Throughout the story “Barn Burning”, author William Faulkner conveys the moral growth and development of a young boy, as he must make a critical decision between either choosing his family and their teachings or his own morals and values. The reader should realize that the story “Barn Burning” was written in the 1930’s, a time of economic, social, and cultural turmoil. Faulkner carries these themes of despair into the story of the Snopes family. Faulkner opens the story, “Barn Burning” in a southern courthouse room of the during the Civil War reconstruction era, also a time of social, cultural, and economic instability.
At this point in the story the main characters, Abner (Ab) and his son, Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty) are introduced. Ab is on trial for the malicious burning of a barn that was owned by a wealthy local farmer. For Sarty’s entire life he and his family had been living in poverty. His father, who had always been jealous of “the good life”, takes his frustrations out against the post-Civil war aristocracy by burning the barns of wealthy farmers.
As most fathers do, Ab makes the attempt to pass his traits and beliefs on to his son, whom does not necessarily agree nor fully understand his father’s standpoint. The following passage is an example of how Sarty is taught that both legal justice and wealth is the enemy of his family: 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 not hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet. (Meyer, 481)
After the Justice had declared that there was not a substantial amount of evidence to convict Ab Snopes of the crime, he ordered the family to move out of town. The reader may assume that during the multi-day trip to the family’s new home, Sarty had a chance to reflect on the values of his father. Even at such a young age the boy is beginning to develop the ability to form morals and values of his own. However, Sarty fears the harshness of his father, so he forces himself to abandon the thought of questioning his father’s judgments as evidenced by his thoughts “Forever he thought.
Maybe he’s done satisfied now, now that he has…stopping himself, not to say it aloud even to himself. ” (483) As the family arrives at their new home, Sarty takes note of the de Spain mansion. Sarty perhaps feels that his father’s immoral beliefs will become irrelevant now that people of such wealthy status employ them. Sarty describes the mansion and its relation to the father: Hit’s big as a courthouse he thought quietly, with a surge of peace an joy whose reason he could not have thought into words, being too young for that: 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 those peace and dignity rendering even the barns and stables and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive…this, the peace and joy, ebbing for an instant as he looked again at the stiff black back, the stiff implacable lime of the figure which was not dwarfed by the house, for the reason that it had never looked big anywhere and which now, against the serene columned backdrop, had more than ever that impervious quality of something cut ruthlessly from tin, depthless, as thought, sidewise to the sun, it would cast no shadow. (485)
After a conflict between Sarty’s father and the de Spain family over a French rug, Ab opts to burn yet another barn. At this point Sarty realizes the conflict within his heart, and he forces himself to make a decision between his family and his values. His father realizes his intentions and orders his wife to keep a grip on Sarty.
Enraged by his father and family, Sarty breaks the grasp of his mother and entire family and runs towards the de Spain mansion to warn its occupants of the terrorism in progress. Once informed of the crime, the owner of the mansion mounted his horse and raced to the site of the arson. As Sarty is running from the mansion he hears three gunshots that cause him to crumble to a stop. The reader can conclude that these are the shots that most likely ended the lives of his father and his two brothers. At this point Sarty is overwhelmed with emotion as he realizes that the family that he knew had perished. Sarty felt he could not return to his mother and sisters for he had betrayed them. Faulkner once said, “I decline to accept the end of man… I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.
He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. ” I believe that Faulkner displayed this belief throughout this story. He shows that Sarty is a “soul” that is compassionate when he mourns his father in the last few paragraphs of the story. He exemplifies sacrifice when Sarty must sacrifice the safety and lives of his family members for his own morals. Finally, Faulkner conveys endurance when the child comes to the realization that he may not return to the surviving members of his family, and that he must continue to live on his own.