William Faulkner’s Barn Burning (1938) depicts a typical father and son relationship as it is shaped and affected by the society they live in. In the story, the young boy struggles to be a good son to his father, despite the indifference his father shows him. As the story progresses, it shows how their relationship can be affected by the society’s forces, as the son undergoes a dilemma that makes him choose between familial and social responsibility.
Sartoris Snopes is a young boy born to a poor family. His father, Abner, is a farmer who makes a living partaking in a farm’s harvest. His bad temper leads him to some troubles with his neighbors, and eventually agitates him to burn barns. In the beginning of the story, he faces trial for committing arson, but luckily avoids imprisonment due to lack of evidence against him. Although Sartoris knows his father’s crime, the boy chooses not to say a word to testify against his father. Nevertheless, the idea continues to disturb him, and affects his view of his father.
Sartoris tries his best to be a good son. Like any boy, he expresses his love for his father. In the beginning, he sees his father’s victim, Harris as the “enemy.” He maintains his silence when asked regarding his knowledge of the arson, although deep inside, as his father suspects, he wants to tell the truth. One time, he gets into a fight with another kid who addresses his father as “barn burner.” These and his obedience to his father show how Sartoris feels toward his father.
Aside from the love, fear also moves Sartoris to do as he does. He sees his father as a powerful figure, an authority whose commands they must obey. The whole family depends on the father, and he controls them all. He decides where they should live, what they would eat, and how they should act. Although the mother expresses some form of meddling from time to time, she is always reprimanded by the father, and cannot do anything but to obey. Once, his father tells him, “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.” This indicates ultimate power of the father, and sets the standard by which his children should act.
The strong authority of the father creates in the boy the wish to win his affection. As days pass by, he hangs out with his father, and successfully develops a better relationship with him. He lives according to the way his father prefers, hangs out with him, eats what he does, and goes to the horse lottery. The need for affection moves him to try to win his father’s favor. The loyalty he expresses is rewarded by the attention his father gives him, and the times they spend together make him know his father better.
Aside from the fear and the need for affection, Sartoris’ treatment of his father is affected by his need for a model figure. Despite the real character of his father, he still sympathizes with him. He claims that his father went to the war. For that, Sartoris thinks he should be rewarded with respect, and should not be accused of barn burning.
He looks up to him and tries not to negate his ideas, although he feels the tendency to do so. In some instances, he feels the inkling to question his father’s intentions, or answer him back, but controls himself anyway possibly due to respect a child should give a father or the ideal he tries to set for himself.
In the latter part of the story, Sartoris starts to distinguish himself from his father. Although he still obeys his father when instructed to get the oil needed to burn the barn, the young boy finds courage to question his father’s intention. He expresses openly his disagreement to his father’s plan, and escapes to warn Major de Spain of it.
While the rest of the family tries to stop him according to the father’s command, Sartoris finally stands for what he believes in, and does what he feels is right. In the end, he is torn by the dilemma of choosing between his responsibility to his father and his society; but unlike the scene in the courtroom where he takes the side of his father, he finally chooses to fulfill his moral responsibility to his society even though this means turning his back from his family.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” (1938). Retrieved 22 February 2009 <http://www.rajuabju.com/literature/barnburning.htm>.