Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does the reader know what most likely happens at Major de Spain's barn at the end of "Barn Burning"?

Abner Snopes's preparatory actions imply he intends to burn down Major de Spain's barn. He refills the kerosene can and sends the Brother ahead of him as he stays to make sure Sarty is restrained. Abner Snopes would not do this if he weren't plotting something he didn't want Sarty to interfere with. He knows Sarty would have testified against him during the first trial, so the reader assumes Abner is keeping Sarty out of the way because he plans to burn another barn. After Sarty warns Major de Spain and escapes, he does not see actual fire from the barn. There is a "long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars," which the reader assumes is a whoosh of smoke rising to the sky as a fire is lit. Finally, Sarty hears one shot, followed by two more shots. Sarty presumes his father is dead but doesn't know for sure. It is also possible his brother might have been shot as Abner's accomplice.

What tone does Faulkner create in "Barn Burning," and how does he do so?

The tone of a story reflects how the author views or judges the characters, themes, and other literary elements from behind the scenes. In "Barn Burning" Faulkner creates a tone of desperation, first by conflating the smells of cheese and meat with the smell "of fear because mostly of despair and grief," which the boy detects emanating from himself in the first courtroom, as he tries to convince himself that the justice of the peace and other men are his enemies. The feeling returns to him through Harris, who despairs of a man like Abner Snopes. Harris can neither get him to contain his farming operations nor convict him properly of setting fire to his barn. Desperation causes him to fight for his reputation in a town his family has just been run out of, but desperation cannot exist without hope. Hopelessness drives his mother and aunt to set up yet another house, but the narrator is too young to live without it. Walking toward the de Spain's, he is filled with the hope that his father will be "no more than a buzzing wasp" in the presence of their grandeur. His father's outrageous behavior, flying in the face of decency and reason and continuing to escalate, drain the child of hope even as he tries to hold on, telling his father they'll hold out, continuing to believe he can pacify his father into retreat. His mother chases after Abner "in hopeless despair," and the boy struggles as well between hope and anguish, until finally he confronts his fear and finds himself in the woods, "the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair."

How did Faulkner's life influence the writing of "Barn Burning"?

Faulkner was born and raised in the South, which is the setting for "Barn Burning," and was deeply interested in the regional history and culture. These included an interest in historical figures such as his own great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, "The Old Colonel," who was likely a model for Colonel Sartoris, mentioned in "Barn Burning" and other stories. In "Barn Burning" Faulkner explores social and economic issues prevalent in the South. Class differences are examined in the conflicts between Abner Snopes, Mr. Harris, and Major de Spain. Ingrained racism is evident in Abner's treatment of Major de Spain's servant and everyday use of racial slurs—not so much as slurs meant to offend but as everyday language in which these are the only, or most widely used, words. Poverty, a widespread problem later exacerbated in the South by the Great Depression during which Faulkner wrote the story, is presented starkly through observations of how the Snopes family lives: what they wear, what they eat, and how they earn a living. Faulkner captures these important, real-life social issues in his storytelling.

What major events were happening in world affairs in 1939 when "Barn Burning" was published, and how might these events have affected readers' interpretations of the story?

The Great Depression was coming to an end in 1939 after 10 grueling years of widespread unemployment, devastating financial losses, and uncertainty. Many readers of the time would have been able to relate more than they might have in more prosperous times, to the Snopes' poverty, fear, and desperation. War was also a background element in "Barn Burning," and contemporary readers knew war all too well. Trouble was brewing in Europe and would soon erupt into World War II. In 1939 Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland, raising the issue of dictatorships and appeasement—the act of making concessions to an enemy to avoid outright conflict. Readers may have picked out this theme in "Barn Burning" in Sarty Snopes's attempts to show loyalty to, or appease, his vicious father. Just as Sarty had to make a choice between appeasing Abner Snopes and standing up for his own beliefs, the United States would soon have to choose whether or not to get involved in the war that was about to break out on the world scene.

How does "Barn Burning" present the issue of individuality versus conformity?

The character of Abner Snopes reflects these issues. Although Abner is extremely independent, he must conform to society at least somewhat to support his family. He considers the system unjust, with the wealthy upper classes having power over poor, lower-class people like him. Still he is forced to try to fit in simply to survive. His resentment, however, is clear in his statement about Major de Spain "owning" him for the next eight months of the farming season. Yet his choices to exact revenge against Mr. Harris and Major de Spain reveal he still acts as an individual and considers himself a rebel against social expectations. Sarty Snopes, too, must face these issues. Sarty wants to conform to society. He wants a peaceful life, rather than a life in the shadow of his father's rebellious violence. Sarty believes moral actions and justice are important—qualities society admires but Abner defies. Abner Snopes takes justice into his own hands as an individual, while Sarty hopes to see justice done through accepted channels, such as through legal means as exemplified in the trials they attend. Sarty is fighting to defend the very ideals his father is trying to destroy.

