Faulkner's short story about Sarty Snopes and his father, Abner Snopes, has been praised ever since its first publication in Harper's Magazine for June 1939. It was reprinted in his Collected Stories (1950) and in the Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (1961). Part of the story's greatness is due to its major theme, the conflict between loyalty to one's family and loyalty to honor and justice. This conflict is vividly illustrated by having a young 10-year-old boy — Sarty — confront this dilemma as part of his initiation into manhood.
Young Sarty has a choice: He can be loyal to his father, his blood relative, or he can do what he innately senses is right. He knows that his father is wrong when he burns barns, but Abner constantly reminds his son of the importance of family blood, and of the responsibilities that being part of a family entails. He tells Sarty, "You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you." In other words, if you are not utterly loyal to your own family, no matter if the family is right or wrong, then you will have no place to turn when you need help. At the end of the story, this is Sarty's dilemma — he has no place to go and no one to turn to.
The opening of "Barn Burning" emphasizes the antithetical loyalties that confront Sarty. The setting is a makeshift court for a Justice of the Peace, for Abner Snopes has been accused of burning Mr. Harris' barn. Immediately, Sarty is convinced that the people in the court are his and his father's enemies. He fiercely aligns himself with a loyalty to blood and kin, as opposed to the justice of the court: ". . . our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! Mine and hisn both! He's my father!" Faulkner then recounts the events that have led up to the charge against Sarty's father: Mr. Harris had warned Snopes to keep his hog out of the farmer's cornfield, and he had even given Snopes enough wire to pen the hog; after the hog escaped yet again into Harris' field, the farmer kept the hog and charged Snopes a dollar for "pound fee"; Snopes paid the fee and sent word to Harris that "wood and hay kin burn." Because there is no proof — other than this enigmatic message — that Snopes is responsible for burning the barn, the judge is legally forced to find him innocent. However, he warns Snopes to leave the county and not come back.
The courtroom scene and the following fight outside between Sarty and some boys underscore Sarty's predicament. Called to testify during the hearing, he is about to confess his father's guilt when the judge dismisses him; yet, when he is outside the courtroom and hears the boys calling his father a barn burner, he comes immediately to his father's defense, engaging them in a fight during which he sheds his own blood to protect his father's — and his own — name. Thus, the literal importance of blood loyalty is strongly emphasized.
These opening scenes provide us with a clear picture of Abner Snopes, whose last name itself — beginning with the "sn" sound — is unpleasant sounding. A silent and sullen man, he walks with a limp, a significant factor when we learn later that he received the wound while stealing horses — and not necessarily the enemy's — during the Civil War. We also discover that Harris' barn is not the first barn that he has burned.
Snopes never burns farm houses, and while we might initially conclude that this restraint is proof that Snopes isn't wholly incorrigible, we soon learn that on farms, barns are more important than houses because they hold livestock and oftentimes harvested crops, which provide the money and food that farmers and their families need to survive. Farms can thrive without houses, but they are doomed to fail without barns. Abner, of course, is keenly aware of this fact.
Although he knows that his father is a barn burner, Sarty fights the boys to defend his father's integrity, while hoping fervently that his father will stop burning barns: "Forever he thought. Maybe he's done satisfied now, now that he has . . ." Sarty cannot complete his thought that his father is not only a barn burner, but that he has been one for so long that before he burns down one barn, he has "already arranged to make a crop on another farm before he . . ." Again, Sarty severs his thought before he comes to the logical conclusion. He cannot bring himself to finish the sentence, which presumably would end, "before he . . . burnt down the barn."
Following the courtroom scene, Snopes loads his family into a wagon, headed for another farm on which to work. That night at a makeshift camp, he calls for Sarty to join him in a walk, and their ensuing conversation elaborates again the theme of family loyalty versus truth and justice. Realizing that Sarty was going to tell the Justice of the Peace the truth about the barn burning, Abner slaps his son in a dispassionate manner much like he earlier whipped the mules that pulled the wagon — "without heat." He warns Sarty about the importance of family and explains that none of the men in the courtroom would have defended him. Fearful of his father's abusive behavior, Sarty knows that it is useless to respond: "If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again."
The campfire episode is also important because it affords Faulkner the opportunity to explain to us why Snopes burns barns. Faulkner notes that the campfire is small, and he contemplates why Abner, who has such a penchant for fire, doesn't build a larger one. Explaining that an older Sarty might also wonder why, he provides two possible reasons: Because Abner was always hiding from troops during the Civil War, he grew accustomed to building small fires, which would not expose his location; but Faulkner settles on a better explanation, that fire "spoke to some deep mainspring" of Abner's character "as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity . . . and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion." The threat of fire is his one and only source of power, to be used selectively and effectively should anyone cross his path and anger him.
