Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


The First Trial

"Barn Burning" begins in the spring, about 30 years after the end of the Civil War, and Abner Snopes, an itinerant farmer, is on trial for burning down Mr. Harris's barn. Abner's 10-year-old son, Colonel Sartoris "Sarty" Snopes, listens from the back of the crowded room as the justice of the peace questions Mr. Harris, who relates events preceding the fire: Abner's hog escaped and got into Harris's corn. Harris tells how he tried to resolve the problem by giving Abner wire to fix his hog pen, which Abner did not do. When the hog escaped again, Mr. Harris kept it with his own hogs until Abner paid a dollar to retrieve it, which he did. Harris's account ends with the arrival of an unknown black man who warns him, "Wood and hay kin burn."

Mr. Harris is unable to produce this witness but claims Sarty knows the truth. The justice calls the panic-stricken Sarty forward. "He aims for me to lie," Sarty thinks, knowing that to save his father he will have to lie. Seeing the boy's agitated state, Mr. Harris changes his mind and permits Sarty to escape unquestioned. With no proof against Abner, the justice dismisses the case and warns Abner to leave town by sunset.

As Abner and Sarty leave the store, which also functions as a courtroom, a local boy hisses, "Barn burner!" and punches Sarty, knocking him down and bloodying his face. His father stops him from pursuing the boy, and they retreat to the family's wagon, parked nearby. Sarty's mother, aunt, brother, and two sisters are sitting among the family's shabby possessions, waiting to leave. Sarty's mother tries to comfort him and wash his face, but he resists and says the injury doesn't hurt.

A New Home

The Snopes family moves to a new destination, known only to Abner. It is their 12th move in 10 years, and they have stopped asking questions about Abner's decisions. On the way the family camps in the forest where Abner uses a rail stolen from a nearby fence to light a meager fire. After dinner Abner takes Sarty aside and beats him. "You were fixing to tell them," he accuses the boy, sensing and resenting his potential disloyalty. "You got to learn to stick to your own blood," he says coldly. In a whisper Sarty admits he would have told the truth.

They arrive the next day at a "paintless two-room house." The women unload the wagon. Abner takes Sarty to visit the new landlord, or as Abner calls him, "the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul" for the upcoming planting season. Sarty is dazzled by the opulent house, imagining this place of "peace and dignity" would be "impervious to the puny flames" of his father. Sarty further imagines, "Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe he couldn't help but be."

Defiant Abner

As they approach the mansion, Abner steps firmly and deliberately into a pile of horse manure, which he "could have avoided by a simple change of stride." The servant, who answers the door, tells Abner to wipe his feet and informs him the landlord, Major de Spain, isn't home. Abner pushes the door open, shoves the servant out of the way, and steps squarely onto an expensive rug with his filthy boots. The servant calls his mistress, Miss Lula, who asks Abner to leave. Without looking at her, Abner turns to leave, deliberately dragging his foot to soil the rug more. He scrapes the rest of the manure off his boot onto the porch as they leave.

Later that day, Major de Spain, furious, gallops up to the Snopes family cabin on a fine horse. Behind him, holding the soiled rug, is a young servant on another horse. De Spain confronts Abner and the older brother and gallops away. Sarty, busy chopping wood, listens as his father shouts for the sisters. They emerge from the house and drag the rug toward the wash pot. Their father towers over them as they wash the rug with harsh lye soap. He ignores Lennie, who asks to clean it herself to ensure it is done properly. Abner then picks up a rock and brutally scrapes the rug, ripping fibers and leaving long tracks in it.

Before dawn the next day, Abner orders Sarty onto the mule and flings the rug up after him. They deliver it to de Spain's front porch where Abner flops it down loudly enough to wake Major de Spain. Abner takes his time leaving. Sarty tries to rush him as de Spain comes downstairs.

De Spain arrives later that morning at the field where the Snopes family is working. Angry because Abner has ruined the rug, de Spain orders Abner to reimburse him by providing an additional 20 bushels of corn at the end of the growing season. Sarty assures his father they will not provide him a single barrel.

