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Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Barn Burning | 10 Things You Didn't Know


"Barn Burning," published in 1939 and one of American author William Faulkner's best-known short stories, explores—like many of Faulkner's works—the class system that divided the American South near the end of the 19th century. Set in the South in about 1895, the story is told from the third-person perspective but focuses on an impoverished, illiterate 10-year-old boy, Sarty Snopes. Sarty's father, Abner Snopes, is on trial for burning down the barn of a local landowner. Sarty, who has been taught to value family loyalty above all else, is faced with the dilemma of whether to blindly side with his father or to develop and follow his own moral compass.

1. The second sentence of "Barn Burning" is more than 100 words long and contains at least 12 clauses.

Faulkner is known for his long, often meandering sentences. The second sentence of "Barn Burning" is a great example. Depending on how it is diagramed, this sentence contains between 12 and 16 clauses:

The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish—this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.

Asked why he wrote such long sentences, Faulkner explained, "A character in a story at any moment of action is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him, and the long sentence is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something."

2. "Barn Burning" is written in Faulkner's signature stream-of-consciousness style.

Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that depicts the flow of thoughts passing through a character's mind. Faulkner used this type of narration in many of his works, including As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, as well as in "Barn Burning." The 117-word-long second sentence of "Barn Burning" provides a perfect case in point. This sentence provides the reader a peek into a 10-year-old boy's thought processes, revealing his feelings of hunger, fear, and grief.

3. "Barn Burning" received the O. Henry Prize in 1939 for best short story of the year.

Named in honor of the prolific American short story writer, the O. Henry Prize has been awarded annually since 1918 to exceptional short story writers published in American and Canadian magazines. "Barn Burning" was published in Harper's Magazine in June 1939 and was awarded the O. Henry Prize for best short story of the year. In addition to "Barn Burning" Faulkner won O. Henry Prizes for 11 other stories.

4. "Barn Burning" is one of Faulkner's most anthologized short stories.

Widely considered to be one of Faulkner's most outstanding short stories, "Barn Burning" appears in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, Anthology of the American Short Story, and Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction, to name but a few examples. It frequently appears alongside "A Rose for Emily," another of Faulkner's best-known short stories.

5. "Barn Burning" is the prequel to a trilogy about the Snopes family.

After the publication of "Barn Burning" in 1939, Faulkner wrote three novels focusing on the Snopes family: The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959). Collectively these novels are often referred to as the Snopes trilogy. Snopes family members—who serve as examples of many types of unpleasant and immoral behavior that contrast with the mores of the Old South—also appear in some of Faulkner's other stories and novels, including As I Lay Dying (1930).

6. "Barn Burning" focuses on the perspective of an illiterate 10-year-old boy.

Faulkner was a perspectivist in his fiction writing—he liked to tell stories that focused on a particular character. Thus the narrative details in "Barn Burning" are filtered through the mind of Sarty: in the story's second sentence, for example, Sarty notices the pictures on the labels of the canned goods but cannot read the words ("which meant nothing to his mind").

7. Critics of "Barn Burning" have been divided about Abner's violent actions.

Critics have debated whether Abner's behavior in "Barn Burning" is justifiable—or at least understandable. Critic Karl Zender, for instance, shows some sympathy for Abner. Although he admits Abner is "vengeful" and "tyrannous," he points out he is motivated by "a desire for his son's affection." He also suggests there is "partial justification" for Abner's violence. On the other hand, the critic Susan Yunis criticizes Faulkner himself for being "intent on explaining and justifying Abner's barn-burning." She also criticizes him for neglecting to give a voice to the girls and women in the Snopes family.

8. "Barn Burning" inspired the name of an alternative-country band from Rhode Island.

"Barn Burning" is the favorite short story of the band's front man, Anthony Loffredio. One music reviewer wrote that the band's name "could not be any more perfect," noting:

[The characters in Loffredio's lyrics,] while invariably less psychotic than Snopes, come from a similarly dark place, living their lives on the margins of society, and once more battling against the weather and the elements as well as their own often taut desires and emotions.

9. The Snopes family inspired the name of the myth-busting website is a website dedicated to researching and debunking urban legends. When the site's founder, David Mikkelson, first started using the Internet, he worried that "no one would remember yet another David." So he started to sign his online posts as "Snopes," in honor of the fictional family. "Snopes" developed a reputation for thoroughly debunking false claims, and when he finally started his own website, "seemed the obvious choice."

10. The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami gives a nod to Faulkner in his own short story titled "Barn Burning."

Haruki Murakami is known for his genre-defying, often surreal novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84. Although his novels bear little resemblance to Faulkner's works, he casually alludes to Faulkner's novels in some of his own. In 1983 he wrote a short story called "Naya wo Yaku," or "Barn Burning" in English. The story's plot has little in common with Faulkner's story, but its narrator reads Faulkner's short stories while he is waiting for his girlfriend.

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