Formalist Essay Barn Burning

“Barn Burning” is a sad story because it very clearly shows the classical struggle between the “privileged” and the “underprivileged” classes.  Time after time emotions of despair surface from both the protagonist and the antagonist involved in the story.

This story outlines two distinct protagonists and two distinct antagonists.  The first two are Colonel Sartoris Snopes (“Sarty”) and his father Abner Snopes (“Ab”).  Sarty is the protagonist surrounded by his father antagonism whereas Ab is the protagonist antagonized by the social structure and the struggle that is imposed on him and his family. The economic status of the main characters is poor, without hope of improving their condition, and at the mercy of a quasi-feudal system in North America during the late 1800’s.  Being a sharecropper, Ab and his family had to share half or two-thirds of the harvest with the landowner and out of their share pay for the necessities of life.  As a result of this status, Ab and his family know from the start what the future will hold — hard work for their landlord and mere survival for them.

No hope for advancement prevails throughout the story.  Sarty, his brother and the twin sisters have no access to education, as they must spend their time working in the fields or at home performing familial duties.  Nutrition is lacking “He could smell the coffee from the room where they would presently eat the cold food remaining from the mid-afternoon meal” (PARA. 55).  As a consequence, poor health combined with inadequate opportunity results in low morale.  A morale which the writer is identifying with the middle class of his times “that same quality which in later years would cause his descendants to over-run the engine before putting a motor car into motion” (PARA. 20)

The Snope family manages to survive and find work.  However, the work offers little other than a chance for survival “I reckon I’ll have a word with the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months” (PARA 40). Like nomads they were forced to move constantly.  Due to seasons and crop rotation, in order to secure work they had to reserve land with different landowners.

Ab’s emotional instability is a predominant factor contributing to his erratic behavior throughout the story.  The family has moved a dozen times from farm to farm, and at times forced to forfeit their agreement with the landlord due to Ab’s unacceptable behavior.  A behavior which throughout the story is transformed into a rebellion, by Ab smearing the landowner’s carpet with horse manure and then suing him for charging him too much for the damage.  These acts symbolize frustration with the system and a radical approach to rebel against it.  Knowing that punishment could not be avoided when committing such acts, Ab’s actions take on a more dramatic meaning as if he is trying to convey a message.  He is aware of the economic injustice and he must respond even at the risk of him and his family being prosecuted or ostracized. Ab’s constant rebellion is displayed by a rough, sour character and exemplified when he burns his landlord’s barn down.  He feels despair and loss, and inflicts damage to whomever he happens to be working for.

Although the story centers on the feelings and thoughts of Ab’s youngest son Sarty, the economic implications of his entire family play a vital role in justifying (not condoning) his father’s behavior, which is the pivotal reason for Sarty’s controversial feelings on which the whole story is based.

Sarty’s main dilemma is his loyalty to his family which collides with his disappointment and suppressed dislike of his own father.  He tends to hide his feelings by denying the facts, “our Enemy he though in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my Father!” (PARA. 1) and “The boy said nothing. Enemy! Enemy! he thought; for a moment he could not even see, could not see that the Justice’s face was kindly.” (PARA. 10).

The story’s emotional turns are clearly defined by Sarty’s thoughts and Ab’s actions.  Sarty’s dilemma and Ab’s frustrations continually grab the reader, serving up a series of emotionally laden dilemmas:  Given the circumstances of the story, is Ab’s barn burning justified?  Should Sarty tell the landlord that Ab was responsible for burning down the barn?  Is the outdated sociological “Blaming the Victim” theory valid?  Is the lose-win arrangement between sharecropper and landowner a morally acceptable one?