The Second Trial

Abner and the boys continue working the field that week. Sarty muses perhaps the rug incident has blown over. But when Saturday arrives, Sarty finds his father dressed in his formal (though shabby) black coat and hat. They hitch up the wagon and drive to the general store for yet another trial. Abner has sued Major de Spain; he considers the penalty of 20 bushels unfair. As they enter the store, Sarty cries out, "He ain't done it! He ain't burnt." Abner quiets him and sends him to the wagon. Sarty slinks off to the back to watch the trial.

After questioning Abner, who has little to say, the justice finds Abner at fault but reduces the penalty to 10 bushels of corn, as a more equitable punishment. Sarty expects they'll return to work, and continues to insist quietly to his father that they will not pay a single bushel, but instead they spend the day dawdling about town. Abner takes them to a blacksmith for some minor repairs on the wagon. They chat for a while and eat lunch in silence on the store's porch. Next they visit a horse lot, where they watch people buying and swapping horses until sunset.

The Barn Burning

They arrive home after sundown, shortly before Sarty hears Lennie screaming, "Abner! No! No! Oh, God. Oh, God. Abner!" As Abner empties kerosene into a can, Lennie tries to stop him. Abner orders Sarty to fetch the wagon oil from the barn and then orders the older brother to empty it into the kerosene. The older brother advises Abner to tie Sarty to the bedpost so he can't warn Major de Spain. Instead, Abner forces Lennie to restrain Sarty. As soon as Abner leaves, Sarty struggles against his mother, knowing he has little time. The aunt demands Lennie release Sarty, saying, "If he don't go, before God, I am going up there myself!" Sarty breaks free and runs toward the mansion. He bursts in, breathless, and gasps "Barn!" Sarty runs away before the servant can catch him, while de Spain yells for his horse. Sarty tears off toward the barn, leaping into the ditch as de Spain throttles by. He hears the roar of fire, then three shots. He stumbles, gets up, and starts running, this time away from the fire, sobbing, "Father! Father!"

Midnight finds Sarty atop a strange hill, his back turned to his former home, facing a dark forest below him. He shivers with cold, but his state of mind has shifted: "now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair." Abner was brave, he tells himself—a brave soldier in the war. Sarty doesn't know his father was a deserter who survived by stealing horses. Sarty drifts into sleep and awakens near dawn as birds fill the air around him with their calls. He is stiff and cold, but "walking would cure that ... and soon there would be the sun." He enters the woods below without looking back.


Story Style and Structure

William Faulkner writes in a modernist style, an artistic movement that emerged in the late 19th century and became especially prevalent after World War I. Modernist writers broke rules of traditional writing such as linear narrative and employed experimental styles such as stream-of-consciousness narration and multiple viewpoints. In "Barn Burning" the narration is primarily from the boy's perspective: "Again he could not see, whirling; there was a face in a red haze, moonlike, bigger than the full moon, the owner of it half again his size, he leaping in the red haze toward the face." However there are occasional shifts into omniscience: "Older, the boy might have ... wondered ... why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight?"

Shifting timeframes, another hallmark of modernist literature, appear in "Barn Burning" when the narrator reveals information about the past and future of Abner and Sarty. For example, after the first trial when Abner beats Sarty for disloyalty, the narrator reveals Sarty's thoughts from 20 years into the future: "If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again." This shows that later in life, Sarty reaches a different understanding of his father from the one he held as a child. His older self understands his father was never going to change and that his father and the people among whom they live have different value systems.

The story's structure is circular, beginning and ending with the aftermath of a barn burning. From the outset it is obvious Sarty is torn between loyalty to his family and desire to do right. With each major incident the reader gains insight into Sarty's dilemma, and the tension builds: how long can Sarty endure this life before he breaks away or it breaks him? At the end of the story the circular structure takes Sarty back to where he started and gives him the chance to make a different choice. These similar scenes allow the reader to watch Sarty grow and change.

Literary Devices

Faulkner uses literary allusion, or a reference to another work of literature, in "Barn Burning" in his description of the marks Abner scrapes into Major de Spain's rug. The term lilliputian refers to Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels. The tiny Lilliputians are a petty people who try to punish the "giant" Gulliver for disloyalty. Here Abner's actions show the same petty futility as he attempts to punish the "giant," Major de Spain, a representative of the Southern elite, for the power he holds. The Lilliputians are powerless to cause real harm to Gulliver, just as Abner is powerless to harm de Spain with his spiteful actions.

