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Barn Burning

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Essay title: Barn Burning

Every person reaches a point in their lives when they must define themselves in relation to their parents. We all come through this experience differently, depending on our parents and the situation that we are in. For some people the experience comes very early in their lives, and can be a significant life changing experience. In William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” Colonel Sartoris Snopes must decide either to stand with his father and compromise his integrity, or embrace honesty and morality and condemn his family. This is a difficult decision to make, especially for a ten year old boy that has nothing outside of what his father provides. Sarty’s decision to ultimately betray his father is dependent on his observation of Abner’s character and the conflict he feels concerning Abner.

“Barn Burning” opens with a trial in a small Southern town. We see a small, wiry boy sitting on a barrel. The first thing we know of his thoughts shows the conflict he feels. After first identifying Mr. Harris as his father’s enemy, he corrects himself fiercely; thinking, “our enemy…ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my Father!”(84). The dual instincts of loyalty and integrity are what plague Sarty throughout the story. Early on we see in Sarty’s actions his desire to defend his family, for example; when he is leaving the first courthouse with his family he fights the first person who calls him a barn burner. The narrator lets us know that Sarty is in a blind fury and unable to see or feel the person he is fighting. The passion that he feels is likely fueled by his inability to stand whole hearted with his father. When the family stops to camp for the night, Abner hits Sarty and then explains his view: that the people in the towns they leave only want to get at Abner because they knew he had them beat. We learn that twenty years later Sarty finally finds the words he wanted to tell his father that night, “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.” (87). As a boy, however, he doesn’t know how to explain the conflict he is feeling and can only take in what is happening around him.

Sarty has spent the beginning of the trial listening to the proceedings and waiting for Abner to defend himself. When Sarty is called as a witness, he knows from his father’s posture that he, Sarty, will have to lie to defend the family. The fact that Sarty knows this without even seeing Abner’s face shows just how much time Sarty has spent observing his father’s body language and actions. This is reasonable, and even expected behavior from a child who lives with a parent who is as prone to anger and retaliation as Abner. We see how desperate Sarty is about his father’s willingness for revenge when they are moving to the De Spain’s estate and he thinks to himself, “Forever […]. Maybe he’s done satisfied now, now that he has…” (86). But Sarty is unable to admit the truth even to himself, probably because his loyalty to, and dependence on Abner. Even so early in the story Sarty feels that his father is doing wrong, but through all his observation cannot condemn the man. Sarty admires the qualities of independence, courage and conviction in his father but doesn’t recognize that these qualities, along with the righteous indignation that Abner constantly keeps at the ready, are exactly what cause them to be ostracized from every society the family attaches itself to.

When Sarty goes to the De Spain house with Abner and sees how large and grandiose it is, he thinks for the first time that there might be people beyond the reach of his father’s anger:

“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; […]” (88).

At this revelation that there were people who could live in such luxury and splendor Sarty forgets the terror and despair he associates with his father and hopes that there is redemption possible for Abner. This thinking shows the depth of love Sarty has for Abner, despite everything Abner has done. The narrator shows us that although Sarty sees some of the reality of the situation when he sees Abner’s silhouette against the house; stiff, depthless and undeviating, even when there are horse droppings in his stride; Sarty is still unable to pass judgment on his father. Sarty’s acceptance of his father’s shortcomings is just more fuel for the conflict that will dramatically change the emotional and familial landscape that Sarty is used to. Sarty observes the entire conflict with the rug, and it is after this that Sarty begins to observe how much his father’s injured foot speaks for his character. Sarty notices how the foot is so stiff and

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