Shameful Birthright, Predetermination, and Free Will
in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”
by Joie Tavener
William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning”, describes Sarty Snopes, a young Southern boy who struggles with his paternal inheritance of criminality and violence. In the very first paragraph, Faulkner describes this paternal influence as “the old fierce pull of blood” (250).
He explores the common idea that a person’s inherited personality traits may predetermine his or her life from the moment of conception. However, Faulkner argues in the “Barn Burning”, that a determined, conscientious individual using free will makes choices and determines his or her own path in life instead of following an inherited, predetermined one.
Abner Snopes, Sarty’s father, embraces his violent and criminal talents given to him at birth. His actions, before and during the story, clearly show that he utilizes his dark nature. Before the time of this story, during the Civil War, Abner hones his horse stealing skills. Abner burns barns because the local farmers have insulted him and because he can. Faulkner illustrates Abner’s terrible, inherited nature with small details. “His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horse fly, […]” (253). Faulkner consistently shows Abner Snopes committing violent acts not by overt conscious effort or thought, but by easy, natural reactions to the world around him. Abner does not have an inner moral compass. His fate is predetermined. Abner displays his inherited, violent personality by his hateful words as well. Faulkner graphically illustrates this by Abner’s comments to Sarty after going to the house of his new employer, Major De Spain, and purposely tracking horse manure on the front hallway rug. Abener looks at the De Spain house and says, ““Pretty and white, ain’t it?” he said. “That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it” (255). Faulkner proves by Abner’s words that he is an authentic evil criminal. Abner’s words demonstrate that he hates most people. In the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Cain bears a special mark after he murders his brother. Abner bears the mark of a criminal as well. While stealing horses during the Civil War, Abner is shot in the foot giving him a stiff foot and a limp. The stiff foot carries the horse manure into the De Spain house and grinds it into the expensive, pale rug. The stiff foot is a symbol of Abner’s criminal nature. The pale, expensive rug is a symbol of civilized society that Abner knows will never accept him with his brutish nature.
Faulkner continues the symbolism by describing Abner as one dimensional as seen through the eyes of Sarty, “[…] where, turning, he could see his father against the stars but without face or depth – a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin […]” (253). Faulkner shows the reader that Abner is fixed and unchanging in all situations. This is Abner’s tragic birthright. Abner does not have the ability to change his violent path through life.
Faulkner shows a different situation in his portrayal of young Sarty Snopes, Abner’s youngest son. Sarty is ten years old in “Barn Burning” and starts to understand that he has to make a choice about his identity. Sarty’s blood inheritance from his father pulls him in one direction and Sarty’s internal moral compass pulls him in the opposite direction, “[…] being
pulled two ways like between two teams of horses […]” (258). However, Sarty cannot deny that Abner is his father. Sarty reacts violently when a larger boy taunts him. “Again, he could not see, whirling; there was a face in the red haze, moonlike, bigger than the full moon, the owner of it half again his size, he leaping in the read haze toward the face, feeling no blow, feeling no shock when his head struck the earth […]” (251). Sarty inherits his father’s wiry build along with his father’s potential for violence. The difference between Sarty and Abner, Faulkner implies, comes from Sarty’s inner moral compass whether inherited from his mother or simply occurring accidently. Sarty’s personality almost forces him to betray his father by warning De Spain that his barn is in danger. Sarty’s actions portray his moral nature as much as Abner’s actions portray his violent nature.
Sarty’s anguish over the actions of his criminal father and his role as Abner’s son is the heart of Faulkner’s story. Sarty does not want to be like his father, and yet he loves him and wants desperately to admire him. Attending Abner’s first trial for burning Mr. Harris’s barn, Sarty is asked to testify. “His father, stiff in his black Sunday coat donned not for the trial but for the moving, did not even look at him. He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (251). Sarty’s moral dilemma is that he does not want to lie even to save his father. Abner knows that Sarty will not lie for him and tells him, “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” (253). Ironically, Sarty realizes from Abner’s words that he can choose against his blood and family. Sarty knows that breaking away from the inherited violent family lifestyle will cost him his father. Faulkner emphasizes Sarty’s difference with his name. Sarty’s full name is Colonel Sartoris Snopes. This is a signal of how different Sarty is from the rest of the Snopes clan. Colonel Sartoris is a local well respected Civil War hero. This symbolism shows that Sarty possesses admirable character traits. Another symbol for Sarty is the De Spain house. Abner hates the De Spain house while Sarty falls under its spell. Sarty has never seen a house as large and as beautiful. “They walked beside a fence massed with honeysuckle and Cherokee roses and came to a gate swinging open between two brick pillars, and now, beyond a sweep of drive, he [Sarty] saw the house for the first time and at that instant he forgot his father and the terror and despair both, […].” (254). The De Spain house is a symbol of Sarty’s possible future. Sarty is on the brink of committing to a life of crime or to another life that may lead to a De Spain-like house. Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” gives the reader a great comparison between good and evil and the influence of inheritance. Sarty’s shameful birthright of violence does not condemn him to a life of crime. Sarty, unlike his father, chooses a different path to follow even though he betrays his father, family, and blood to take that path. William Faulkner illustrates clearly in “Barn Burning” that a conscientious person can determine and create his or her path in life instead of following a predetermined one.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” Literature Reading, Reacting, Writing.
Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 5th ed.
Boston: Heinle Publishers, 2004. 249-264.