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Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In "Barn Burning" what is the significance of the passage in which Sarty Snopes suffers from "the terrible handicap of being young"?

Sarty Snopes is at an age when he is old enough to have some understanding of adult actions and behaviors but not quite old enough to take on those actions and behaviors himself. The narrator describes this phenomenon as "the light weight of his few years," and says this weight is just enough to keep Sarty from "soaring free of the world as it seemed to be ordered." To Sarty this burden makes him feel as though his life must end in doom and thus does not bother to ask his father where they are going. What does it matter where they are going, when he is bound to live and die in misery? The narrator goes on to say that Sarty's years are "not heavy enough to keep him footed solid" in the world. He does not have enough life experience to try to change the course of his future by putting his foot down against Abner. At this point in the story he feels he has no choice but to follow Abner Snopes's lead. He is still a boy, rather than a man.

In "Barn Burning" why does Sarty Snopes's first view of Major de Spain's house affect him so strongly?

Until this point in the story, Sarty Snopes has lived only in desperately poor regions. He has never seen a house so grand, and he feels instinctually that the residents of such a place cannot be touched by his father's violence. "People whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity are beyond his touch," Sarty naively thinks. He imagines such a place might finally subdue Abner Snopes and is even hopeful his father might change his ways: "Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe he couldn't help but be." These thoughts show Sarty as unaware and hopeful, living in denial about his father's character that will never change. Sarty's description of the house as "big as a courthouse" is significant, too. A courthouse is a symbol of justice and reflects Sarty's hope that justice finally will be done for himself. It also delineates Sarty's experience; the comparison of the house to a courthouse indicates that Sarty has more experience in legal matters than he does in large houses. In any case he is living a miserable life, and if the residents of this house can somehow tame his father, then perhaps Sarty can have the calm, peaceful life of his dreams.

In "Barn Burning" what do the sleeping arrangements in the Snopes household suggest about the family?

There are two beds in the home. As one might expect, Abner and Lennie Snopes share one of the beds. The brother sleeps in the other bed, while the aunt, sisters, and Sarty sleep on pallets on the floor. This arrangement suggests the "men of the household" are considered more important than the women and children, since Abner and the brother have first claim. When the family goes to bed, they are "scattered without order or claim up and down the two rooms." There has been no thought or planning as to who should sleep where. The sense of chaos mimics the arc of the Snopes' lives as a whole. The family lives in constant disorder, moving from place to place with no claim to any one spot. There is no order, logic, or security to their lives.

How do descriptions of Abner Snopes's injured foot help reveal his character in "Barn Burning"?

Abner Snopes's injured foot symbolizes aspects of his character. The narrator says Abner's foot moves with a "wooden and clocklike deliberation," a description that mirrors Abner's internal state. He is stiff and wooden; both terms connote a lack of emotion or narrow emotional range. Moreover, Abner is deliberate, carefully and purposefully choosing his actions for maximum effect. The foot is also called "enormous," possessing an "outrageous overstatement of the weight it carried." This description is not literal; rather it indicates Abner walks in such a way to make it impossible to ignore him. He is larger than life, and he will be seen and accounted for, especially by people who would rather not acknowledge his existence—those who are "above" him in the society. His "stiff" foot also reflects Abner's unchanging character.

What is the significance of not identifying some members of the Snopes family by name in "Barn Burning"?

The only characters clearly named in the Snopes family are Abner, Sarty, and Lennie Snopes. These characters stand out as individuals more than the other characters, almost as if they have "earned" their names. Abner Snopes and Sarty Snopes are fully developed characters. Although Lennie gets less attention, it is clear she has emotional depth when she objects to Abner's brutish behavior on several occasions. The aunt, who is called Lizzie, has a smaller role, but she is the character that moves Sarty to action. The other family members are flat and static, and therefore warrant less attention. Their individuality does not exist, and they do not merit names. The unnamed older brother is nearly a carbon copy of Abner, doing whatever his father tells him, even contributing willingly to Abner's destructiveness. One sister is called "Net," once in the story, but it seems more like a nickname. The women are fairly unimportant to Abner; he views them more like property than as individuals. Like the brother, their namelessness emphasizes their flatness and lack of character.

