FAULKNER DEFINES POETRY AS “SOME MOVING, PASSIONATE moment of the human condition distilled to its absolute essence.” If we transcribe this essence into fiction, then the teller becomes the tale. Faulkner plays continually with narrative’s intrinsic subjectivity: from the disjointed, compulsive repetitions of the Compson brothers in The Sound and the Fury to the equivocal, evocative fables of Absalom, Absalom!, he experiments with narrative strategy to portray the teller as the tale. “Barn Burning” dramatizes an intriguing variation of Faulkner’s narrative strategy–a “doubling” of perspective–in which an anonymous, omniscient narrator fuses with Sarty Snopes, the ten-year-old protagonist, to texture the story with a multiple narrative presence: the narrator; the young, traumatized Sarty; and the mature Sarty, whom the narrator evokes to ponder his tormented childhood “[l]ater, twenty years later.” “Barn Burning” depicts a very straightforward plot: Abner Snopes, Sarty’s father, terrorizes his son and impels him prematurely toward manhood when Sarty must choose between the dictates of his own conscience and his father’s frontier justice. The narrator–a sophisticated, intellectual, and foremost poetic presence–absorbs and interprets Sarty’s anguish for the reader. The reader simultaneously experiences the terror-stricken child’s distress and the narrator’s rationalizing of Sarty’s suffering. This supple narrative strategy, an intricate intertwining of diverse levels of consciousness, compresses time to the poetic moment. R. Rio-Jelliffe states that “as the different viewpoints and voices intertwine, planes of time converge.” For Faulkner, every moment contains the element of the past and the promise of the future: the protean narrator intermixes Sarty’s past, present, and future, and, by superimposing these layers of time on one another, “distills” this “moving, passionate moment … to its absolute essence.” According to Rio-Jelliffe, Faulkner reinvents the conventional narrative techniques of flashback, flashforward, and the suspended moment to capture and preserve not an instant of “timelessness” but a moment of “all-timeness” (pp. 101-102).
One pivotal moment of “all-timeness” occurs during the crisis when Abner strikes Sarty for desiring to testify against him at the trial which opens the story. Abner had threatened to torch Mr. Harris’s barn, but the Justice of the Peace hesitates to question Sarty, the only available witness. Instead of compelling the young boy to testify, against his father, the Justice of the Peace banishes Abner from town. That evening, as the Snopes family camps on their way to Major de Spain’s plantation, Abner–the “archetype of unsubmissiveness”–displays his contempt for order, for community, by fueling his frugal fire with a fence railing, in lieu of twigs or underbrush:
a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion. (pp. 7-8)
According to Karl F. Zender, the narrator’s speculations about Abner’s pyromania not only project Sarty’s intellectual and moral maturity, but also direct the reader to an “active, intuitive, passionately engaged reading” of the story. Zender insists that the narrator distinguishes between moments of “false” and “true” insight by shifting from “thought” to “divined” in this passage, by converting from an experiential to an intuitive understanding of human nature (p. 50). Certainly the narrator’s conjectures evolve from “wondered” to “thought” to “divined,” from doubtful speculation to prophetic insight, but the auxiliary verb “might” qualifies this entire process. Zender glosses over how the narrator distances the young Sarty deliberately from these speculations. The narrator proposes a series of plausible reasons for Abner’s malice–the havoc of war, moral deficiency, criminal instincts, even psychosis–but Sarty can never fathom his father’s evil. Rather, the narrator assigns a “truth,” some sense of meaning, to the evil afflicting the child.
Images of war haunt the narrator’s speculations, from Abner’s marauding during the War Between the States to the narrator’s ascribing of his militant code of honor. As the narrator ages Sarty from “older” to “older still,” this passage sweeps the youth not only towards maturity, but also towards the experience of battle. Sarty’s dilemma–“being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses” (p. 17)–enacts the classic conflicts of good versus evil, son versus father, and individual versus familial identity. In the midst of these deliberations, the narrator hypothetically marches Sarty towards deeper insights into his father’s character–“then he might have gone a step farther.” Throughout “Barn Burning,” the narrator links movement to volition. In moments of crisis, such as when Mr. Harris calls on Sarty to testify against his father, Sarty yearns to escape but cannot flee from his “frantic grief and despair” (p. 4); the narrator likens Sarty’s peril to dangling “over a ravine,” grasping only a grape vine, “caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless in time” (p. 5). Sarty, petrified by fear, endures the terror of the sublime moment until Mr. Harris releases him (both literally and figuratively)–only then can Sarty seek anchorage in his “fluid world” (p. 5). As the narrator, however, speculates about Abner’s fascination with fire, he portrays Sarty as gradually asserting himself to progress from doubtful speculation to prophetic insight, from “wondered” to “thought” to “divined,” and ultimately to exert what Oliver Billingslea calls his “moral vision” (p. 303).
