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Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Faulkner present Lennie Snopes as a complex character in "Barn Burning"?

Although Lennie Snopes does not seem like a complex person at first, certain clues reveal the depth of her history and personality. The one possession associated with Lennie is the mother-of-pearl clock, which was her dowry. Although the clock is now broken (symbolizing her dysfunctional relationship with Abner Snopes), it shows at one time Lennie Snopes had a different life from the one she suffers through now. It is possible she came from better circumstances and was optimistic about the future, even though the emotion Faulkner most associates with her now is despair. While Lennie is now subservient to her husband, she still finds the will to oppose him, however ineffective her interventions may be against his dominance. She tries to stop him from ruining Major de Spain's rug, offering to clean it herself, and from burning down his barn, but she fails. Life has beaten her down, but she hasn't entirely given up yet.

What clues in "Barn Burning" show the brother is solidly aligned with Abner Snopes?

Sarty Snopes's older brother is a flat and static character of few words who doesn't even merit a first name in Faulkner's eyes. He sits at Abner Snopes's side on the wagon as second in command. When the servant arrives with Major de Spain's soiled rug, Abner and the brother are sitting together apart from the rest of the family while Sarty chops wood. In addition the brother, as second in command, takes precedence over the women and children in claiming a bed in the household. The brother serves mainly as a "yes man" to his father's schemes, taking orders or anticipating Abner's desires. He picks up on his father's gestures, indicating implicit, or complicit, understanding. When Abner wants the older boy to follow with the wagon, Abner makes his command known "merely indicating with his hand for the older brother to follow." The brother never objects to any of Abner's actions or decisions and, in fact, seems poised to be potentially worse than Abner. Generally silent and steadily chewing tobacco, it is he, nevertheless, who advises Abner to tie Sarty up on the night of the final barn burning, a step even ruthless Abner isn't willing to take.

How does Sarty Snopes's description of his father, "He was brave," at the end of "Barn Burning," reveal a part of Abner Snopes's character?

In describing Abner Snopes as "brave," Sarty Snopes, whose moral principles have clashed deeply with his father's, recognizes and acknowledges Abner's indomitable courage, misguided as it may have been. The narrator, an impartial observer, describes Abner Snopes as having a "wolflike independence and even courage" in dealing with other people. Time and time again, Abner stands up for his beliefs and asserts his autonomy. In his view society, particularly his position in it, is unjust, with the rich white landowners virtually "owning" the poor, both black and white. He stands up to this hierarchy one farm at a time, no matter what it costs him or his family. His motivation may not be admirable—he feels vengeful, and he could certainly find methods that aren't so self-destructive—but Abner is ruthless and fearless. He is not afraid to defy the law or to challenge a single person, no matter their social standing. Nor is he afraid to move on to a new place after his destructive actions force him to do so. As a horse thief during the Civil War, Abner may have been on the wrong side of the law and may have deceived others about his activities, but being mercenary and acting out of self interest do not negate bravery or courage.

What are three key choices Abner Snopes must make in "Barn Burning," and how do these choices affect his family?

Abner Snopes's choices dominate his family's life, as family members are left to suffer the consequences of his actions. He is not motivated to succeed in life or to find happiness but rather to serve his version of justice to those he despises. He makes three key choices that reflect his intentions. After refusing the opportunities to behave rationally about the runaway hog, Abner Snopes chooses to burn down Mr. Harris's barn. This action forces his family to move on to another town, as they have often done in the past. When Abner chooses to ruin Major de Spain's rug, he sets his family up for failure right away in their new location. Even if the other members of the family might have found some contentment or peace there, Abner makes it impossible for them to do so. It is obvious his pattern of destruction will continue, and they will have to move again. Abner's decision to burn down Major de Spain's barn leads to his own (implied) death and Sarty Snopes's departure from the family.

How does Mrs. de Spain represent her social class in "Barn Burning," and what incident disturbs her world?

Mrs. de Spain, or Miss Lula to the servants, represents the higher levels of society in the South at the time. She lives in a privileged bubble, amidst the "glitter of chandeliers and a mute gleam of gold frames." She is insulated from the uglier aspects of the surrounding world, sheltered by money, her husband, and the servants, who serve as go-betweens that allow her to remain undisturbed. This bubble is pierced when Abner Snopes bursts into the house, and the reader witnesses Mrs. de Spain's fear at this shocking circumstance. Her voice shakes as she asks Abner to go away, as if she realizes she could be in real danger without her husband there to protect her. Abner Snopes's presence literally brings the filth from the outside world into her elegant surroundings, threatening her personal comfort and safety. When Major de Spain demands 20 bushels of corn from Abner Snopes, he says it "won't keep Mrs. de Spain quiet," which shows she has been voicing her opinion about the ruined rug. In comparison to the problems the Snopeses face—poverty, hunger, homelessness, instability—Mrs. de Spain's anger about material objects shows how out of touch she is with the reality of life around her.

