Study Guide to
William Faulkner's "Barn Burning"
Allocate at least three readings to the story.
Arrange for your initial reading to be carried out at a single sitting. Your goal in this initial reading should be to familiarize yourself with the basic facts of the story. As you do this, you should be looking for answers to the following standard initial agenda of curiosity:
- As a part of this: what are the basic cultural norms the character takes for granted, or is asked by others to accept?
- Proceed on the assumption that there may be more than one, and that they will probably be related to each other. For example, what internal conflicts does the protagonist experience, and do these connect with conflicts between the protagonist and other characters?
- Is there more than one way open for deciding this?
- Does the point of view shift in the course of the story?
- What games does a given point of view open up for the writer to invite the reader to play? (That is, what problems of interpretation does the point of view make it possible to interest the reader in?) Does it look like the author is indeed offering to play this or that game?
Do not read further in this memo until you have completed your initial reading.
Many readers find that the point of view of the story and the narrator's language make it necessary for them to strain a bit to construct the basic facts of the story. Check to see if your picture of the skeleton facts of the story corresponds to the following. Add some details of your own to fill out these bare bones with important omitted facts.
Opening scene: a village general store somewhere in the American South (Mississippi?). A court is in session, presided over by a Justice of the Peace. Mr. Harris, a local landowner, has charged Abner Snopes, a share-cropping tenant, with arson - burning down his barn in retaliation for Harris' reactions to repeated incursions by Snopes' hog in Harris' crops.
The Snopes family camps out that night on the way to a new tenancy, in a county next door.
Description of the campfire. (What's important here?)
The father's admonition to the son. (What are the issues here?)
Arrival at the sharecropper's quarters at the new place.
Visit to the big house by Snopes (who has taken Sarty along):
Sarty's impression (What is the tone of the narrator's description of the house, as Sarty experiences it? What strikes you about what strikes him?)
Marring the rug
Back at the hut:
Major de Spain delivers the rug, demands it be cleaned.
Abner Snopes cleans the rug.
Snopes returns the rug, Sarty again being taken along on the errand.
Next morning (Wednesday) at the hut:
Major de Spain imposes a compensation.
Sarty's hopes. (What are these?)
Saturday, in town (a different one from scene 1), in another general store: court again:
Snopes charges that his landlord's imposition is unfair.
The J.P. reduces de Spain's exactions to $5 (10 bushels of corn beyond the share-cropping agreement already in force)
Later that afternoon, still in town:
Fixing the wagon
Eating a meal (What is revealed about Abner Snopes here?)
Back home, sundown.
Snopes' conflict with his wife
Sarty escapes, warns de Spain, escapes from the bighouse. The barn burns as de Spain rides out. Sarty hears shots.
Midnight, atop a hill in the middle of a woods. (What are Sarty's thoughts?)
Dawn. (What are the important details?)
In your second reading, focus on Sarty. What is the story inviting us to notice about him? What should be our feelings about what he undergoes, what he does, what the impact of this will be upon him?
What are the different values to which he seems to be committed? How are these values embodied?
What is it about his father that strikes him as admirable, worthy of respect?
Look carefully at the two court-session scenes. What is your reaction to the way the two judges act in the respective trials? What standards prompt the first judge's question to the plaintiff at the end of the trial? What standards prompt the plaintiff's decision? How do you feel about their commitment to these principles? How would you assess the judge's decision in the second trial?
How do you figure these events have registered with Sarty?
After Sarty runs away at the sound of the shots, is there any indication how Sarty will turn out? Will this now virtual orphan end up soundly on his psychological and ethical feet? Or will he be demoralized and destroyed by the trauma of what he has brought about? (Consider the conclusion of ¶28.)
Keep track in the margins of your text of the places where
- the narration shifts into what we would understand as the language of his own thoughts
- the narration renders his experience of something, but the language of the narrator deviates from the kind of vocabulary or syntax that we can regard as Sarty's own
- the narration departs from Sarty's consciousness, in order
- to tell us something about the past that Sarty does not know about
- to tell us something about the future
- to tell us something that Sarty would have thought or felt if he had known something that he does not know.
Do not read further in this memo until you have completed your second reading.
In your third reading, try something really difficult. See if you can find in the story a basis, indirectly conveyed, for understanding Abner Snopes in a sympathetic light.
This is difficult forseveral distinct reasons.
(1) This story is written almost exclusively from Sarty's point of view, even though (as you will have noticed in your second reading) the narrator indicates Sarty's experience from a conceptual vantage point that transcends Sarty's own conceptual repertoire, and even though the narrator occasionally acquaints us with facts that we are told Sarty has never heard of.
(2) We are clearly meant to sympathize with what Sarty is undergoing and with the decision he makes at the end, and this decision is not only counter to his father's will, but seems to result in the latter's death.
(3) The narrator paints Abner Snopes' appearance and impact upon his family in an apparently unsympathetic light.
(4) Snopes' motivation is left entirely unexplained, mysterious, unaccountable, bizarre - at least on the explicit plain. - hence (apparently) irrational, even mad.
Yet there are some features of Faulkner's portrait of Abner Snopes that warn us it would be a mistake to appreciate him only as a simple villain. Make it your business, in your third reading, to pay attention to details that indicate:
(1) that there are things about him that are impressive, even admirable.
- Tick off in the margin details that might serve as grounds for such view..
(2) that his "world view" is radically different from that which has come to be the established one, and that his sense is what the proper basis for self respect is something that on its own terms makes sense.
- Make an effort (you may not succeed, but make the effort!) to see how Snopes' picture of what should be is hard for us to appreciate because the picture that is established, which we ourselves participate in, and which contradicts it, is so pervasive, so dominant, that it is difficult for the rest of the characters and for us ourselves (who have all implicitly come to be a part of the consensus) even to imagine what it is, and how it hangs together, despite the fact that Snopes' is historically more traditional. The fact that the two are irreconcilable means that if one is realized, the other is negated, and this in turn means that partisans of each must regard each other as a profound threat. What we find so deeply threatening we are tempted to find ways to regard as simply unintelligible. Your task here is to resist that temptation. Try to discover how Snopes' picture might be at least intelligible - even if, in the end, you decide that you would reject it.
What are the sources of the raging resentment of the people for whom the prevailing circumstances force Snopes to work?
- What does he evidently see as the principles that he is defending, from a position of severe disadvantage?
Do you have some idea, historically, of how the circumstances came about that he sees as antagonistic to these principles? Or is it a fact of nature, rather than of particular societies, that some people must work for others on terms for the most part dictated by these others?
- Would it make a difference, in your view, whether these conditions of inequality were a fact of nature or a socially constructed artifact? (Note that this question is logically independent of the question of whether you think that they were or were not such an artifact.)
The key questions, then, concern Abner Snopes motivation. On the face of things, his behaviors are bizarre and unaccountable. But are they ultimately? (Remember: your task is not to find a way to endorse Snopes - only to understand what drives him.) What, then, are the factors (the complex of factors) that you detect behind:
- his negligence concerning the hog that keeps getting into Mr. Harris' corn;
- his burning of Harris' barn;
- his marring de Spain's rug;
- his "cleaning" it the way he does;
- his suing de Spain;
- his burning of de Spain's barn?
Here are some of the paragraphs you will want to take into special account: 25, 26, 28, 38, 45, 83.
There's a Writing Assignment on this story.
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This page last updated 12 January 1999.