Faulkner creates vivid images throughout the story, from the opening description of the general store, with its smells of cheese and meat to the final paragraphs detailing the dark night, the coming of dawn, and the birds singing in the forest nearby. Imagery draws readers into the story through the senses as they share the experiences of the characters, especially Sarty.

Similes and metaphors come into play as well, revealing subtleties especially of character. To Sarty, Major de Spain's mansion is "big as a courthouse," a simile indicating Sarty's experience with large, impressive structures seems restricted to the general-store courtrooms he knows from his limited experience in towns and in legal situations. The description of Sarty's eyes as "gray and wild as storm scud" may indicate tempestuous feelings and emotional upheaval. When Sarty is called for questioning at the first trial, the metaphor of Sarty swinging "outward at the end of a grape vine ... caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity" expresses his breathless fear and feeling of his feet not being on solid ground beneath him; his situation is precarious, and he knows it.

Characterization and Themes

One technique Faulkner uses to illuminate the nature of the characters is repetition. He repeatedly describes Abner as "cold, harsh, calm, ravening" to reveal his vengeful, calculating nature. Sarty speaks in a "whisper" for much of the story, fearful of expressing himself or displeasing his father. The sisters are frequently described as "bovine," and the older brother chews like a cow; these comparisons suggest Sarty's siblings follow Abner like a docile, witless herd. Another technique is describing objects that reveal something about their owners. For example, the possessions loaded into the family wagon are as worn and broken as the members of the Snopes family. The broken clock that was part of Lennie's dowry shares a similar fate with Lennie; broken and forgotten in time and hope.

Static characters (the brother, the sisters) do not change much, if at all, over the course of a story, whereas dynamic characters experience internal growth or significant transitions (Sarty). Perhaps the most complex character of the story is Abner. Although his character is certainly well developed and complex, with a history and contradictory traits, he remains static in that neither his views nor his actions change over time. Sarty, however, demonstrates the most change, both in thought and in action.

Comparison of the characters underscores the story's themes of justice and loyalty and shows the complicated nature of human existence. It is easy for the reader to side with Sarty, a hopeful, likeable boy who grows to the point at which he stands up for justice over family loyalty. Yet even Abner, in all his nastiness, has redeeming qualities that make it hard to cast him as a complete villain. He is brave, no matter how misguided his actions or motivation. He is independent and bows to no one. He takes action against what he sees as injustice in the socioeconomic system.

Comparing characters also underscores the theme of choices, especially Sarty and his brother, essentially a carbon copy of Abner and following in his destructive footsteps. Both Abner and the brother are indifferent to the toll their violent actions have on the family, who suffer continually from Abner's abuse and the emotional stress of drifting from place to place with nowhere to call home. More than once during the story Sarty thinks people are addressing his brother, but they are not. They are speaking to Sarty, as if expecting him to be next to step into Abner's shoes. Only Sarty's choices can prevent this from happening; his choice to follow his own moral code of right and wrong rather than his father's code of revenge may be clear—but certainly not easy.

Examining Events

Faulkner challenges readers to judge the characters for themselves by examining their thoughts, words, and actions as events unfold.

During the first trial Mr. Harris details how he has tried to resolve the situation with Abner. Even though he gave Abner the means to fix the problem (wire to repair his hog pen), Abner neglected to do it. It is possible Abner is too proud to accept the wire but equally possible he allowed the hog to run loose on purpose. Abner may have wanted to create problems between them to justify burning Mr. Harris's barn. He also might have felt insulted by the gift of the wire, as if Mr. Harris were saying, "You're too poor to fix the problem, so you can live on my charity." Abner may have also resented being forced to contain his farming operation to a small piece of land in the face of Mr. Harris's large holdings. The reader must decide whether Mr. Harris is being generous from the heart or flaunting his income in the face of the poor tenant farmer. Given Mr. Harris's compassionate treatment of Sarty, the reader might be inclined to find the landowner generous rather than condescending.

That the Snopes family is waiting, with the wagon packed and ready to leave town, shows they already know the outcome, having faced the situation before. Faulkner's description of their shabby possessions shows the extent of the family's poverty. Every piece of "the sorry residue of the dozen and more movings" is broken or battered in some way, as is the family.

