Misplacing Barn Burning: A Story from the '90s

Hugh Short, Iona College

In her article “’Barn Burning’: A Story From the ‘30s,” Mary Ellen Byrne contends that Faulkner’s short story, written in 1939, “may be read and discussed in our classrooms as … a story of the 30s,” and that by construing the story in this manner a teacher can “awaken students to the race, class, and economic turmoil of the decade.” Certainly Faulkner deals profoundly with all three themes in the body of his work, but Byrne’s attempt to make them primary in “Barn Burning” is mistaken and the result is misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the story. Let me first attempt a responsible summary of Byrne’s argument, and then suggest both the weaknesses in her case and an alternative interpretation of the story.

Byrne begins with an interest in the decade of the 30s, Depression-era America, and asserts that “Barn Burning,” written at the end of that decade, discloses the social injustices of that decade. She notes that in that decade the Fugitives, a group of Southerners, in their manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, looked back with longing for and appreciation of what they construed as the blessed and benevolent Southern aristocratic tradition. Byrne sees Faulkner countering the visions of the Fugitives by depicting in his story “the injustice, the lack of fair play, the blacks’ subservience, and the divisiveness within the community which empire builders like the Sartorises and the de Spains wrought.” She asserts that these themes of social inequity and injustice influence Faulkner’s depiction of Abner Snopes, claiming that it is “this very social inequality, the class distinction, and the economic inequality against which Sarty’s father Ab Snopes’ barn burning rails.” She contends that the story demonstrates the workings of an oppressive class system, citing, for instance, the encounter between Snopes and de Spain’s black servant as “an example of social injustice,” and arguing that:

At the heart of Abner’s defiance is his awareness that the man in the big house “aims to begin owning me body and soul for the next eight months.” This outrage at his plight as tenant farmer fuels the father’s rebellion against the class structure. To attack the aristocratic class, Abner Snopes deliberately builds his fires to burn the property owned by the boss….

Byrne goes on to say that in his “complex characterization of Abner Snopes” Faulkner gives Snopes many of the qualities celebrated in his Nobel Prize speech, including “courage, pride, and endurance,” and that these qualities earn him Sarty’s initial loyalty. Byrne claims that Snopes has “endured unmerited suffering on his own tenacious terms,” though she does concede that he is without “love, pity, and compassion,” the loss of these qualities representing “the toll to the human spirit that the oppression, deprivation, and injustice of the Great Depression exacted.” Despite depicting Snopes as valiantly striking out at injustice and oppression, Byrne argues that in choosing to warn de Spain of the danger to his barn, thereby endangering his father, Sarty experiences “moral growth” while not at all understanding his father’s rebellion against the aristocratic concept of “people as chattel.” Byrne concludes that “Clearly in this tale of initiation, one of moral choices and their consequences, Faulkner recreates Southern class differences and racial distinctions at the close of the 30s.”

Well, where to begin? Let me first object to a very basic assumption on Byrne’s part, and then proceed to demonstrate textually how this assumption leads her to misunderstand and misrepresent Faulkner’s story. On the most basic level Byrne assumes that because the story was written in the late 30s, its concerns are reflective of the social and racial issues and concerns of that time period. But such an approach would be uncharacteristic of Faulkner. The issues and concerns of any Faulkner story are in many ways timeless, based on the perennial agonies of the human condition. Nonetheless, Faulkner does immerse the reader in the life and time of his characters, and so his fiction concerns itself with the social and racial conditions of those characters and their time. In “Barn Burning,” however, that time period is unquestionably the 1890s, not the 1930s. It is textually certain that the action of the story takes place in the 1890s, since Snopes participated in the Civil War, and since we are told that his stiff walk is the result of an incident in which a “Confederate provost man’s musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago” (Faulkner 6). Granted, Byrne does not contend that the story is actually set in the 1930s, but her disregard for its actual temporal setting is unwise. When Faulkner wanted to take on the concerns of the twentieth century he did so, and set his plots in that century. It would be highly uncharacteristic of Faulkner to use a story set in the 1890s to demonstrate conditions existing in the 1930s. This initial error on Byrne’s part leads her to enter into a textual analysis with presuppositions that lead her to misconstrue textual details.

