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William Faulkner’s "Barn Burning" – Honoring Family Or Honoring Self
William Faulkner is remembered for his many fictional short stories and essays. He is best known and best-loved for an account titled “The Barn Burning,” a period narrative set in the aftermath of the war-torn South. Here, a young protagonist named Colonel Sartoris Snopes takes on his rival father, Abner. Named after the fictional Civil War hero, Colonel Snopes, or Sarty as he called it, was a 10-year-old boy born into a poor sharecropper family of cold, vengeful, angry parents. Faulkner described Satie’s body as that of a young boy, short for his age, stocky, wearing patched and faded jeans that were too small for him, with no shoes on his feet. He has brown uncombed hair, gray eyes, and is “as wild as a storm-scud” (179). Emotionally, Satie is a desperate, grief-stricken, and fear-filled young man who learns how to overcome those limitations, make the biggest decision of his life, and become a man in the process.
Faulkner brilliantly gives the reader an undeniable sense of Satie’s despair. At Harris’ trial, Faulkner, who was waiting to be called as a witness, said the boy was filled with mixed emotions but “mainly despair” (178). There are two reasons for this frustration: He should have lied and made his father’s enemies his own. The pressure to lie was imposed by his father. Satie says to himself: “His purpose is to make me lie…with mad sorrow and despair. I shall have to be hit” (179). It’s clear that Sarti is no stranger to his father’s demands for unity, but it’s also clear that he feels a great deal of desperation beyond bullying the enemy. This is self-imposed depression. In his adolescent mind, he could only come to the conclusion that his father’s enemy must be himself. He sees his father’s “enemies” and muses “in despair” that they are “ours! mine and his! he is my father” (179). The desperation came from his feeling that he must hate those whom his father hated.
This hopelessness gives way to another, more painful emotion, grief. Although the words despair and sadness have similar connotations, it is clear that Faulkner sees them as distinct characteristics of this young man. Faulkner repeatedly notes that Satie is full of “sorrow and despair” (179). Desperation refers to the hopelessness that Satie feels, while grief refers to intense regret for the choices he had to make. Sarty understands the morality of the issue. Despite being hindered by his surroundings, he still possesses an inner principle of moral decency. A war in his heart is raging between his allegiance to blood and his allegiance to civic duty. It is said to be like being “drawn two ways … between two horses” (186). The tug shook him inside and demanded a response from him. Satie knew his father was wrong, but he was also deeply saddened by the inevitable choice he had to make; it was the source of his grief.
For such a young boy, facing such a difficult situation, he couldn’t help feeling a kind of fear. In fact, Sarty is described as full of “fear” (178) and “horror” (182). Faulkner tells us that Satie’s youth, combined with his father’s brutality, created his desire for “freedom” (182), while generating “enough strength to keep him rooted in his place” (182). “Fear,” the Bible asserts, “has torment,” and Satie is certainly a tormented soul. That is, until they come to the de Spanish major and Satie sees his home: “In that moment he forgets his father and his fear and despair” (182). This sets the stage for our hero to shine.
During this visit, Sarty learned that it was possible to escape his father’s influence. To him, the house looks like a “courthouse” (182), a symbol of civil justice, no doubt an impression of the young man because of his inner desire to hold his father accountable for his actions. He knew his father’s crimes could not go on. The visit marked a turning point in his mentality, a turning point in the ten-year-old’s decision to become a man.
Faulkner seems to want us to see the fact through the eyes of children that each of us must choose our own path, that life is a series of decisions that begin in our early childhood and define us later in life. We control our course, not the lineage of our ancestors, not our family ties, and we can change our course if we stick to what we believe in and choose to do good instead of evil.
Sarty has made his choice; he will be true to himself. Sarty could feel his blood racing and his heart beating as he sped down the dirt road leading to his De Spain home, but instead of stopping him like he thought, his blood was urging him to move forward; to overcome his despair, to bypass his fears, to ignore his sorrows; for all intents and purposes, he is a man now. His childhood died just like his father. His future is as dark and uncertain as the night sky and the dark forest he walks into, as uncertain as adult life. The story ends with the dawn of a new day; symbolically representing the new life the young protagonist receives. The old familiar feelings of “despair” and “sadness” (191) are still there, but “fear and dread” (191) are now gone. No future decision in life has been so difficult; no other night has been as dark as his, for he is now the master of his own destiny.
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