What is the meaning of the description of Sarty Snopes as "being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses" before the second trial in "Barn Burning"?

In this paragraph Sarty Snopes is hoping life will change and Abner Snopes will comply with his punishment. "Maybe this is the end of it," he thinks, meaning his father's barn burning and the family's moving from place to place. To him 20 bushels of corn would be a "cheap price" for his father to pay to create a new, better life. Sarty's feeling of being pulled in two directions reflects his troubled state of mind. He wants to remain loyal to his father and the family—blood first—but he also longs for a stable life, for peace and calm. Sarty also abhors his father's actions and wants to do what he believes is morally right. The conflict between family loyalty and the choices he has to face make the situation even more difficult for him to bear.

After the second trial in "Barn Burning" what clues suggest Abner Snopes intends to burn down Major de Spain's barn?

After the trial Sarty Snopes assumes he, his brother, and his father will go home to work the fields, "since they were late, far behind all other farmers." Instead, Abner Snopes keeps the boys in town and seems to be killing time. They eat lunch slowly, then visit a horse lot to watch the trading. Sarty notices uneasily "still they did not go home." The one useful errand Abner takes care of is fixing the wagon at the blacksmith's. The reader might infer Abner is preparing the wagon for moving on yet again to a new location, given the tension between him and Major de Spain. Once they arrive back home, Abner makes his intentions clear as he pours the oil out of the lamp and into the kerosene can.

How does Sarty Snopes defend or support his father in "Barn Burning," and what drives him to do so?

Even though Sarty Snopes disagrees with Abner Snopes's choices, he feels compelled to show family loyalty. It is a lesson his father has driven home frequently: "You got to learn to stick to your own blood." Sarty Snopes defends or supports his father in the following ways: After the first trial Sarty tries to fight with the boy who punches him, although his father pulls him away. When Major de Spain charges Abner Snopes 20 bushels of corn for damaging the rug, Sarty tries to show solidarity with his father. He cries out, "You done the best you could!" He also seems ready to help his father defy Major de Spain, by saying, "He won't git no twenty bushels! He won't git none!" He even offers to stand watch so they can gather and hide the corn at harvest time. As soon as they enter the courtroom for the second trial, Sarty Snopes shouts out to the Justice, "He ain't done it! He ain't burnt." Even after his father's presumed death, Sarty Snopes tells himself, "He was brave!" He still wants to believe the best of Abner Snopes—or at least imagine there is something positive in him.

In "Barn Burning" why does Abner Snopes soil Major de Spain's rug?

By choosing to soil the rug, Abner Snopes is making a deliberate statement of his own autonomy. This action also serves to show his contempt for those of higher social standing. Abner Snopes sees himself as his own man and as subservient to no one. Wealth and status neither impress nor intimidate him, as he shows by brazenly stomping into the large, well-appointed house with his dung-muddied boots. He shoves the door open, pushes the servant out of the way, and does not bother to take off his hat as a typical gesture of good manner would dictate. When Mrs. de Spain asks him to leave, he does not speak to her or even look at her, refusing to acknowledge she has any power over him. Even as he turns to go, "with the same deliberation" he drags his injured foot across the rug "leaving a final long and fading smear." He does not look down at the rug, a gesture that reflects his lack of concern and respect for the objects, and people, he harms with his actions.

In "Barn Burning" what evidence shows Abner Snopes is grooming Sarty Snopes to follow in Abner's footsteps?

These clues hint Abner Snopes is trying to mold Sarty Snopes in his own image. Abner emphasizes Sarty should be loyal to the family and beats him because he would have told the truth to the justice during the first trial. "You're getting to be a man," Abner says, and in his mind the statement means it is time for Sarty to step up and prove his loyalty. Abner commands Sarty to accompany him on his visit to Major de Spain's house at the same time as he is disparaging their new landlord. When Abner claims de Spain will "begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months," he is trying to influence Sarty to see the man in a negative light, as he himself does. Abner Snopes brings Sarty along when he returns the rug. Abner knows his manner of returning the item will infuriate Major de Spain, thus making Sarty a party, albeit a reluctant one, to the action. Abner further makes Sarty his accomplice in crime when he sends him to fetch the can of oil for burning down de Spain's barn.

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