When the family arrives at the new home, a run-down shack, Faulkner offers further clues into the family dynamics. When one of the sisters complains the shack probably isn't fit for hogs, Abner's response that she will "hog it and like it" shows he doesn't consider his daughter much better than an animal. The Snopes women and children are more like possessions to Abner, and he runs their lives in the same heavy-handed way the landowners run his. The abuse gets passed down the line from the highest social ranks to the lowest.

Despite Abner's humiliating remarks, Sarty's shining hope cannot be dimmed. When they visit Major de Spain's lavish home, Sarty imagines this new milieu might help his father change "from what maybe he couldn't help but be." He excuses his father's behavior and grasps blindly at straws of hope, not wanting to accept that Abner will never change his violent ways.

Abner crushes this fantasy almost immediately as he purposefully steps in the pile of horse manure, pushes past the servant, and purposefully soils the rug. Clearly he wants to get off on the wrong foot with his new landlord, literally. Abner's stiff, injured foot is a symbol of his intractable ("stiff") and permanently damaged character as well as the bravado that earned him the injury, and he uses it to his advantage. Even if he wanted to change (which he does not), he probably would not be able to.

Abner then comments the mansion is maintained by "nigger sweat," (a racial epithet Abner and others use in everyday language and think nothing of) and perhaps de Spain "wants to mix some white sweat with it." In this statement the reader can conclude Abner resents his socioeconomic position. He knows that no matter how hard he works, he will never own the land he farms, and he resents the landowner for using his cheap labor the same way he formerly used slave labor. This perception of his low status further fuels his rage, for the servant who answers the door has authority over him—authority he refuses to recognize by shoving the man out of the way and entering the house without wiping his feet as asked.

The rug-cleaning incident further reveals Abner's defiance of authority. Faulkner has made it clear the sisters are lazy and fairly useless when it comes to work, yet Abner chooses to have them, not Lennie, clean the rug. Abner knows they will do a poor job, and he makes sure of it when he further damages the rug by scraping it roughly with the rock. When Abner returns the ruined rug, he does not hurry away but rather leaves at a slow walk. He is not afraid of confrontation with Major de Spain and, in fact, seems to encourage it. Just as he did with Mr. Harris, Abner deliberately provokes Major de Spain to escalate a situation that could have been resolved peacefully. Unfortunately for Sarty and the rest of the Snopes family, vengeance, not peace, is what drives Abner.

Abner continues to force the issue when he sues Major de Spain. Although the justice of the peace reduces the penalty to 10 bushels of corn, it is not enough to satisfy Abner. Even if the justice had dismissed the penalty entirely, Abner most likely would have continued to create problems with de Spain until he got what he wanted: an excuse to burn down his barn. After the trial Abner clearly has no intention of going back to business as usual. Instead of returning to the fields, he wastes time around town until darkness falls—the darkness that will cover his intended arson. He also has the wagon repaired, a sign the family will be moving yet again, and soon.

It is all too much for fair-minded and peaceful Sarty, who has reached his limit. Whereas Sarty has whispered through much of the story, he finds his voice when Abner orders him to fetch the oil for burning down the barn: "The boy did not move. Then he could speak." His paralysis is over, and he has found the courage to oppose his father. Although his body obeys its old habits and he does run to get the oil, in the end, his mind and heart overcome "the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself." He runs to warn Major de Spain and is ready to face whatever consequences his actions will bring. Sarty has become a man, as morally brave as his father is immorally brave, equally independent in thought and action as his father, and shed of his childish illusions that Abner will change.

Barn Burning Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Abner is tried for barn burning and not found guilty.

Rising Action

2 The Snopes family leaves town and moves to a new farm.

3 Abner smears dung on the rug of his new landlord, de Spain.

4 De Spain charges Abner 20 bushels of corn for the rug.

5 Abner sues de Spain, but the judge rules against Abner.

6 Abner prepares to burn down de Spain's barn.


7 Sarty runs to warn de Spain and hears three shots fired.

Falling Action

8 Sarty runs away, climbing a hill to wait for daylight.


9 Sarty does not look back as he enters the woods at dawn.

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