Symbolism in Faulkner's "Barn Burning"

Categories: Barn Burning

There are some powerful symbols presented throughout William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” This short story opens with ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris Snopes, Sarty, sitting on a keg in the courtroom, which is also the general store, listening to his father be accused of burning a neighbor’s barn. Sarty’s father, Abner Snopes, is a very rigid and stiff man. When describing Abner Snopes, Charles Mitchell says: “Abner exercises no mind and possesses no feeling; he exercises only will and hence becomes a kind of one-dimensional emblem of that faculty isolated from the others” (Mitchell 72).

Faulkner uses symbolism for the reader to grasp a better understanding of Abner Snope’s struggle with power. The main symbols in Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” are blood, fire, and the de Spain’s rug.

One powerful symbol shown throughout the short story “Barn Burning” is blood. Blood symbolizes unity. Abner Snopes is a firm believer that blood is over everything. Abner believes that those who are not with him, are against him.

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After Abner was told to leave the county after being accused of burning Mr. Harris’ barn, children started calling Abner a “barn burner.” Sarty then fights with the children, which results in a bloody face. Sarty’s mother attempts to wash his face saying, “He’s hurt. I got to get some water and wash his…,” but he would not allow it (Faulkner 174). She is attempting to show affection towards him. Abner Snopes uses blood to try and control his family.

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Being able to control his family, gives Abner a sense of power. Even though he has committed crimes of barn burning, he feels that his family should never tell on him because they are blood-related. He tells Sarty that “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.” (Faulkner 175). Abner tells Sarty that in order for family to fight for him, Sarty has to fight for his family; regardless of morality. Jane Hiles says, “the blood on his battered face is emblematic of his struggle against his own “blood”” (Hiles 80). Sarty starts to struggle with his father’s way of thinking as the story progresses. This leads into Sarty’s internal conflict between family loyalty and morality.

Another symbol portrayed throughout Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” is fire. Fire is a symbol of destruction and power. Fire represents Abner’s powerlessness and his search for power and self-expression. Fire can also symbolize comfort. After Abner is told to leave the county, he uses someone’s fence to build a small fire. The Snope’s family uses this small fire for warmth and for food. Although the small fire Abner builds brings comfort, Abner destroys a stranger’s fence to build the fire. In order to have comfort, Abner had to create destruction. Abner “displays his contempt for order, for community, by fueling his frugal fire with a fence railing, in lieu of twigs or underbrush” (Ford, 'Narrative Legerdemain”). From the small fires that Abner builds at camps, to the large ones that burn down people’s barns, he is in control. Anna Priddy says that fire, for Abner Snopes, “acts as a leveler; no one has power over him as long as he can wield it” (Priddy 194). Abner Snopes sets fires to people’s barns that he feels has slighted him. Because Abner feels powerless, starting fires gives him power. This powerless internal conflict in Abner Snopes further explains his reasoning for starting fires.

The rug in the de Spain house is an important symbol in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” The rug is a symbol of Abner’s defiance. Abner ruins the rug with horse dropping; yet another issue that Abner faces with justice and authority. This is different than Abner’s typical crimes. This is the first time that Abner has intruded into and violated a home. The rug is white, which symbolizes purity and cleanliness. The Snopes family live in cabins that cannot be kept clean because they work as farmhands (Priddy 195). For Abner, “dirt is the way he shows the de Spains that he will not be owned” (Priddy 195). It is later learned that the rug that Abner ruined cost one hundred dollars, which is more than the Snope’s family will make in their lifetime. Abner knows that he will never be able to afford the white rug himself, but he does have the power to ruin it for good. Abner gives thought to his decision to ruin the de Spain’s white rug:

He just stood stiff in the center of the rug, in his hat, the shaggy iron-gray brows twitching slightly above the pebble-colored eyes as he appeared to examine the house with brief deliberation. Then with the same deliberation he turned; the boy watched him pivot on the good leg and saw the stiff foot drag around the arc of the turning, leaving a final long and fading smear. (Faulkner 177)

Abner sees this seemingly perfect house with a perfect white rug, which makes him feel defeated and worthless. This is Abner gaining some power, by having the power to destroy the purity and cleanliness of the de Spain rug.

The short story “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner shows a man struggling with having power. Abner Snopes will do anything to have temporary power. One critic states that “Abner tyrannizes his wretched family mercilessly; adheres selfishly to his own designs, heedless of his family’s welfare; and squelches any attempt for social reform or communal identity” (Ford, 'Narrative Legerdemain”).

The symbols of blood, fire, and the de Spain rug further show this conflict of Abner’s obsession for power. This obsession with power drives Abner’s son, Sarty, away from him. At the beginning of this short story, Sarty struggles with family loyalty and morality. At the end of the story, “by warning de Spain, Sarty identifies himself with an entity other than his father, and only by violating his blood does he gain his freedom” (Volpe, “Barn Burning”). Through the symbols of blood, fire, and the de Spain rug, Sarty was able to gain freedom from his father’s temporary power.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Symbolism in Faulkner's "Barn Burning". (2021, Oct 08). Retrieved from

Symbolism in Faulkner's "Barn Burning" essay
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