“Barn Burning” (1938) William Faulkner
William Faulkner (1897-1962) • Greatest American Southern writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1950 • A master of modernist experimentation in the novel, related to his obsession with time • stream of consciousness, temporal shifts, and multiple voices • Some major novels: The Sound and the Fury (1929) [4 narrators], As I Lay Dying (1930) [15 narrators], Absalom! Absalom! (1936)
Colonel William Clark Falkner (1826-89) • Faulkner’s great-grandfather • Civil War Veteran • Politician • Popular Romantic Novelist (The White Rose of Memphis, 1881) • Died of gunshot wound from former business partner
William Faulkner (1897-1962) • Born William Falkner, 25 Sept. 1897, New Albany, Mississippi • 1918: joins Canadian Royal Air Force • 1919-20 U of Mississippi • 1921: U of Mississippi Post Office
Faulkner: Early Publications • 1924: The Marble Faun (poems) • 1925: travels in Europe • 1927: Mosquitoes • 1928: Sartoris
Faulkner: Major Phase • 1929: The Sound and the Fury • 1930 As I Lay Dying • 1931: Sanctuary • 1932: Light in August • 1935: Pylon • 1936: Absalom, Absalom!
Faulkner: Later Fiction • 1938: The Unvanquished; “Barn Burning” • 1940: The Hamlet • 1942: Go Down, Moses • 1948: Intruder in the Dust
Faulkner’s Critical Reputation • Better regarded in Europe than in U.S. • Then: 1946: The Portable Faulkner • 1950: Nobel Prize for Literature
Faulkner, after the Nobel • 1954: A Fable (Pulitzer Prize) • 1957: The Town • 1959: The Mansion • 1962: The Reivers
William Faulkner (1897-1962) • His great theme is the influence of the past on the present • Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun (1951), says: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” • “[T]o me,” Faulkner remarked, “no man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such thing really as was because the past is. It is a part of every man, every woman, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background, is all a part of himself and herself at any moment.”
Yoknapatawpha County • Faulkner’s apocryphal county, patterned on his native Lafayette County. • The county seat, Jefferson, resembles Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford in many particulars—but without Oxford’s University of Mississippi campus • Faulkner said Yoknapatawpha means “Water flows slow through the flatland.”
Yoknapatawpha County • 2,400 square miles; • the population, 6,298 whites and 9,313 Negroes, for a total of 15,611
from Nobel Acceptance Speech • 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. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
Question • Is Faulkner’s vision in his fiction as positive and uplifting as the vision expressed in this Nobel lecture? Or is his fiction more ambivalent?
“Barn Burning” • a story of the Snopeses, a poor white family who appear in a number of Faulkner’s narratives of fictional Yoknapatawpha County • Setting: Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, about 30 years after the Civil War (1861-65), thus, in the 1890s
“Barn Burning”: the film, 1980 • Part of The American Short Story Collection • Starring Tommy Lee Jones as Abner Snopes • Featuring Faulkner’s nephew Jimmy Faulkner as Major de Spain
“Barn Burning”: Family Conflict • The father, Abner, avenges himself on more socially established whites by burning their barns and carrying out lesser acts of mischief • The younger son, named Colonel Sartoris (Sarty) Snopes, 10 years old, struggles to revolt against his father • Colonel Sartoris: a Confederate Army officer and leading citizen of Jefferson, Mississippi (higher class and [perhaps] higher morality)
“Barn Burning”: Family Conflict • Sarty struggles between family allegiance and external standards of justice • Abner hits him and tells him “to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (1793, last para.). • Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, "If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again“ (1793, last para.)
“Barn Burning”: Family Conflict • Opening Scene (1790-92): makeshift courtroom in general store • Sarty feels “the old fierce pull of blood” (1791, 1st para.); his father’s enemy is his enemy too • However, he also feels “grief and despair” because he must tell a lie for his father • But when another boy calls Abner a “Barn Burner,” Sarty attacks the boy (1792, middle)
Abner: Motivation • Does Abner have an understandable motivation? • Abner’s predicament: he falls into the cracks of Southern society: he is not a member of the white aristocracy nor the the black servant class • See visit to de Spain mansion (1796, middle): “That’s sweat,” he tells Sarty. “Nigger sweat” (1796, top) • Question: Does the history of slavery in the South undercut or taint its ideals of “truth” and “justice”?
Abner: Motivation • During Civil War, Abner did not fight for either side. Instead he stole horses from both sides. See 1802 (3rd para.): “his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war . . .for booty--it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.”
Abner: Motivation • In any case, Abner is persuasive. See 1793 (1st main para.): “There was something about his wolflike independence and even courage, when the advantage was at least neutral, which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.”
Symbols: Fire • As a barn burner, Abner is associated with fire • See 1793 (2nd main para.): “the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being” • Fire as force of civilization and destruction • See 1800 (2nd full para.): taking the family’s lantern oil to burn de Spain’s barn
Symbols: Rug • The destruction of the rug is symbolic of Abner’s larger rebellion against society • See 1795: He dirties the rug with his stiff foot injured during the war (1792): his rebellion has long history • He “never looked at it, he never once looked down at the rug”—willfully disregarding his destructiveness (1795).
Symbols: Rug • See bottom 1796-top 1797: After he “cleans” the rug, his foot tracks are replaced by “long, water-cloudy scoriations resembling the sporadic course of lilliputian mowing machine” (1797)—suggesting his rebellion is small and not very effective
Symbols: Cheese • Cheese is a peculiar symbol, associated with the power of family allegiance over external justice in the 2 court scenes • See opening of story: “The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese” (1790). • See 1800, top: Abner buys cheese from “courtroom” store and shares it with his sons
Modernism • Faulkner portrays this story of conflict through a modernist aesthetic, through experimentation with • Consciousness • Time • Space
Modernism: Consciousness • Using italics, Faulkner portrays the limited and often conflicted internal thoughts of the boy Sarty • See, for example, 1791-92
Modernism: Time • The narrator jumps backward and forward in time, and suspends time: • Abner’s wartime activities are repeatedly mentioned • “prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity” (bottom 1791-92) • The family carries an old clock stopped at 2:14 “of a dead and forgotten day and time” (1792) • Abner’s handling of the mules anticipates descendants handling of motor car (1792, last para.) • Narrators speculates how Sarty “might have” thought if he were older (1793, 2nd main para.)
Modernism: Space • Faulkner portrays reality through geometric, two-dimensional shapes • the father is repeatedly described as a “flat” shape, “without . . . depth,” “depthless,” as if cut from tin (1793, 1795). • the father’s crude, flat shape contrasts with “the serene columned backdrop” of the de Spain mansion, with its associations of peace, joy, and dignity (1794-95).
The Ending • Sarty assumes that his father is dead. Can we be sure? • Sarty concludes that his father “was brave,” but the narrator protests (1802) • Sarty ultimately prepares to enter “the dark woods” (1803), in some ways a typically American ending, reminiscent of Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.