The first error in Byrne’s reading is contained in the claim that the story demonstrates the “injustice, the lack of fair play, the blacks’ subservience, and the divisiveness within the community which empire builders like the Sartorises and the de Spains wrought.” No doubt injustice and subservience were serious concerns throughout most of Southern history, but if one looks for textual details to confirm the multiple claims of the passage, one finds only contrary evidence, evidence that Byrne overlooks. Where in the text, for instance, does one find injustice, or lack of fair play? There are two “courtroom” scenes. In the first Snopes stands accused of burning a neighbor’s barn, and he is unquestionably guilty as charged. The entire rest of the story confirms that Snopes has a history of burning barns, and Sarty is almost called to testify in the case; he thinks just before being questioned that “he aims for me to lie” (Faulkner 4-5). His father later strikes him, claiming that “You were fixing to tell him” (9). Snopes is certainly guilty, but he is not convicted, because the presiding judge has compassion for Sarty and does not wish to call him to the stand to testify against his father. Even the wronged man, Harris, pities the boy and releases him from testifying. Snopes walks away free, with a warning to leave the county, which he has already arranged to do. Certainly there is no injustice toward Snopes here, no lack of fair play. Similarly in the second case, this time a case in which Snopes is the accuser, the judge takes pains not to oppress Snopes and not to favor de Spain. By this point in the story the reader has seen Snopes deliberately step into horse manure, deliberately enter the de Spain house uninvited, deliberately mark up the rug. Clear textual evidence exists for all of these assertions, but suffice it to say that once Snopes is out of the house he cleans his boot on the top of the stairs (13), thus demonstrating that he knew all along of the manure that he was tracking into the house. When de Spain brings him the rug and demands that it be cleaned, Snopes deliberately ruins it, and his wife knows all along that he will do so and begs him to let her clean the rug instead (14-15). Even with his guilt evident in the physical fact of the destroyed rug, the judge takes pains to keep from being unjust to Snopes. Even de Spain knows that it would be unreasonable to expect Snopes to pay for the destruction of the rug, and his claim against Snopes is for only ten percent of the rug’s value. The judge eases up on even that mild penalty, holding him responsible to pay back only five percent. So where is the class injustice? And where is the “divisiveness within the community”? Virtually every member of the community seems decent and compassionate, united against Snopes’ acts. Moreover, Byrne’s claim that divisiveness is caused by the actions of the “empire builders,” including de Spain, is simply unfounded. Perhaps de Spain did come by his wealth in some oppressive manner, but there quite simply is no evidence at all in the text of the story to substantiate such a claim.

This misunderstanding of the fair play and justice of the community leads Byrne to misunderstand Abner Snopes. The claim that it is “economic inequality” against which Snopes “rails” is, again, not supported textually. Let us look at the facts. The reader is told not that an oppressive class structure has caused the family to move twelve times just in Sarty’s memory, but that Snopes’ propensity for arson has kept the family moving. The first burning discussed in the story, of Harris’s barn, gives the lie to Byrne’s claim. Harris is no aristocrat; he is a small farmer who has been abused by Snopes. Snopes refused to take any steps to keep his hog out of Harris’s corn, even after Harris gave him the wire to fix up the hog’s pen, and so Harris penned the hog himself and charged Snopes to get it back (4). For this Snopes burns down his barn, as he has burned barns in the past. Snopes is not engaged in class rebellion; he strikes out indiscriminately at all who get in his way, and it is his violence and destruction that keeps him moving, not class oppression.