When the family arrives at the new sharecropping farm, Snopes takes Sarty along with him to see Major de Spain, "the man that aims to begin to-morrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months." Arriving at the landowner's mansion, Sarty is astonished by its size. Faulkner emphasizes his theme of justice by having Sarty compare the de Spain mansion to a place of law: "Hit's big as a courthouse . . . They are safe from him." Sarty thinks that the mere magnificence of the mansion will stop his father from burning more barns. This belief, no matter how false it might be, creates "a surge of peace and joy" within the young boy, who has known only a life of "frantic grief and despair." He hopes that his father will be as affected by the house's grandeur as he is, and that the stateliness of de Spain's plantation will "even change him now from what maybe he couldn't help but be." Sarty's dream is admirable and demonstrates his youthful innocence, but we know that he will be sorely disappointed.
Immediately, Sarty notices that his father possesses a "stiff black back" that is not dwarfed by the house. Snopes is defiant of the mansion's magnificence, and as Sarty watches him walk down the lane toward the house, we are presented with the central image of the story:
"Watching him, the boy remarked the absolutely undeviating course which his father held and saw the stiff foot come squarely down in a pile of fresh droppings where a horse had stood in the drive and which his father could have avoided by a simple change of stride."
As they approach the front of the house, the butler meets them at the door, telling Snopes to wipe his feet before entering, to which Abner responds with a command to the butler, "Get out of my way, nigger." When Mrs. de Spain orders Snopes out of the house after he deliberately tracks dung on her rug, he pivots intentionally so that his boot makes a "final long and fading smear." Leaving, he wipes the rest of the manure from his boot on the front steps before looking back at the mansion and commenting: "Pretty and white, ain't it? ... That's sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain't white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it."
This encounter, featuring Snopes and his defilement of the de Spain mansion, is the central motivation for the story. To Sarty, the mansion represents everything associated with truth, justice, and culture. That his father could so deliberately soil the aristocratic house with horse manure is inconceivable to him. It is, however, significant that the smearing is done with Snopes' wounded foot, which suggests his evil character. We know that he was wounded in the Civil War, and because he had no allegiance to either side, he is resentful of his current place in life — a resentment that causes him to strike out blindly at any and all forces that oppose him, or that he perceives as a threat.
Snopes feels superior only when he encounters someone who is black — in this case, the butler. Except in the South, nowhere in the United States could such a white-trash character like Abner Snopes enter the front door of a mansion if the butler forbade entry. However, in the South at the time the story takes place, a black person could not deny admittance to a Southern white person. More accurately, black men could not, under any circumstances, ever touch a white man, even if that white man was not part of the Southern aristocracy. Consequently, Snopes can feel superior to the black butler only because his own skin is white.
Two hours later, Sarty sees de Spain ride up to his father. Along with Sarty, we do not know what trespasses between the two men, but it is soon apparent that de Spain has brought the rug for Snopes to clean. Later, not satisfied with the way his two "bovine" daughters do the job, Snopes picks up a field stone and begins to vigorously scrub — and ruin — the rug himself. His motivations for deliberately soiling and then ruining the rug are essentially related to his wounded foot and his wounded pride. He resents being treated worse than most blacks would be treated, and he is angered by de Spain's contempt for him.
Early the next morning, Sarty is awakened by his father, who tells him to saddle the mule. With Sarty riding and Snopes walking, they carry the rolled-up rug back to de Spain's, throw it on his front porch, and return home. Later that morning, de Spain rides up and infuriatingly tells Snopes that the rug is ruined, and that he is charging him 20 bushels of corn for destroying it, in addition to what Snopes already owes for renting the farm.
The snobbish tone that de Spain uses to berate Snopes — "But you never had a hundred dollars. You never will." — prompts Sarty to side with his father against the landowner. Sarty affectionately addresses his father as "Pap" and promises that de Spain "won't git no twenty bushels! He won't git none!" In supporting his father against dc Spain, he distinguishes between the severity of burning a barn and his father's role in ruining the rug. While barn burning is intolerable to Sarty, 20 bushels of corn as punishment for destroying a rug is excessive injustice, as the justice of the Peace will rule later. However, Sarty notes, one benefit of his father's having to pay the twenty bushels is that it might make him ". . . stop forever and always from being what he used to be." Sarty's hoping for something to happen that will force his father to quit burning barns emphasizes his innate desire to conform to society's justice — so long as that justice is fair.