Burning a barn or any act of economic despair in the form of vandalism is definitely not condoned.  However the strange thing is the all of these questions need not to be asked, if economic injustice was not prevalent

It is not a secret that many writers consider morality as one of the most significant issues in human society. They discuss morality in their short stories, novels and poems. William Faulkner is one of those writers who pay special attention to the traditional notions of right and wrong. In his short story Barn Burning, William Faulkner helps readers to understand the difference between loyalty to the law and loyalty to the family. The main character of the short story Barn Burning, a small boy of ten years old encounters the problem of choice between these two notions. He has to choose loyalty to the law due to his moral and ethical principles and to ignore his father’s instructions to help him in burning the barn. Sometimes loyalty to the family can become a great cost and a heavy burden for a person. That is why it is better to choose loyalty to the law that will give an opportunity to live honestly.

My goal in this paper is to represent a literary analysis of William Faulkner’s short story Barn Burning. In order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to define the major themes developed by the author, to give the analysis of the main characters and to define what symbols are used by the author to support the story line and mood of the literary work.


William Faulkner pays special attention to both the protagonist and the antagonist in his short story. He tells about some white tenant farmer whose name is Abner Snopes and who has a great desire to show his protest against unfair society he lives in by means of burning. As a former soldier and a tyrannical father and husband, he does not want to suffer injustice and inequalities. He finds the way to revenge the rich and powerful masters – he burns their barns and wants his children to do the same. As an antagonist, Abner Snopes teaches his ten-years-old son loyalty to the family: “You got to learn to stick to your own blood, or you aren’t going to have any blood to stick to you”. (Faulkner 11)

Another main character, the protagonist of the story, Abner’s son Sarty is ready to reject his father’s immoral principles and to protest against crime and violence. William Faulkner shows the process of the boy’s individual development. At the beginning of the story, the boy feels that his father is not right, his actions are illegal, but he is not ready to protest against his father’s criminal actions. However, at the end of the story, William Faulkner shows that the boy is ready to make a right choice. He betrays his father and tells the owner of the farm about his father’s plans to burn the barn. (Gemmette 21)


The author develops several important themes in his short story Barn Burning. One of them is the theme of morality and loyalty to the law. The main character Sarty protests against his father’s violent plan because he does not want to follow the instructions of such immoral person. He realizes that destruction is not the way to fight against inequality. When the local boy accuses Sarty’s father of his crime, Sarty tries to defend his family. However, when Sarty’s father decides to continue his criminal actions and to burn one more barn, the boy does not confirm his decision.

One more important theme developed in this literary work is the theme of search for better life. Sarty is shown as a poor boy who lives in constant fear. The boy has to work hard in the field in order earn his living. Abner Snopes does not care of his son’s education. The boy loves his mother and his sisters, and wants them to live happily without his father’s oppression. Sarty is ready “to live without fear and despair”.(Deats & Lenker 23)


In order to develop the major themes, William Faulkner uses different symbols such as fire, the burning barns, the soiled rug and some others. Symbolism helps the author to give detailed description of the main characters nature. For example, fire symbolizes Abner Slopes’ powerlessness while the burning barns symbolize the evil that lives in human society. The soiled rug symbolizes one of the Abner’s acts of violence and immorality that is connected with bad relation of the farm owners to Abner and his family. (Loges 2)


In conclusion, it is necessary to say that the key idea of William Faulkner in this story is to prove the fact that violence and immorality have no place in human society. The boy of ten years old stops the criminal actions of his father because he knows that it is immoral to burn barns where crops are stored. Moreover, the author shows that Sarty is ready to change his life for a better one. He realizes that loyalty to the law is more important than loyalty to the family where everybody should obey oppressive domination of the father.

Works Cited

Deats, S., Lenker, L. The Aching Heart: Family Violence in Life and Literature. Insite Books, 1991. Print.
Gemmette, E. Law in Literature: Legal Themes in Short Stories. Praeger Publishers, 1992. Print.
Faulkner, W. Barn Burning. (Tale Blazers: American Literature). Perfection Learning Press, 2007.
Loges, M. Faulkner’s Barn Burning. The Explicator. Vol.57(1). 1998. Retrieved from:<>

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