William Faulkner, "Barn Burning"
November 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
Along with “A Rose for Emily” (1930), “Barn Burning” (1939) is one of William Faulkner’s most anthologized short stories. It is not hard to see why, as in barely twenty pages a wealth of conflict is jam-packed into it, with some nice dollops of easy-to-spot themes added to sweeten the mixture. In addition, “Barn Burning” serves as an excellent introduction to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County setting, as it references or introduces characters that later appear in novels such as The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959). But does all of this make “Barn Burning” an excellent read due to its own merits? In order to answer that question, it might be best to dissect this short story.
The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:
Faulkner has utilized smell effectively in two of the stories already discussed in this review series. From the descriptions of Addie’s rotting corpse in As I Lay Dying (1930) or the mysterious foul odor in “A Rose for Emily” (1930), Faulkner’s descriptions of smell accentuate the events that are occurring. Here in “Barn Burning,” by beginning with Sarty Snopes’ descriptions of the smells and sights of his father Abner Snopes’ appearance before the Jefferson Justice of the Peace inside his general store/court, Faulkner vividly impresses upon readers the rural, impoverished post-Civil War Mississippi of the 1890s. It is a place where the law is part-time, where more prominent townsfolk don several hats, and old animosities burble under the surface of social interactions. Abner Snopes is a wounded veteran, albeit more of the freebooting kind (it is noted that he is “walking a little stiffly from where a Confederate provost’s man’s musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago”), who exists at the outskirts of “polite” society. In this description, the smell description shifts suddenly from the cheese and fish to “the other constant one,” the emotionally-charged “smell” that denotes anger, fear, and hatred. It is an effective introduction to “Barn Burning” because from here Faulkner goes into the details of how Abner Snopes is viewed by the JP and the townsfolk, namely in the derisive “Barn burner!” that is yelled at him after he leaves the court and, at the “suggestion” of the JP, leaves Yoknapatawpha County, or at least the town of Jefferson.
Seen through the young (likely a preteen) eyes of Sarty (he is named after the legendary Colonel Sartoris, a figure who figures prominently in several of Faulkner’s fictions, as seen earlier with “A Rose for Emily”), the events of “Barn Burning” take on the vague sense of social ostracism and an almost cruel sense of family bonding, as seen here:
“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?” Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.” But now he said nothing. He was not crying. He just stood there.
Social standing was a major component of Southern society during not just the 1890s setting but also into the late 20th century. Families were the key unit and if one of them “went bad,” others related to them were suspected of having contracted this social malady. The Snopes were hounded for Abner’s previous horsestealing ways, wandering from poor homestead to another, often being persecuted by their neighbors for real and perceived wrongs. After a dozen such moves during Sarty’s lifetime, the family has come to the de Spain plantation, by far the most palatial of plantations for which the Snopes had sharecropped. Sarty is so taken in by the grandeur of the place (contrasted with his father’s sneering remarks about how “nigger sweat” had whitened the walls of the plantation house) that he thinks, in relation to his father’s propensity for pyromania:
They are safe from him. People whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity are beyond his touch, he no more to them than a buzzing wasp: capable of stinging for a little moment but that’s all; the spell of this peace and dignity rendering even the barns and stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive…
These words are ironic in context of the latter half of the story. After a simple but callous faux pas (the tracking of horse dung across an expensive blond rug in the house) is compounded by the permanent stain caused by the use of harsh lye soap by the Snopes in an attempt to rectify this mistake, the father is left burdened with the cost of an extra ten bushels of corn to pay for the damages. Irate and feeling threatened, his threat to burn down the barn, compounded with Major de Spain’s tracking him down after Sarty warns him of his father’s intent, serves as a culmination of the bitterness and hatred on the part of Abner Snopes and the derision and contempt that the local gentry and townspeople have for Snopes that goes far beyond the immediate events of the story. It is a clash of wills and conceptions of how the world should be. It ends, inconclusively, in violence.
When I first read “Barn Burning” in college, I did not understand the story in full. Yes, the bitterness and hatred were readily detectable, but I did not grasp the technical aspects of Faulkner’s storytelling. He deftly uses dialogue and brief touches of stream of consciousness narrative to portray a mosaic image of this little snapshot of post-Civil War Mississippi a generation after the War Between the States had concluded. We “smell,” similar to what Sarty did in the opening paragraph, the fear, hatred, and contempt that oozes out of these characters. We get a vivid picture of the Snopes family’s vagabond ways and the burdens that family ties put upon someone who feared his father’s temper and wickedness. In hindsight, it was inevitable that violence would occur, yet the pettiness of the events that led up to this make the unfolding narrative a fascinating, almost compelling read. Unlike the previous stories discussed here, “Barn Burning” has as its primary point of view character a young boy, one who barely understands what is happening, yet knows something is wrong, both with his father and with the world in which he operates. It’s his voice that makes the action of “Barn Burning” memorable and through him we see the complexities of the events in a way that belies his youth. “Barn Burning” is a great “slice of life” story that contains deft characterizations and a vividly-drawn setting, making it a true delight to re-read after the span of several years.
Originally posted in January 2012 on Gogol’s Overcoat as part of a weekly “Faulkner Friday.” Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.