When Sarty discovers that his father must appear before the Justice of the Peace, he does not know that his father is the plaintiff and not the defendant. In the courtroom, he cries out to the judge, "He ain't done it! He ain't burnt . . ." before his father shuts him up. Instinctively, Sarty comes to his father's defense, which emphasizes his family loyalty, although we know that he remains upset by previous barn burnings.
After the judge rules that Snopes owes 10bushels of corn rather than 20, Sarty, still loyal to the family, sides with his father and says that de Spain "won't git no ten bushels neither. He won't git one." Snopes tells his son, ". . . we'll wait," implying that the matter is still open to debate — de Spain does have a barn that can be burned. Although we are not aware of it until later that night, Snopes feels defeated again by the aristocracy; he feels inferior. His determination to revenge the court's decision is revealed by the simple statement he gives his son.
That night at home, we hear Sarty's mother cry out suddenly, "Abner! No! No! Oh, God. Oh, God. Abner!" Having lost his lawsuit, Snopes is preparing to set fire to de Spain's barn. After Sarty hears his mother's cry, immediately he sees a horrifying image: His father is still dressed in his black suit, "at once formal and burlesque." This same black suit that Snopes wore to the legal hearing now becomes a suit for some "shabby and ceremonial violence." The irony lies in the fact that Snopes, by his formal dress, is preparing for his ritualistic act of burning barns.
That Sarty's mother is so opposed to her husband's actions — to the point that she is brutally abused by him — foreshadows Sarty's own opposition to this senseless and violent crime. When his father orders him to get more oil, he briefly hesitates. He is faced with three options: He can go along with his father, thus becoming a co-conspirator in the crime; he can "run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again"; or he can try either to stop his father or warn de Spain. Sarty embraces this third option when he pleads with his father, "Ain't you going to even send a nigger? . . . At least you sent a nigger before!" We recall that in the story's initial courtroom scene, Mr. Harris claimed that a black man delivered a threatening message to him from Snopes; now, Snopes is not going to give de Spain any warning.
Before Snopes leaves the house, he instructs his wife to hold Sarty tightly, knowing that his son will warn de Spain of the impending barn burning and thwart his revenge. He now knows, with certainty, that Sarty is torn between loyalty to his family and his need to enforce principles of justice.
After his father leaves, Sarty tries to break loose from his mother; his aunt, who joins in his pleas to let him go, threatens to go herself to warn de Spain. Ultimately, we realize, the aunt, the mother, and Sarty are all on the same side — the side of justice. This fact is important to note because, otherwise, we might consider Sarty an anomaly, but with his mother and aunt's agreeing with him, his role as an advocate of justice is more convincing.
As soon as he is free, Sarty runs to de Spain's, bursts into the house, and cries out, "Barn! . . . Barn!" He then flees down the road and is almost run over by de Spain on a galloping horse, headed for his barn. Sarty begins to run again, and suddenly he hears one gunshot followed by two more. He stops and yells, "Pap! Pap!" — his affectionate term for his father. Blindly running again, he falls down and calls out, "Father! Father!" There is little doubt that his father is dead.
At midnight, Sarty sits on the crest of a hill, his "grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair." He attempts to reassure himself that his father had been in the Civil War and had served honorably in Colonel Sartoris' cavalry. Faulkner comments that Sarty is unaware that his father went to war not out of a sense of loyalty, but for "booty — it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own." Later, Sarty realizes that he must have fallen asleep because it is almost dawn. He gets up and continues walking down the road.
The central image at the end of "Barn Burning" is one of rebirth and renewal, a typical image to end an initiation-into-manhood story. Sarty is headed "toward the dark woods," from which he hears birds calling. Their "liquid silver voices" symbolize the vitality of the spring morning and, by extension, the unceasing spirit of Sarty Snopes. We feel certain of his devotion to the justice that he has sought throughout the story; as Faulkner notes of him, "He did not look back."
These final images focus on Sarty: He is alone — he has cut himself off from his family and now must face the world by himself, possessing nothing but his own integrity and a strong sense of justice. He never again appears in any of Faulkner's works, although Abner Snopes and Sarty's older brother become central figures in other stories and novels. It is as though Faulkner did not want a male Snopes with a moral conscience present amidst the other amoral, unethical, thieving, and degenerate male members.