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Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How does Sarty Snopes's character change over the course of "Barn Burning"?

At the beginning of the story Sarty Snopes is a timid, obedient youth who barely expresses himself above a whisper. His world is colored by grief caused by the life he is forced to live and fear of what Abner Snopes may do next. Sarty longs for peace, calm, and stability, yet as a 10-year-old he feels powerless to change his situation. His sole lifeline is hope—the hope his father will give up his violent ways. Sarty views Abner with the innocence of childhood, trying to idealize him despite all evidence to the contrary. Sarty is forced to make choices and take action as he faces the reality that Abner Snopes will never reform. He can no longer deny he opposes his father's choices nor try to impress his father with declarations of loyalty. Sarty simply wants to live a just and honest life. Despite his youth Sarty understands his situation will never improve so long as he is living beneath Abner's rule. It is this new understanding that prompts Sarty to act against Abner and warn Major de Spain of the barn burning. Sarty proves his commitment to his new path in life when he leaves his family behind. He has become his own man, choosing his course for himself.

In what ways are the twin sisters in "Barn Burning" compared to farm animals, and what does this comparison signify?

Twice the narrator compares the sisters to cattle. Like cows, the two lazy girls are content simply to eat and grow fat. They are unengaged in events around them, "wearing only an expression of bovine interest" even during Sarty's dramatic struggle to escape from the house on the night of the barn burning. Abner Snopes himself compares the girls to pigs when he says "you'll hog it and like it" in reference to their new home, a run-down shack, which one of the girls declares isn't fit for hogs to live in. Through this characterization as animal-like, these clueless, apathetic girls suggest the stereotype of people as sheep, never questioning authority or taking an interest in the course of events. Like farm animals, the twins are mostly concerned with eating and sleeping. They are not internally motivated to work and must be prodded to do anything productive. And just as farmers often do not name their livestock, the girls are not referred to by name. They are usually identified only by the label "sister." There may be the further implication that, as females, the girls are viewed by society as only useful for breeding and not much else.

How does the setting of spring affect the overall mood of "Barn Burning"?

While the overall mood of the story is grim, the setting of spring offers a glimmer of hope for the future. The landscape is alive with trees in bloom, fragrant honeysuckle, and the call of springtime birds. The weather is mild and pleasant, and even on the night of the barn burning, the skies are calm and shine with brilliant stars. After Sarty Snopes chooses to leave his family behind once and for all, he moves into the "late spring night" without looking back. He is ready to let go of seasons past and embrace the future. Late spring will soon become summer, a season of light, color, and abundance, and through this choice Sarty's life, too, may begin to blossom.

How does the style of narration in "Barn Burning" affect the story?

"Barn Burning" is told from a third-person, limited-omniscient point of view. Most of the narration is from the boy's perspective, with a few glimpses of either his future or Abner's past. This style of narration provides the reader with sufficient information to judge Abner Snopes objectively without having to rely solely on the subjective impressions of his young son. The description, for example, of his father's "wolflike independence" is far beyond the emotional or intellectual range of a 10-year-old boy and provides insight into the relationship between Abner and his community that sheds light on his family's reaction to him as well. Still, the parts of the narration from Sarty's point of view are vivid and intense, causing the reader to feel his hunger, his fear, and his desperately divided loyalty. His descriptions of the natural world are particularly poignant, such as when they approach the de Spain's, and "they walked beside a fence massed with honeysuckle and Cherokee roses and came to a gate swinging open between two brick pillars, and now, beyond a sweep of drive, he saw the house for the first time and at that instant he forgot his father and the terror and despair both." The boy is at a particularly heightened time of life, the beginning of adolescence, when experiences, especially sensory experiences, are amplified. His narration allows the reader to remember what that was like.

How does Major de Spain escalate the conflict between him and Abner Snopes in "Barn Burning"?

After Abner Snopes soils Major de Spain's rug, its angry owner sends his servant to demand Abner clean the rug. Readers do not know what the servant says to Abner, but undoubtedly Abner resents Major de Spain's surrogate, arriving on a fine horse, telling Abner what to do. Given Abner's pride and resentment of the upper class, he is not likely to respond well to orders. And even worse, he takes even greater offense at being given orders by a black servant. True to form Abner ruins the rug out of spite. The next morning, Major de Spain himself confronts Abner about the permanently ruined rug. De Spain is condescending and implies the entire family is worthless: "Wasn't there anybody here, any of your women." He goes on to rub Abner's poverty in his face, saying, "But you never had a hundred dollars. You never will." He decides on a punishment and commands Abner to sign a new contract, validating his position of superiority and authority, which stokes Abner's rage. His arrogance only reinforces Abner's desire to lash out against him.

Considering the time period in which "Barn Burning" takes place, how much choice do Lennie Snopes and her sister probably have in determining the direction of their lives?