Moreover, Snopes contracts with de Spain on his own initiative, and de Spain does not get a chance to oppress him, since Snopes immediately puts himself in the wrong. The scene which Byrne uses as evidence of  “social injustice” actually makes the reverse case. Poor and uneducated though he may be, and rich as de Spain may be, Snopes just barges into his house. The servant is unable to keep him out, and if the servant asks him to wipe his feet, well, any of us would do the same, and Snopes should not have to be told. Even if he were to walk into the poorest hovel he would be expected to wipe the manure off of his feet, so where is the “social injustice”? Having ruined the rug and learned that de Spain is not home, Snopes leaves without anyone saying a rude word to him. From the first moment de Spain is the aggrieved party, not Snopes. First his servant is treated rudely, then his rug is smeared, then it is destroyed, and then he is sued. The injustice is all on Snopes’ part, and it is textually clear that Snopes is not rebelling against a class structure, since his past fires have been against members of his own class and since he puts himself in the wrong with de Spain before de Spain has any opportunity to oppress him.

Nor is Snopes the repository of Faulknerian virtues. His pride is excessive and the source of ill, not of virtue. His courage is what?: Single-minded devotion to his perverse sense of injury, perhaps, but the text makes clear that he has never shown courage in the performance of any act not in his own self interest, including during the course of the Civil War, in which he served himself, not any cause (27). Snopes does not demonstrate the great Faulknerian virtue of endurance, either, for in all of Faulkner’s work the virtue of endurance is in play when a character retains his or her humanity and integrity in the face of natural or social forces beyond his control, as is the case with the tall convict in Old Man or Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, just to name two. Faulkner never considered it a demonstration of endurance to persist in vicious, destructive behavior against poor and rich alike. No, Ab Snopes is no Faulknerian hero.

On the other hand, Sarty is much closer to the model of the Faulknerian hero, and perhaps the main problem with Byrne’s reading is that it obscures this central fact. Sarty endures steady and unremitting oppression by his father, yet he holds on to his dignity and his humanity. In Byrne’s reading Sarty is a secondary character, but the story belongs to him. Yes, as Byrne claims, the story is a “tale of initiation,” but Byrne’s reading confuses the reader’s understanding of that initiation. If Byrne is right and Snopes heroically rebels against the aristocratic class, Sarty’s choice to inform de Spain and thereby oppose his father would seem wrong, or at least ignorant, as Byrne indeed suggests. But the text will not support any such conclusion.

Sarty makes the right choice. He is torn by loyalty to his kin and loyalty to ideals such as justice. Though he is impressed by de Spain’s house, his conflict exists before he ever sees that house. Even during the first court scene Sarty is inclined to tell the truth rather than lie, and when his father strikes him for that inclination, Sarty does not yet have the words to express what he feels, that “they wanted only truth, justice” (Faulkner 11). Indeed, the scene in which Sarty first sees de Spain’s house is most instructive regarding Faulkner’s actual concerns. The “terror and despair” (11) that are so much a part of Sarty are explicitly associated with his father, not with the house, and the sight of the grand house gives Sarty relief from his despair because he feels that the “peace and dignity” (11) of this place must surely be beyond the “touch” (11) of his father. Of course Sarty is mistaken, and his father will finally force him to confront his conflict and choose between his father’s destructive touch and the dignity of justice. When he finally can not accept his father’s intention to burn the barn without even giving de Spain a warning, an act which would surely result at least in dead livestock, Sarty makes the choice he must make, and rejects the ties of blood in favor of greater social obligations. In doing so he quite possibly causes his father’s death; he knows that possibility. He even assumes that that is what has happened, and he grieves the loss of his father, whom he still loves, or tries to love, or at least in whom he still tries to believe, insisting that “He was brave” (27), and rooting that insistence in his perception that he was in the war and in Colonel Sartoris’s cavalry, though the reader knows that he is mistaken in this belief, since in that war Snopes gave “fidelity to no man or army or flag” (27).

As the story concludes, the reader is reassured about Sarty’s future, because, as he wakes up and walks on his solitary way in the last paragraph, “he did not look back” (27), but is called to life by “the liquid silver voice of the birds” (27). Yes, Sarty has grown morally, in facing a terribly difficult conflict and making a moral choice. But unless we reject Bryne’s reading of the text we cannot understand how significant that growth is, since Byrne gives Snopes a justification for his actions that the text of the story denies him.

Works Cited

Bryne, Mary Ellen. “’Barn Burning’: A Story From the ‘30s.” Teaching Faulkner. 12 June 2002.

Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” In Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. New York: The Modern Library, 1960: 3-27.

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