Edmond L. Volpe argues that Faulkner portrays Sarty’s “awakening sense of his own individuality” through the interplay of “two levels of consciousness”: “an adult narrator to translate the boy’s tensions and interpret the moral significance of his anxiety” and the child character to dramatize his distress. The narrator’s quest to decipher Abner’s motiveless malignancy establishes a context for the violence that Abner inflicts on Sarty. The reader perceives Abner only through the eyes of his son, yet the narrator describes a satanic caricature–the depthless silhouette, the “stiff and implacable limp,” the “impervious quality of something cut ruthlessly from tin” (p. 10)–a burlesquing of evil markedly similar to what the reader perceives in the portrayal of the sinister Popeye in Faulkner’s brutal novel Sanctuary. Abner’s surreal presence symbolizes his son’s nightmarish existence, for Sarty has fallen “half asleep” by his father’s meager fire before Abner abruptly summons him to the starlit road, then strikes him: “His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat” (p. 8). Susan S. Yunis argues that the narrator stifles Sarty’s pain by focusing exclusively on Abner and presenting his violence objectively. The narrator thus enacts a basic survival strategy for abuse: diminish the aggressor’s brutality by ignoring his victims. Yet Faulkner’s intricate narrative strategy underscores Sarty’s trauma by distancing the reader aesthetically from the young boy’s “frantic grief and despair” (p. 4). Rather than objectifying and degrading Sarty, this dispassionate narrative imitates nightmare’s disembodiment and disorientation. The reader perceives the terror-stricken child’s suffering much more intensely through this manifold narrative perspective. Yunis assumes that the mature Sarty remains obsessed with his past, locked within an “endless” and unfulfilling narrative (p. 26). By discounting the narrator’s empathy for Sarty, Yunis misconstrues how the narrator establishes a context for Sarty’s trauma to intensify his tragedy. Regrettably, Yunis likens the narrator to the abusive, negligent men of the Snopes clan, then reviles “him” for controlling the reader’s animosity towards Abner (p. 24); this strident misinterpretation of the narrator’s poetic function–this distilling of the conflict between devotion and fear–severely underestimates the suppleness and complexity of Faulkner’s prose.
On the starlit road to the De Spain plantation, Abner castigates his silent son: “‘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'” (p. 8). Abner rationalizes his dispute with Mr. Harris and the Justice of the Peace as sheer persecution: “Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?” (p. 8; emphasis added). Abner insists that his audacity incensed the prosperous landowner; he then demands, with the imperative interjection “Eh?” (p. 8), that his son confirm his interpretation of the hearing. The narrator intervenes at this crucial moment, disrupting the story’s immediacy to refer to the future, to Sarty’s maturity: “Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, ‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again'” (p. 8). Time frames and narrative perspectives converge to form this poetic moment, this single glimpse of Sarty’s future. The narrator evokes the mature Sarty to offer us a glimmering of hope: somehow, despite horrendous odds, Sarty will survive “the terrible handicap of being young” (p. 9), will surpass his beleaguered childhood and mature into a worthy human being; somehow, Sarty will preserve his integrity, will escape the curse that his father inflicts on his family. Billingslea believes that Sarty reflects the idealism of the American Romantics, “the Emersonian blending of personal will with one’s fate” (pp. 288, 290). As the narrator had previously imagined Sarty’s comprehending of his father’s obsession with fire, this presence now evokes the mature Sarty–the inspiration for these imaginings–to thwart Abner’s threatening his young son’s integrity.
In his important book, The Play of Faulkner’s Language, John T. Matthews defines narrative as “perpetual tracings and retracings. … the trail is the destination,” for one does not seek to capture “truth” when creating fiction, but merely relishes the quest. “Language,” for Faulkner, “embodies consciousness, it does not reveal it”; so, when he depicts a character resisting the narrative, refusing to speak, that character’s refusal becomes a “worded silence–a silence that corresponds most nearly to the space of writing” (pp. 16, 41). After Abner strikes his son and demands that he affirm his father’s perverse ideals, the narrator immediately evokes the mature Sarty; at the very moment when Abner compels Sarty to endorse his father’s version of events, to actively commit himself to his father’s ideals, the narrator opens a compact space of resistance in which Sarty can redefine his father’s eccentric vision. Young Sarty–repulsed by his father’s iniquity, yet powerless before his father’s implacable malice–hesitates to acquiesce. The narrator highlights Sarty’s profound reluctance by delaying the inevitable, the moment when the young boy must concede to his father’s wrath to survive. The narrator frustrates the power of language–Abner demands a positive, verbal confirmation from his son, not mere acquiescence–to empower Sarty, albeit temporarily, as he silently reappraises his father’s actions.