The story is set around 1895 in the South, a region of entrenched religious convictions and traditional values. Generally, the man was the head of the household and made decisions for everyone. Most women did not work outside the home but instead tended the household and raised children. Women often did not have money of their own. Given these social and economic conditions, the Snopes women probably had little choice in the way their lives unfolded. They were not trained to work outside the home and had little or no education. Lennie Snopes's most important choice, accepting Abner Snopes as a husband, wedded her not only to him but to a future based on his choices, not her own. Her sister, an unmarried woman, may not have had much choice in her situation, either. She was likely dependent on her family for food and shelter, and Abner's home may have been her only option. It was unthinkable in those days for a woman to leave her husband or do anything on her own, particularly among the poor working class for whom there were no options, even if there might have been for women with more money and status.

In "Barn Burning" how are the characters of Mr. Harris and Major de Spain similar and different?

Mr. Harris seems reasonable and even compassionate. In court he states his case factually and without apparent malice. He also has compassion for frightened Sarty Snopes, allowing him to leave the courtroom without being questioned. Major de Spain, however, is arrogant, lords his position over Abner Snopes, and acts in anger. He strongly chastises Abner about the rug and belittles him for his poverty—a state that will be made worse by the heavy penalty he demands. Unlike Mr. Harris, Major de Spain has no compassion for Sarty: "Catch him!" he shouts when Sarty warns him of the impending barn burning. De Spain does not want this potential witness slipping out of his grasp. They are similar in that both are landowners with similar purposes: they seek to control Abner Snopes but in their own ways. Mr. Harris's way is gentler, as he tries to resolve the problem of the runaway hog in a reasonable manner. Major de Spain has no such gentleness; he issues orders he expects to be obeyed. In terms of justice, Mr. Harris allows the guilty (Abner) to go free to preserve the innocent (Sarty), while Major de Spain is willing to hurt the innocent to ensure the punishment of the guilty. However, both landowners are unsuccessful in controlling Abner Snopes, who reacts to reason and compassion as violently as he reacts to condescension and harshness, setting fire to both men's barns with equal vindictiveness.

In "Barn Burning" how do the main buildings—the courtrooms, the Snopes' house, and Major de Spain's house—reflect social class?

The Snopeses are poor, migrant farmers who must accept whatever housing is offered at each farm. Their latest home is a "paintless two-room house identical almost with the dozen others" they have lived in previously. It is a comfortless shack, and very small for a family of seven, but as itinerant workers they can do very little to improve their lot. Major de Spain's large, well-appointed house shows the privilege and luxuries the upper classes of the day enjoyed. The de Spain family lives in enviable comfort, insulated from the outer world by their wealth and the power that comes from their position. The courtrooms, which are actually general stores, serve as potential equalizers between the classes. People of low and high status meet there to watch or participate in the trials. Both Mr. Harris, a well-to-do landowner, and Abner Snopes, a sharecropper without a penny to his name, are supposed to be able to seek justice at the general store—no matter their social class. In some respects this is true. In others the very system by which they live, the system embodied in the mercantile general store, prevents justice from ever being realized.

What is the significance of the twin sisters' ribbons in "Barn Burning"?

The two sisters descend from the family wagon "in a flutter of cheap ribbons" when they arrive at their new home. The reader might suppose they have worn their best outfits for traveling to present the appearance of respectability to the world at large. The ribbons, however, are noticeably cheap and are not likely to fool anyone. The sisters also wear "a flutter of tawdry ribbons" around the house, as noted on the day Major de Spain delivers the rug to be cleaned. That they are wearing such frivolous clothes at home suggests they imagine themselves as "ladies" who are not expected to do any work. However, the word tawdry indicates a lack of taste or refinement such as more fashionable and richer ladies would possess. The twins are simply lazy girls putting on airs. The word flutter, too, has the connotation of air—that of the twins as lacking in substance. Abner's daughters have inherited the social expectations of the Southern aristocracy, that women should be elegant, fragile, and delicate. But they have no place in that world, and those expectations have made them unfit for the world they inhabit, a world in which hard work is required for survival.

What is the significance of the word ravening in "Barn Burning"?

Ravening means "voracious" or "with extreme greed" and is generally applied to the behavior of wild animals devouring prey. In "Barn Burning" this very strong word appears in several descriptions of Abner Snopes, implying his feral nature, untamed by legal and social restraint. The first use of the word appears together with the description of Abner Snopes as "wolflike." By using ravening the narrator emphasizes Abner's ferocity and primitive appetites for revenge. The word appears later in a similar context as Abner and Sarty Snopes head for Major de Spain's house, again reflecting Abner's deep-seated and uncontrolled desires as it describes his rage. It appears again as Abner prepares to enter Major de Spain's house and further describes him, this time referring to his foot, as vicious and animal-like.

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