What role does the aunt play within the Snopes family in "Barn Burning," and why does she likely choose to stay in such misery?

In all likelihood the aunt has little or no choice but to stay with the Snopes family. She is an unmarried woman with no money of her own, and women in her circumstances at the time were considered "burdens" for their families to support financially. In this regard she would have been indebted to Abner Snopes for having food and shelter at all. However, the aunt demonstrates her love for and loyalty to Lennie Snopes and Sarty, and these emotions are probably her primary reason for staying with the Snopes family. Lennie's life is miserable, and the aunt can help ease her burdens by sharing in the work. She helps Lennie unload the wagon without needing to be asked, she helps set up the stove and cook the meals, and she even pitches in with Lennie to buy Sarty a small ax for Christmas one year. The aunt also comforts Lennie and offers emotional support, as they sit "side by side on the bed, the aunt's arms about his mother's shoulders." In her understanding of Lennie's fears and moral dilemma, she also understands Sarty's. When Abner forces Lennie to restrain Sarty, the aunt speaks up for Sarty and what she believes is right, thus enabling him to break free and warn Major de Spain of the fire.

How was Abner Snopes's foot injured in "Barn Burning," and what does this signify?

The narrator informs readers Abner Snopes was injured when a Confederate "musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago." Although Sarty Snopes believes Abner fought for the South during the Civil War, he was simply a horse thief. He showed no loyalty to either cause, stealing from both sides without scruple. His true loyalty was and remains only to himself. The fact that Abner is shot by the Confederate side is a metaphor: the Southern way of life, with its oppressive class structure and economic imbalances, has crippled Abner's freedom and opportunities just as the Confederate bullet crippled his foot. Thirty years later he still limps from the injury, and his life is still one of limitations and frustration. It is also notable that Abner was shot in the heel, indicating most likely he was running away at the time. In fleeing Abner was trying to escape punishment or justice for the crime he committed. He continues to live out this pattern in his life now: committing a crime, outwitting justice, and escaping to a new place.

What is the significance of blood in "Barn Burning," especially as it relates to Sarty Snopes?

The narrator frequently mentions "the old fierce pull of blood," which refers to both Sarty Snopes's feelings of loyalty to his father and the heritage of his father's violence, to which Sarty is tied through blood relation. Although he tries to resist, little by little Sarty is being sucked into this bloodline as Abner Snopes molds him into a young partner in crime. When the boy attacks Sarty outside the courtroom after the first trial, Sarty is described as "feeling no blow ... and tasting no blood." His emotions have taken over, and his body has tuned out physical sensation. He operates in a reactionary way to protect himself and to show loyalty to his family. After the scuffle Sarty refuses to let Lennie wipe the blood away. It is a badge of honor in a way, demonstrating his fealty to Abner and proof he is becoming a man.

What words, imagery, and actions does Faulkner use to set the mood in "Barn Burning," and to what effect?

The mood of the story could be described as "hellish." Some words, images, and actions that contribute to this mood are as follows: Repeated use of words such as grief, despair, and fear create a hopeless, hellish emotional atmosphere. Images of violence add to the mood of the story. Not only does Abner Snopes burn down barns, he also abuses his family both physically and emotionally. They exist in a living hell as they fear and suffer his brutality. In fact Abner Snopes is evil, and the concept of evil is associated with hell. The symbol of fire evokes notions of Hell, with its eternal punishment of flames and burning for crimes such as those Abner Snopes commits. The poverty and hunger from which the Snopes family cannot escape help define their hellish existence. Sarty Snopes's hunger is evident in the first scene, where his stomach "reads" the cans of food, which he imagines he can smell. The family's poverty is emphasized in the narrator's description of Sarty's bare feet and ragged clothes, which are "patched and faded," or even "rotten with washing" and falling apart.

What is the significance of darkness and light in "Barn Burning"?

Traditionally, darkness is associated with evil and light with goodness. Abner Snopes's crimes take place at night, especially the burning of barns, which is done under cover of darkness. In contrast the trials, whose purpose is to reveal truth and administer justice, take place during daylight. Abner Snopes wears a "black Sunday coat," which echoes the traditional use of black clothing to identify a nemesis in literature. Abner brings evil directly to Major de Spain's doorstep when he drags horse manure across the rug. The contrast in color, with the dark dung smeared onto the light rug, continues this image. At the end of the story, Sarty Snopes sits upon a hill at midnight and remains there throughout the blackness of night. This scene can be thought of as Sarty's own "dark night of the soul," in which he travels through despair and emerges on the other side, victorious. The stars shine overhead, beacons of hope even in the dark hours. It is dawn when Sarty arises and moves on into the forest, with its signs of spring, knowing "soon there would be the sun." He has overcome darkness and moves into the light of a new beginning.

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