In “Barn Burning” William Faulkner examines a young boy’s struggle against his father, Abner, who has a behavior problem. Abner keeps his family together by forcing them to lie for him while in trial and deal with his anger. Through the use of historical context, symbol, and character, Faulkner is able to demonstrate a theme that family loyalty is a vital part of life, however, sometimes being loyal to yourself ends with having to break loyalty to the ones you love.
To understand more about Faulkner’s theme, one must begin with the historical context in which this story is written. The story takes place about ten years after the Civil War. Abner is portrayed to be a veteran, which may influence his wrongful actions. Being in a war could have had some affect on Abner’s mentality, which causes him to be hostile. Once a person leaves for war he or she never returns the same. Constance L. Shehan puts it like this: “The after effects exhibited by many of these veterans appear to constitute a syndrome identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is defined as a delayed but persistent malaise characterized by nightmares, loss of control over behaviorâ€¦” (55). Abner could be experiencing a little bit of this syndrome, which is causing him to act in such ways. Also, this story is most likely set in the southern part of America where the farming and tobacco industries were booming. This is important when thinking about the title of the story because many people owned barns in order to dry their tobacco and store farming equipment and animals. This is relevant because barns were an obvious treasure to those who owned them. It was considered not only a way of living, but something that kept a family living. Farming was important to the wealthy and to the poor. It cost a lot of money to build a barn and was very important to the owner, and Abner knew this, so this is what he went after in order to hurt someone. Secondly, the time period displays social discrimination. When Abner reaches the home of a family he will be renting farmland from, the black man at the door states: “Wipe yo foots, white man, fo you come in here. Major ain’t home nohow.” Abner replies with, “Get out of my way, nigger” and wipes his muddy feet on a rug (Faulker 191). In the 1930s blacks were still in the minority. Perhaps walking into a home full of chandeliers put Abner back into his place, a place that is no better than the minority, and caused him to become even more out of control.
Many of Abner’s actions act as symbols in the disclosing of Faulkner’s theme, beginning with the most occurring, fire. Abner builds fires at night while the family is in the process of moving. These fires are described as “a small fire, neat, niggard almost, shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather” (Faulkner 189). The fires Abner would build while the family was moving would be small, which was out of the ordinary for him. Not only the reader begins to wonder why he would do this, but also Colonel Sartoris. Faulkner states that if he were older “the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one” (189). After seeing his father start so many fires, which resulted in big disasters, Colonel Sartoris cannot understand why his father would want to build such a small fire. Later, it is revealed that “the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other menâ€¦” (189). This suggests that fire is a symbol of Abner’s control. He is able to control the size, place, and how long the fire burns, whereas, he is not able to control his own anger.
A second symbol in the story involves all of the broken items in their wagon. Faulkner writes, “the battered stove, the broken beds and chairs, the clock inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which would not run” (188). All of the broken items together symbolize the brokenness of the family. Everyone is the family is trying to stay loyal to Abner’s deceit and as a result they become unaware of the fact that they can be happy as a family. More specifically, the broken clock could symbolize Abner’s control over the every member of the family’s life. Neither are they able to move forward with their lives, nor are they able to remember happiness from their life before. With Abner’s actions, the family must try and make it through each day without having to be sent out of town or possibly visiting their father/husband in jail. Instead, the family is stuck trying to make the best of their controlled lives.
Another symbol in the story is blood. This, however, is not an ordinary literary symbol. Blood represents family, which is obvious to the reader, but has a more revealing meaning when the term is linked to the Snopes family. In the beginning of the story, the reader experiences Colonel Sartoris’ agony as he sits before a judge, hungry, with the smell of food in the air. Despite his hunger, the smell of meat and cheese is over powered by the smell of “â€¦old fierce pull of blood” (186). This symbolizes the bond between Colonel Sartoris and his father. It is obvious that the boy feels as though the bond and loyalty of family is important because even though he is hungry and the reader can assume he has not eaten in several days, the only thing on this young boy’s mind is keeping his father safe. While other children would be sitting at a dinner table with their family, Colonel Sartoris (and the rest of his family) is stuck in a courthouse having to lie to get Abner out of trouble, because at this time, the family’s first priority is loyalty to their father. One reason for Colonel Sartoris’ oath of loyalty to his father may be a reaction to his father’s threatening words. Abner tells him, “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (189). Abner is threatening Colonel Sartoris by telling him if he is not devoted to his own blood, he will either be left behind with no one at all, or be the cause of his father to be taken away or even his death.
The third and most revealing of the literary elements is character. It can be argued that Abner is the protagonist and the antagonist in this situation is undoubtedly Abner’s son, Colonel Sartoris. However, as the story starts, this is not obvious to the reader, or to his Abner. Faulkner writes, “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (187). Colonel Sartoris obviously knows lying is the wrong thing to do, but is pressured into it by his father’s comments and swats. When he seems as though he wants to tell the truth, his father will hit him. With Colonel Sartoris being loyal to his father, it is hard to tell that he is actually against what is happening. But when Colonel Sartoris matures, he realizes what his father is doing is wrong and knows he needs to help himself, along with the families his father is tormenting, and finally decides to display his emotions. When he does, the reader and Abner get a glimpse of Colonel Sartoris as the antagonist. Faulkner states,
‘Hold him,’ the father said. The aunt made a startled movement. ‘Not you,’ the father said. ‘Lennie. Take hold of him. I want to see you do it.’ His mother took him by the wrist. ‘You’ll hold him better than that. If he gets loose don’t you know what he is going to do? He will go up yonder.’ He jerked his head toward the road. ‘Maybe I’d better tie him’ (196).
It is obvious that Abner has now realized that Colonel Sartoris has decided that his actions are unacceptable and is planning on revealing his actions to the judge, families he has betrayed, and families he will betray.
Another arguable point when it comes to characterization is that the roles of Abner and his son, Colonel Sartoris, can be switched. In this case, Abner is the antagonist because he is keeping his family from living a normal life and, as mentioned before, from moving on with time. Abner moves his family from place to place, and does not carry with him a good reputation, which reflects on the whole family. Colonel Sartoris, as the protagonist, has a goal of living a better life and looking forward to a brighter future. His father, nonetheless, interrupts his thinking. Faulkner states,
They walked beside a fence massed with honeysuckle and Cherokee roses and came to a fate swinging open between two brick pillars, and now, beyond a sweep of drive he saw the house for the first time and at that instant he forgot his father and the terror and despair both, and even when he remembered his father again (who had not stopped) the terror and despair did not return. Because, for all the twelve movings, they had sojourned until now in a poor country, a land of small farms and fields and houses, and he had never seen a house like this before (190).
Colonel then begins thinking this family will be safe from his father (190). Colonel Sartoris could perhaps be wishing that he and his family was safe from his own father. At this point, the reader can conclude that Colonel Sartoris is a round character who evolves from feeling obligated to keep a promise to his father to caring more about himself and his future. In the end, Colonel Sartoris finally runs away and does not look back.
In conclusion, Faulkner is able to express many different aspects of family throughout the story “Barn Burning”. He stresses the significance if sticking together through hard times and the importance of what it actually means to be a family. However, through the use of these three important literary elements, Faulkner is able to illustrate the line between loyalty to a wrongful family member and loyalty to oneself.
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