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William Faulkner's 'Barn Burning': Summary and Analysis

William Faulkner's 'Barn Burning': Summary and Analysis

First published in the Harper's Magazine in 1939, William Faulkner's short story, Barn Burning, revolves around a ten-year-old boy, Sarty. The story is set in the southern region of the United States of America, and takes place after the Civil War. Here's the summary and analysis of Barn Burning for all you Faulkner fans.
Rucha Phatak
An Exceptional Writer!
William Cuthbert Falkner (1897-1962), an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate in literature (1949), was born in New Albany, Mississippi, USA.
A collection of some of his best works are: The Sound and the Fury(1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Fable (1954) and The Rivers (1962), two of his books, won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Several speculations surround the change in William's last name from Falkner to Faulkner. It is said that in the year 1918, Falkner, himself, changed his last name for reasons not known; however, according to the another story, the name was misprinted on the title page of his first book Soldier's Play (1925); hence, the name Faulkner remained, as William did not mind the change.

Faulkner's stories are set in the south of America where he grew up and was familiar with the lifestyle of the southern people. His short story, Barn Burning, follows on the same lines.

The first print of the story was published in the June 1939 issue of Harper's Magazine. The very same year, it was awarded the O. Henry Prize for the best fiction story. The Collected Stories of William Faulkner (1950) also included the story, and it was reprinted in 1961, in the Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. For now, just sit back and revel in this short story of a little boy who was torn between the loyalty to his family and an inner sense of justice.

Let us go deeper into the story to understand it...
Summary and Plot
  • The story begins at the town court where young Sarty, short for Colonel Sartoris Snopes, along with his father and brother are summoned for a hearing. His father, Abner Snopes, is accused in the burning down of the barn owned by his landlord, Mr. Harris. Mr. Harris tells the court that Snopes's hog ran into his cornfields and ruined them completely. In spite of several warnings when the hog continued to enter the cornfields, Mr Harris kept the hog and asked Snopes to pay for the damages. In turn, Snopes sends a man to collect the hog who also threatens Mr. Harris. The same night, Mr. Harris's barn is burned down. He takes the matter to court where the judge calls for Sarty to be a witness. However, given the fact that Sarty is too young to testify, he lets the boy go. In his verdict, the judge orders Snopes to leave the country with his family, and never return again. Sarty is aware of his father's folly; however, when they walk back to their wagon, few of the street boys hit him hard on the face calling his father, 'Barn Burner'. His mother, who witnesses this, feels sorry for her son only to be told off by his father and commanded to get back to the wagon.
  • As they are on the way to their new home, the Snopes camp out in an oak grove for the night. There, after the family falls asleep, Abner Snopes decides to take Sarty for a walk. His father with not an ounce of remorse of what he has done, slaps him and warns him never to open his mouth about the incident.
  • The next day, the Snopes reach their new house on Major de Spain's land. Abner takes Sarty to visit their new landlord. Sarty is awed by the huge mansion of the de Spains, which reminds him of the courthouse. However, despite the servant's protest, Abner forcefully enters the house with horse droppings stuck to his shoes. He deliberately soils the rug. This angers Mrs. de Spain, and she orders him to leave the house. Later, the rug is given to Abner to be cleaned. Abner, with every intention of ruining the rug, uses harsh lye and a jagged stone to clean it. He then throws the rug on the de Spains' porch. Sarty is witness to all that his father does.
  • Next morning, Major de Spain's anger knows no bounds, and he beckons Abner to his house. He orders him to pay twenty bushels of corn for the ruined rug. However, Sarty supports his father as he thinks twenty bushels is too high a compensation for the rug. But the young lad believes that this would stop his father from his continued miscreant behavior.
  • The following weekend, Abner and his sons are summoned to the courthouse as Abner accuses Major de Spain of charging him a huge compensation for the rug. Sarty, in all his innocence, defends his father stating his father did not burn the barn. At this point, Abner stops Sarty and commands him to go back to the wagon. In the entire episode of confusion, the judge reduces the fee to ten bushels of corn.
  • That night, Sarty hears his mother protesting against his father's wicked plans. Sarty knew what his father was up to. This time too, Abner decides to burn down the de Spain barn. The little boy is in a dilemma to either go along with his father and become a co-conspirator, or run away, or warn the de Spains. Sarty chooses to warn them. Running hard, he barges into the de Spain household and alerts them by screaming "Barn!" Major de Spain goes ahead on his horse to stop Abner in his act with little Sarty in full pursuit on foot. Sarty hears two shots being fired and assumes that his father is dead.
  • The story ends with Sarty running into the woods with tears flowing down his cheeks, and his soul in deep anguish at the loss of his father. He walks deep into the woods not knowing it is midnight. His young weary legs, hurting now, as he had tripped while running. He rests, and soon drops off to sleep. However, at daybreak, he is wide awake and decides to walk back. He starts to do so without looking back.
The first part of the story is set in an unknown county in the United States. However, the second part takes place in Faulkner's fictional creation―Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. 1895 is the year that the story takes place in, a few years after the Civil War ends.
  • The story is narrated in the third person. The narrator's primary focus is on Sarty and a gamut of emotions he undergoes in the entire story.
  • The narrator draws the readers' attention to Abner Snopes's past, which his son, Sarty, is unaware of.
  • The theme of the story is Sarty's "loyalty towards family vs. inclination towards justice." Sarty is the protagonist of the story and struggles emotionally as his father constantly reminds him of his loyalty to his family. He brainwashes this innocent ten-year-old stating "You got to learn to stick to your own blood, or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you." On several occasions, Sarty defends his father despite knowing the fact that his father is in the wrong. He cannot tolerate lies and in the end, notwithstanding the continued wickedness that his father indulges in, decides to warn the de Spains about his father's intentions to burn down their barn.
  • Other underlying themes are: Clashes between different classes, courage, youth, family, and the search for peace. 
Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty)
Sarty is the ten-year-old protagonist of the short story Barn Burning. Sarty's father, Abner, burns barns, lies about it, and expects the other family members to support his lies. However, Sarty has a strong sense of justice. Though he is loyal towards his father and defends him on several occasions in the story, he knows his father is in the wrong. In spite of an urge to speak the truth, he curbs it as he loves his family. At the age of ten, he exudes great decision-making power which leads him into doing the right thing. He does so by warning the de Spains of the peril triggered by his father.

Abner Snopes
Abner, head of the Snopes household, controls the family with physical violence and brainwashing them into supporting his destructive acts. He is portrayed as a terrifying figure. Burning barns is his way of unleashing his anger against the barn owners who oppose him. He indulges in this activity far too often. Abner, also, was a so-called war veteran. A mercenary who got shot while stealing horses. He is the lord of his own laws. It seems, he is involved in a class war as he deliberately ruins Major de Spain's rug.

The other characters that accompany Sarty and Abner are―Lennie Snopes, Sarty's mother, his brother and sisters, his aunt, Major de Spain, Mr. Harris, and the Justice of Peace.
Sarty makes a wise decision of choosing his sense of duty and justice over his family, especially his father, at the end. He loves his father far too much; however, his father's miscreant activities tire him. He stands up for the truth to help his father in mending his wicked ways. Faulkner rightly stated, "Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world... would do this, it would change the earth."
Hope, this summary of the Barn Barning kindles the fire in you to stand up against the existing unjust ways of society. Happy Reading to you all!