In his many works of fiction, William Faulkner explores the lives of characters who live in the closed society of the American South, a society rooted in traditional values. In the short stories “Barn Burning” and “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner explores what happens when individuals lose their connection to this society and its values. Both Abner Snopes, a rebellious sharecropper, and Emily Grierson, an unmarried woman from a prominent family, are isolated from their respective communities, and both find themselves in a kind of societal limbo.
Once in that limbo, they no longer feel the need to adhere to the values of their society and, as a result,are free to violate both traditional and moral rules.
Initially, Emily’s isolation is not her own creation; it is thrust upon her. From childhood on, Emily is never really allowed to be part of Jefferson society; she is seen as having a “high and mighty” attitude (Faulkner, “Rose” 32). Her father stands between her and the rest of the town, refusing to allow her to date the young men who pursue her, whom he sees as somehownot good enough for her.
As a result, her only close relationship is with her father, who essentially becomes her whole world. Recalling father and daughter, the narrator depicts them as static and alone, trapped in a living portrait, “Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip” (Faulkner, “Rose” 31), framed by the archway of the entrance to their house.
When Emily’s father dies, and the townspeople insist on removing his body from her home, the only world she knows is physically taken from her, and she has nothing to take its place. Without her father, without friends, without a husband, she withdraws from her community, and thus, is free to defy its rules with a shocking act of violence.
While Emily’s removal from society is forced upon her, Abner Snopes voluntarily rejects his society’s values from the beginning. During the Civil War, he does not fight alongside the Confederate army; instead, he adopts an aggressive neutrality, stealing from both sides for hisown personal gain. He is finally caught by the side he betrays when a Confederate policeman shoots him in the heel as Abner tries to escape on a stolen horse. Unable to see his own fault in that episode, Abner uses his injury as an excuse for a personal vendetta against society.
However, because he has a wife and three children whom he must feed and provide for, Abner must constantly return to the society that he turned his back on. This conflict between his rebellious nature and his need to work as a sharecropper makes him unstable. Like Emily, hedoes not see himself as part of the community, and therefore he feels free to violate its rules.
Once Emily and Abner are estranged from their respective communities, they no longer see themselves as bound by the society’s laws and rules. This makes it possible for Abner to burn barns and for Emily to commit murder.
Emily’s courting and capturing of Homer Barron fills the void left by her father’s death; for her, the act of poisoning Homer is a perverse method of regaining control. With this act, she takes away the very life that attracted her to him, but she is able to hold on to him as a physical entity. As an exile from society, Emily can rationalize this antisocial act, which means in hereyes, murder is no longer considered wrong; it is merely a method of preservation, a means to an end that ensures that Homer will remain with her until her death. Once Emily has completed the gruesome task of poisoning her “husband,” she further withdraws from her community, and her neighbors, the narrator included, never suspect her secret. Without suspicion from the townspeople, Emily is left alone, free to live as she chooses.
However in contrast, Abner’s impotent rage and search for vengeance push him to lash out violently at almost anyone with whom he comes in contact. His method of destruction comes in the primitive form of fire, which he uses not to kill but simply to threaten. In the two barnburnings of the story, Abner incites confrontations and then uses the burnings as a way of getting even for imagined offenses. In one incident, for example, Mr. Harris, a landowner, finds that Abner’s hog ate a section of his corn crop. When Harris demands a dollar pound fee for the return of the hog, Abner sends him a threatening message, “Wood and hay kin burn” (Faulkner,”Barn” 161).
Despite Harris’s efforts to resolve their dispute, Abner is determined to carry out his threat. Ultimately, the barn burnings further alienate Abner from the society whose laws he is defying. Like Abner Snopes, Emily makes her own rules and develops her own twisted conceptsof justice and revenge. Although she is not directly punished by the community for her crime, Emily suffers terribly. She may possess the body of Homer Barron, but his death renders her incapable of holding onto him as a person and a husband. The result of her gradual estrangement from society, involuntary at first, but eventually confirmed by her willing violent act, is complete isolation from the real world and withdrawal into an empty world of her own.
Although Abner operates from within a similar societal limbo, he is unable to escape society’s punishment. Sarty Snopes, Abner’s son, is a firsthand witness to his father’s second barn burning. Sarty is caught in a moral dilemma, pulled between the values of his communityand the selfish motives of his father. Rather than remain in the alienated condition that his father has created for his family, Sarty renounces his loyalty to Abner and turns his father in to plantation owner Major De Spain.
Despite their estrangement from society, then, neither Emily nor Abner is ultimately able to escape its influence. In withdrawing from their respective communities, Emily Grierson and Abner Snopes are able to defy society’s traditions and break its rules, but they also create empty lives for themselves and tragedy for those closest to them.
“Literature an introduction to fiction, poetry, drama, and writing.” by Diana Gioia, 2007.