Rio-Jelliffe claims that Henri Bergson’s theory of the fluidity of time greatly influenced Faulkner’s narrative technique as he strove to create “moments of significance” that “empower words to speak in silence” (pp. 9899). By evoking the mature Sarty, the narrator uses this silent moment to depict the young boy as countering his father’s coercion, not with passive resistance but with a creative instant of self-realization. Throughout the story, the narrator stresses the young Sarty’s inability to articulate his “frantic grief and despair” (p. 4). Longing desperately to love and respect his father, the young Sarty cannot admit, even to himself, his father’s iniquity. Sarty’s lack of language signifies his vulnerability, “the terrible handicap of being young” (p. 9). He dare not think, much less voice, his own convictions, and he dare not dissent from his father’s point of view. The family’s itinerant lifestyle isolates Sarty from the world beyond his father’s control, and Abner stifles all opposition by compelling his family to be utterly dependent on him. Sarty’s father denies his son a separate identity: “‘You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you'” (p. 8). Abner invariably squelches Sarty’s quest for individuality, for otherness, by quelling his attempts to define himself: the father silences the son to perpetuate his own image. Nevertheless, Sarty disrupts this disquieting silence repeatedly as he struggles to define himself against “the old fierce pull of blood” (p. 3). The narrator describes Sarty’s youth as a “terrible handicap … the light weight of his few years, just heavy enough to prevent his soaring free of the world as it seemed to be ordered but not heavy enough to keep him footed solid in it, to resist it and try to change the course of its events” (p. 9). Young Sarty’s inability to express himself, to use language to impart his own meaning to his existence, testifies to the power Abner wields over him: “But now he said nothing” (p. 8). The narrator, however, disrupts this power by evoking the mature Sarty to presage the ending of Abner’s reign of terror. The thirty-year-old man’s composure contrasts sharply with the ten-year-old boy’s insecurity. The man expresses the dissent that the boy feels so acutely but dares not state: the mature Sarty provides the young Sarty with a voice.
By evoking the mature Sarty, the narrator defuses, albeit fleetingly, Abner’s malignancy by relegating him to the past. Young Sarty grapples with his father’s iniquity to distinguish himself from “the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed him willy nilly and which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him” (p. 21). Jane Hiles argues that “the deterministic language of the story … suggests that Sarty may be doomed to repeat the pattern established by his father.” Hiles believes that Sarty cannot escape his savage heritage because he grapples with “instinct and intent” (p. 336). Hiles drastically simplifies Sarty’s dilemma because she underrates what Matthews calls the play of Faulkner’s language. According to Hiles, “Sarty’s inability to analyze his feelings emphasizes the subconscious nature of the boy’s conflict, explains his lack of insight into the dilemma that he faces, and justifies the role of the narrator … [as] interpreter and analyst” (p. 335). This reductive reading denies the narrator’s empathy with Sarty and flattens the intricate narrative presence by freezing the supple interplay between its multiple perspectives. Zender aptly refutes Hiles’s strident determinism by arguing that “a developmental reading limits our capacities as readers to those exhibited by Sarty himself: it allows us to see with Sarty, but not beyond him” (p. 52). Allusions to Darwinism pervade “Barn Burning” to portray Abner as an avatar of “latent ravening ferocity” (p. 7) and to dramatize the extent of Sarty’s peril. The narrator, however, continually undermines this devastating incarnation by showing Abner succumbing to the sheer passage of time. Sarty’s father cannot remain impervious to age; Abner’s graying brows, the “friction-glazed greenish cast” on his well-worn formal coat (p. 11), even the broken clock that comprised his wife’s dowry–all portend his diminishing influence, his limited resources, his inevitable demise.
In the holograph manuscript of “Barn Burning,” this single-sentence glimpse of Sarty’s future reads, “Later, 20 years later, he then was to tell himself “‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.'” The adverb “then” marks this comment as a transition that connects the two time frames even as it intensifies the disparity, between them. Faulkner uses italics to show either shifts in time, as in Benjy’s section in The Sound and the Fury, or subconscious thought, as in Light in August. Here, the printing style appears to do both: the italics emphasize the emotional and intellectual distance separating the self-assured man from the insecure boy as the mature Sarty articulates a thought that the young Sarty shares unconsciously with him. Faulkner revised the story slightly for publication, so the version presented in the Collected Stories reads, “Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, ‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again'” (p. 8). Faulkner stresses the strength and consistency of Sarty’s convictions by eliminating not only the adverb, which sharply divides his youth from his maturity, but also the italics, which imply subconscious thought. Faulkner’s revisions create a deliberate judgment by the mature Sarty that originated in, but remained unspoken by, the terror-stricken child.
In December 1938, a destitute Faulkner attempted to capitalize on his publisher’s interest in Flem Snopes by proposing an ambitious trilogy to chronicle this despicable character’s enigmatic career. Faulkner planned to begin this trilogy with the events depicted in “Barn Burning,” so Sarty appears as a pivotal figure in his synopsis.
[Flem Snopes’s] youngest brother tries to keep his father [Abner] from setting fire to his landlord’s barn, believes he has caused the father to be shot, and runs away from home, goes west, has a son which the other Snopes know nothing about.
Flem moves to town with his wife whose child pretty soon sees what a sorry lot Snopes are. She goes to New York (has money from her actual father) and is overseas in the War with ambulance corps, where she meets the son of the boy who ran away from home [Sarty], finds him a kinsman, finds how his father has tried to eradicate the Snopes from him. After the war she brings together this Snopes [Sarty’s son] and the daughter of a collateral Snopes who also looks with horror on Snopeses. She and her remote cousin marry, have a son [Sarty’s grandson] who is the scion of the family.
What this will tell is, that this flower and cream, this youth, whom his mother and father fondly believed would raise the family out of the muck, turns out to have all the vices of all Snopes and none of the virtues–rut