How does "Barn Burning" illuminate the struggles of real-life migrant farmers at the time of its publication?

Migrant farmers were a large segment of society in 1939 when "Barn Burning" was published. During the previous decade of the Great Depression, many families lost everything they owned and were forced to look for menial work as migrant farmers. The Snopeses drift from farm to farm in the story, struggling with extreme poverty and hunger; this situation was a reality for hundreds of thousands of people in the 1930s. Migrant farmers of the time often lived in shanties rented from landowners. This type of housing, too, is seen in "Barn Burning," in the Snopes' miserable shack, which the Snopes sisters consider unfit for hogs. Migrant farmers were sometimes shunned or viewed as outsiders by the communities they worked in, a phenomenon that occurs in "Barn Burning" as well as when the hostile locals outside the courthouse jeer at the Snopeses who are being forced to leave town after the first trial.

In "Barn Burning" what themes are suggested during the first trial when Sarty Snopes realizes, "He aims for me to lie ... And I will have to do hit"?

Sarty Snopes's dilemma relates directly to the three major themes of the story: loyalty, justice, and choices, all issues the boy wrestles with throughout the story. In this scene Abner Snopes is on trial for burning down Mr. Harris's barn, an act Sarty knows his father committed. Sarty believes in justice and order, and he desperately wants his father to give up his criminal ways. However, if he wants to save his father, he must choose between loyalty to his family and justice. Sarty gets a temporary reprieve from making this choice when Mr. Harris allows him to leave without being questioned. However, the choice is merely delayed until the day Abner Snopes decides to burn down Major de Spain's barn.

How does Sarty Snopes's departure at the end of "Barn Burning" address the theme of loyalty to family?

Throughout the story Abner Snopes has tried to instill family loyalty into Sarty, and Sarty is conflicted as a result. He has tried to demonstrate loyalty to Abner by defending him after the first trial and during the second. However, even at 10 years old, Sarty knows he is not cut from the same mold as his father and in fact detests his father's malicious, destructive ways. His decision to inform Major de Spain confirms the choice he must make. When Sarty runs away at the end, he is abandoning his old life, but that old life is not the same as it was. With the absence of his father, and perhaps his brother, what remains of Sarty's family is left to fend for itself. They may be better or worse off without Abner, but in choosing to follow his own moral code, Sarty has in fact abandoned Lennie and his aunt, the more ethically responsible members of his family, without another thought. In this decision he rejects an aspect of family loyalty that does not call for him to condone violence and lies. Readers, therefore, might wonder whether Sarty's choice of following his own moral code instead of providing support and love for his mother and aunt makes him as rigid morally as Abner Snopes is vindictively.

In what ways do each of these conflicts occur in "Barn Burning": man versus man, man versus self, man versus society, and man versus nature?

All of the conflicts occur to some extent in "Barn Burning": Man versus man: Abner Snopes has direct conflicts with both Mr. Harris and Major de Spain, while Sarty Snopes is assaulted by an unknown boy immediately after the first trial. The relationship between Sarty and Abner shows direct conflict as well; Abner tries to instill his own vindictiveness and sense of loyalty and justice into Sarty, whose values do not align with his father's. Man versus self: Whereas Abner chooses to live in harmony with himself and his wolflike nature, Sarty Snopes must struggle to overcome his fear of Abner and choose to stand up for his own ideals. Man versus society: Abner Snopes resents the Southern aristocracy and spends his life attempting to undermine it. The landowner Mr. Harris is sympathetic, even helpful to him, while Major de Spain and his family are haughty and standoffish. Sarty, on the other hand, desperately tries to live in harmony with both the wealthy landowner and his family before he ultimately discovers he must choose. Man versus nature: Nature is by and large treated as benevolent, despite the fact that the Snopeses are trying to eke out a living from it. The story is set in spring, their outdoor camp is pleasant, even on the farm as the boy plows, "the rich black soil shear[s] cool and damp against his bare ankles." Perhaps it is this that gives the boy hope that not all is lost.

At what key turning point in "Barn Burning" does Sarty Snopes permanently break free of his father's control?

Sarty Snopes's break with Abner Snopes comes just before the climax of the story, when Abner is preparing to burn down Major de Spain's barn. Abner commands Sarty to fetch the oil from their barn, which Sarty does because of "the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose." When Sarty returns with the oil, however, he realizes Abner doesn't intend to warn Major de Spain, as he did previously with Mr. Harris. Abner has become more reckless than ever; it is as if he thrives on the risk of the situation. The situation escalates when Abner forces Lennie Snopes to restrain Sarty physically. At this point Sarty quashes his loyalty to his father. He knows and accepts that Abner will never change and that his only hope for a better life is to break free. From this point forward, Sarty chooses to do just that: to break free of his mother's hold, to break free of Abner's influence, to break free of the miserable life his family lives.

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