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Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | Symbols



Fire represents a form of control for Abner in a world that has allowed him little control over his circumstances. Fire can be used to destroy, but it also helps sustain life. In the woods where the Snopes family camps on the way to their next home, Abner makes "a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire" for his family. He can control fire or cause it to blaze out of control to destroy depending on his emotional state. The narrator says that "the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being," and in a way, fire represents Abner himself. It is noteworthy that the fire Abner makes to sustain his family in the woods is small and barely effective even though it would have cost him nothing to make it larger and stronger. The controlled fire of his anger blazes into destruction when he deliberately allows it to do so, showing his vindictive rage is far stronger than his sense of family.


Major de Spain's expensive, imported rug has multiple layers of symbolism. It represents wealth and prosperity, something de Spain has but Abner does not. While Sarty can admire de Spain's beautiful house without envy, Abner views it with a "ravening and jealous rage" that prompts his actions. Smearing horse manure onto the carpet shows his jealousy and also reveals a second meaning for the rug: de Spain's power over Abner. Abner deeply resents anyone with authority over him, as demonstrated in his statement that their new landlord "aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months." So odious is the thought of subservience that even when he has an opportunity to clean the rug, he deliberately ruins it. He defies authority throughout the story, doing just as he pleases; wiping his filthy boots on the rug is one more defiant gesture.

Abner's Foot Injury

Abner's stiff, injured foot represents his criminality and his complete disrespect for the law and for authority. His injury occurred as he was stealing a horse during the Civil War 30 years before, when a "musket ball had taken him in the heel." The location of the injury is significant, as Abner's rejection of authority is a true weakness, or Achilles' heel, that prevents him and his family from living a stable and reasonably peaceful life. Throughout the story Abner's foot is described as both deliberate and as larger than life, "unhurried and enormous." This description suggests not only that Abner's resentment of authority is huge but also that Abner is methodical in planning his acts against authority—he bides his time until the moment is right. Abner's deliberate and ominous stomping on Major de Spain's porch and refusal to wipe his feet before entering the house show his character will not change; he will always be a criminal seeking revenge for what he sees as life's injustices.


Even at the worst of times, descriptions of spring symbolize the hope of rebirth in the story. The stars shine brightly through the darkness, the honeysuckle blooms along the dusty lanes, and whippoorwills twitter the arrival of a new day, a new season. Spring is a time of new beginnings, and the blossoming season hints at Sarty's coming of age. As he sheds his cold, dead life, he is reborn a new person—a man, even—through the choices he makes.


The twin sisters are repeatedly described in unflattering ways: "big, bovine," "hulking," "broad, lethargic," with "flat loud voices" and "an incorrigible idle inertia." Lazy and apathetic, slow and useless, they live on the hard work of the other members of the family and seem to have little awareness of anything beyond their narrow world. Yet these unappealing creatures are decked out in "cheap" and "tawdry" ribbons and Sunday dresses, as if their outer coverings can hide their inner nature. Abner has spent his life rebelling against the Southern aristocracy; his daughters have absorbed its symbolism, believing they are meant to be ladies. Their belief is as ridiculous as their ribbons, and they end up being worse than useless in a system that has no place for them.

Questions for Symbols

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