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Lafayette County, Mississippi: a place filled with pathological racism, polarizing inequality, and brutal violence. This environment was what drove William Faulkner’s many literary pieces. William Faulkner was a Nobel prize-winning author that wrote various works of fiction in the form of novels, short stories, and screenplay. One of his most renowned pieces is his short story, “Barn Burning”, a short story that explores the Snopes, a poor white tenant family living in the south during the reconstruction era. Through the historical elements and literary devices in “Barn Burning,” Faulkner expresses that he believes in a socio-economically equal society.
Faulkner portrays his liberal views in “Barn Burning” by painting tenant farming in a negative light through the characterization of Abner Snopes.
William Faulkner was born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi (Doyle). Throughout the first quarter of his life there and in Oxford Mississippi, Faulkner witnessed countless forms of discrimination living in the reconstruction-era south. Despite being sheltered in a rich white middle-class family, Faulkner saw various acts of violence and cruelty targeted towards poor and black people.
Brought up with the values of his black nanny, Faulkner sympathized with the oppression and prejudice that poor black people faced and developed views of racial and socioeconomic equality (Doyle). His early encounters with these injustices inspired by his various short stories and novels, many of which took place in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, modeled after Lafayette County, the area Faulkner spent the majority of his life in (‘The Influence of William Faulkner’). Through these works, Faulkner enlightens his audience about the racism and classism that was present throughout the reconstruction period with uncompromising accounts of racial and economic oppression.
This includes “Barn Burning”, which shows the difficult and impoverished lifestyle of underrepresented white tenant farmers during reconstruction. By bringing awareness to the oppression he saw during his childhood, Faulkner expresses his liberal view of social and economic equality through his multiple works of literature.
Throughout “Barn Burning”, Faulkner expresses his progressive views on equality through his portrayal of the Snopes, an underprivileged white tenant farming family that had a tendency of destroying their landowner’s property. During the reconstruction era, white tenant farmers faced a large wave of competition in their workforce, which often led to these white farmers becoming poorer than black servants and tenant farmers (Flora). Before, many white tenant farmers lived a self-sufficient lifestyle, isolated in the mountains. As competition increased, white farmers were forced to relocate and became dependent on their wealthy landowners. Due to their recent loss of autonomy and freedom, many white tenant farmers were unhappy with their lifestyle change and often took out their anguish towards their landowners (“‘Barn Burning’”). Because of this, Faulkner portrays the Snopes clan as disgruntled and disobedient towards their owners. By presenting the Snopes clan in such a manner, Faulkner shows the classism between wealthy landowners and poor white farmers. In William Faulkner and Southern History, Joel Williamson makes an observation about the possible roots of Abner Snopes’ arsonist tendencies. He compares it with the tactics that the slaves used, “the threat to burn the master’s barn under the cover of darkness. Arson, it seems, has always been a favored form of retaliation by the powerless of the world” (Williamson). Faulkner uses Abner Snopes’ arson as a metaphor to show how similar the white tenant farmers were to black slaves and express the inequity white tenant farmers faced during the reconstruction period. Abner’s Robinhood-like vigilantism symbolically represents Faulkner’s belief in economic equality as Abner’s property destruction is an attempt to economically equalize the wealthy landowners and poor farmers. By presenting the Abner Snopes’ resentful behavior towards his landlord, Faulkner is depicting the bitterness caused by rigid class divide between farmers and landowners, effectively supporting Faulkner’s view of equality.
Faulkner uses Abner’s interactions and attitude towards society to express the dehumanizing effects of being in an economically classified system. During the time period that this story was set in, “owning people” was a common concept. This is evident in Abner Snopes’ description of Major de Spain as the “man that aims to begin tomorrow owning [my] body and soul for the next eight months” (Faulkner). Although he isn’t technically owned by the landowner, Major de Spain, both sides socially agree that Abner was Major De Spain’s property. Faulkner uses Abner’s negative and almost defeated tone to show that tenancy was a form of slavery that oppressed economically disadvantaged people during reconstruction. Throughout the short story, Abner Snopes is commonly associated with “bloodless”, “stiff”, “ruthless”, “ironlike”, “cut from tin”, etc. suggesting an almost inhuman character of Snopes (Faulkner). Through such wording, Faulkner conveys the systematic dehumanization that Abner Snopes faced because of his economic and social conditions. In addition to Abner’s characterization as less than human, Faulkner depicts Major de Spain as superior to the Snopes family. An example of this is when Abner sues Major de Spain was sued by Snopes for claiming excess compensation for damaging the rug. Major de Spain “wore on his face an expression. . . of amazed unbelief. .at the incredible circumstance of being used by one of his own tenants” (Faulkner). Abner’s social status is so low in Major De Spain’s mind, that it amazes Major de Spain that his lowly tenant would complain about De Spain’s working conditions to authorities. Major de Spain’s attitude towards Abner is another way Faulkner emphasized how socially separated the wealthy were from the lowly tenant farmers. By illustrating how debilitating the wealth gap can be for such poor tenant farmers, Faulkner continues to promote his forward-thinking view of equality.
Influenced by his southern upbringing, William Faulkner expresses that society should be more economically equal by characterizing Abner Snope as a slave of De Spain and the dehumanizing effect that has on Snope. Fulkner’s interrogation of the historical and cultural backdrop of slavery and the plantation system showed many people the struggles of racially and economically oppressed individuals and how their community fails them. Barn Burning and his other works spread awareness of the social and racial injustices of the reconstruction era and played a role in shaping the civil rights movement. Although Faulkner’s time was socially tumultuous, the world has come a long way since then. While racism and classism still exist, it is a much smaller factor in very limited areas and socially looked down upon. Through his influential writing style and his brutal depictions, William Faulkner had a hand in changing that for the better.
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