge says "Take your wagon and get out of this country before dark." The second justice of the peace makes factual statements and tries to hear Abner's side of the story. He also gives Abner the opportunity to defend himself, though Abner offers little commentary. Although the justice rules against Abner, he tries to be fair in assigning a punishment that is financially reasonable for both Abner and Major de Spain. These actions are all just, but the punishment itself may be unjust for Major de Spain, since the cost of the rug will never be recovered. Regardless, neither can do anything about the inherent social system that leaves Abner and his family perpetually dependent upon wealthy landowners.

What is the significance of the Snopes family's loaded wagon after the first trial in "Barn Burning"?

Lennie Snopes, the aunt, and the two sisters are already waiting in the loaded wagon at the end of the trial. They already know what the outcome of the trial will be, and they will need to move to their next home, as "decreed" by Abner Snopes in his unilateral decision making. The women are in their best clothes; they are trying to maintain their dignity and present themselves as respectable to the world, even though most of the people around them probably view them with little more than scorn. The wagon is filled with the Snopes' pathetic possessions, including "the battered stove, the broken beds and chairs," and Lennie's broken clock. Everything the Snopes family owns is broken in some way, which highlights their poverty. It also reflects the characters of the family members; each one is broken and battered in their own way by the unfortunate life they lead.

In "Barn Burning" why does Sarty Snopes not allow his mother to clean the blood from his face when he is attacked after the first trial?

At 10 years old Sarty Snopes is coming to the age when he begins to assert his independence. In part he doesn't want Lennie Snopes treating him like a young child anymore. His pride is probably hurt as well as his face, though he covers his feelings with false bravery: "Hit don't hurt. Lemme be." Sarty may also prefer to leave the blood on his face as evidence of his loyalty to Abner. He was attacked by the boy because of Abner's actions, and he tried to fight back to defend Abner's honor. To Sarty the blood is a badge of honor and proof he is becoming a man as brave as Abner.

What does fire symbolize to Abner Snopes in "Barn Burning"?

Fire is an important symbol in the story. The narrator reveals fire has layers of meaning to Abner Snopes during the scene in which the family camps in the woods. Abner builds a small, contained fire, which was his "habit and custom always, even in freezing weather." The narrator suggests Abner's restrained use of fire here springs from the time he spent during the Civil War, hiding from both sides with his stolen horses. The narrator also cites Abner's regard for fire as "the one weapon for the preservation of integrity" and how "the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring" within Abner. He respects the power of fire, and because of its power, it is to be "used with discretion." The reader can go a step further and interpret that to Abner, fire symbolizes control. Abner feels he has little power over his social or economic conditions (even though the choices he makes contribute heavily to his miserable life, rather than improve it). Fire is a way he can gain back some control by using it to punish those in a better position than himself. Fire is the one power within his domination. He uses it shrewdly to keep his family alive, although at a subsistence level both literally and symbolically as evidenced in the meager campfire, but also to wreak havoc and seek justice against others.

What examples from "Barn Burning" show how Abner Snopes treats or views his family as animals?

On the night the family camps in the woods Abner Snopes beats Sarty for his near-betrayal in court that day. The narrator describes the blows as "hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules." Abner is not acting from passionate emotions—there is no heat to his blows—he is acting from a position of power and authority. His desire is to make Sarty obey, in the same way he makes the mules obey by beating them with a stick. He is training Sarty not to resist his authority. The next day when the family arrives at their new home, one sister declares the run-down shack probably isn't fit even for hogs to live in. Abner, however, thinks it is perfectly suitable: "Nevertheless, fit it will and you'll hog it and like it." He directly compares the girl to a hog, with the implication he cares for her comfort no more than he cares for the comfort of a farm animal.

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