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Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | Themes



Sarty's loyalty is tested throughout the story. He swings from blindly obeying and supporting his abusive father to wanting to stand up for justice by betraying him. After the first trial Sarty tries to convince himself Mr. Harris is the bad guy, "our enemy ... ourn! mine and hisn both," even though he knows his father is guilty. Abner later beats Sarty because he knows the boy would have testified against him if given the chance.

Sarty changes his behavior and demonstrates his filial loyalty at the second trial when he tries to defend his father by crying out, "He ain't done it! He ain't burnt." But when push comes to shove—when Abner prepares to burn down de Spain's barn—Sarty simply cannot support his father's actions. Torn between loyalty to his family and to his own moral code throughout the story, Sarty now runs to warn the landowner of the impending fire, no longer able to bear the life of destruction and misery his father creates everywhere he goes.


The theme of justice is expressed in the story through locations, characters, and actions. Two trials take place in local courtrooms, presided over by two justices of the peace. Mr. Harris wants justice against Abner for burning down his barn. Major de Spain wants justice against Abner when he charges him 20 bushels of corn for the ruined rug. On the other hand, Abner wants justice against de Spain when he takes him to court. These actions that demonstrate the theme of justice are overt; they are accepted means of redress for offenses committed. But the theme runs deeper.

In his own way Abner believes he is dispensing justice, or rather correcting injustice, each time he burns down a barn. He feels life has been unjust to him. He lives in poverty while the wealthy enjoy riches and high social status, benefits which are built on the work of Abner and others like him. By burning down barns, Abner feels he is evening the score to an extent; in reality, all he is doing is digging a deeper hole of misery for his family and creating even more injustice. Yet, as someone at the bottom of the social ladder with no voice or power, he feels no obligation to truth or any other civic duty and is ready to defy the system that has crushed him.


The choices Abner and Sarty make are a central theme in the story. Abner's choice to repeatedly burn down barns forces his family into an itinerant life of poverty in which they will never find peace or stability. Each time they have a chance to begin again, Abner chooses to hold fast to his old ways of resentment, self-destruction, and defiance of authority.

Sarty's choices reflect his personal growth over time. At the beginning of the story, he chooses to comply with his father's strong will and domineering personality. He is cowed by Abner and falls in line with his father's decisions even though he strongly disagrees with them and wishes for a different life. Sarty is pushed to the breaking point by Abner's final act of destruction against Major de Spain: either he allows his father to continue his acts of violence or he takes a stand to stop them. Sarty can no longer tolerate living in his father's world; by warning Major de Spain of the barn burning, he makes a choice to change his family's fate. This choice leads to Abner's death—so the reader presumes. Although the Snopes family is now freed of Abner's pernicious influence, it is uncertain how they will survive without him. Given the patriarchal system and the fact he has gotten the only other bed in the cabin, the older brother likely will step into their father's shoes, as he has been observant and complicit. Sarty does not stick around to find out. His final choice is to liberate himself from his family, who has done little to nurture him or defend him.

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