An Essay on Barn Burning by William Faulkner

Prompt: At one point in Barn Burning, Sarty thinks that “maybe” his father “couldn’t help but be” what he is (par. 40). What is Abner Snopes? What desires, motives, values, and views – especially of justice – seem to drive and explain him? What does the story imply about how and why he has become the man he is? What might be admirable, as well as abhorrent, about him? How does the narrative point of view shape your understanding of, and attitude toward, Abner?


Abner Snopes is an arsonist. He’s not just an arsonist. He’s a serial arsonist. In the story, after the judge in the town where the Snopes family is living has ordered Abner to get out of town and the Snopes family is traveling to the next town, it is mentioned that Sarty, Abner’s son and the central consciousness in the story, “did not know where they were going” (par. 25). This is followed up by the fact that none of the members of the family “ever did or ever asked” (par. 25). So, we see that this is not the first town that Abner has been run out of, not the first time the Snopes family has had to uproot their lives and start over somewhere new because of something terrible Abner has done.


Sarty’s thoughts about his father give us more information about Abner’s character. First, Sarty cannot bring himself to admit what his father has done. When he is called upon in court to tell the truth about whether or not his father burned a neighbor’s barn, he feels “frantic grief and despair” (par. 7). He knows that his father wants him to lie. He doesn’t want to lie, but he is prepared to do so out of feelings of loyalty to his father. Luckily for Sarty, the judge decides not to question him. Later, though, Sarty can’t even silently admit the truth to himself in his own thoughts. “Maybe he’s done satisfied now, now that he has…,” Sarty thinks (par. 20). Sarty’s thoughts break off, before he can even acknowledge in his mind that his father burned the barn. The same thing happens again in Sarty’s thoughts several paragraphs later.


So, Abner is the kind of father who can inspire such fear and loyalty in his son that he doesn’t even want to admit his father’s wrongdoing in the privacy of his own mind. We can discern from this that Abner Snopes is an extremely harsh man and one who has an adversarial view of the rest of the world. He sees his family as something like a small kingdom where he is the ruler with absolute power. Anyone outside of this kingdom is an enemy who is not to be trusted. When the judge calls Sarty forward in court, Sarty even thinks, “Enemy! Enemy!” (par. 10), not noticing that the judge seems to be sympathetic toward him, a child obviously caught in a toxic family situation. Abner Snopes has such power over Sarty that the boy is willing to ignore his own sense of right and wrong and do whatever is necessary to please his father. He has been trained to believe that his father’s will is what is most important.


This shows that Sarty does not have a defiant character and that the character of Abner is an expert at understanding and wielding power. Abner knows who he has power over, how to maintain that power, who has power over him and how to strike back at those who have power over him.

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