Abner Snopes faces the undignified position of sharecropper with uninhibited yet calculated bitterness and fury. In relation to class, his family has little more status than a servant. Abner feels he has been done an injustice in being handed a life of servitude. This reality is contrasted with his yearning to be in the position of power, a desire that he indulges at the expense of his family. Faulkners short story, Barn Burning clearly confronts the theme of conflict between classes. The Snopes family owns one wagonload of possessions, which are referred to as the sorry residue of the dozen or more movings (375).
They include what was once the mothers small dowry: a clock, inlaid with mother-of-pearl that long ago stopped running. The fact that Mrs. Snopes dowry is now broken emphasizes how poorly she has fared since her marriage. The stopped clock is a recurring symbol of perpetuation in the story. Abner despises the life he leads is the lower class, yet his actions prevent him and his family from any enjoyment their life could create. The survival of the family and continued ownership of their goods are by no means assured, as the family and pitiful wagon move from place to place following the unstable and unreliable breadwinner they depend on.
After moving to a new plantation for the 12th time in Sartys ten years, Abner and his son Colonel Sartoris go to meet the master of the plantation on which they will sharecrop. The encounter at the doorway of the de Spain mansion between the Snopes father and son and the de Spain black house servant exemplifies the social injustice that Abner feels so constantly. It is this social inequity, class distinction, and the economic inequality against which Abner Snopes’ barn burning strikes.
At this moment young Sarty becomes conscious of the reality of class differences, the root of separation within the local community. He responds to the big house with a “surge of peace and joy. ” He thinks to himself, hit’s big as a courthouse and the mansion, to his innocent eyes seems to guarantee safety, dignity, and peace from the ferocity and vengeance of his father (377). The old black servant, with neat grizzled hair, in a linen jacket bars the door with his body and commands Abner, who has deliberately put his foot down in a pile of fresh horse droppings, to “wipe yo foots, white man(377).
Sarty experiences the interior of the house, deluged as if by a warm wave by apendant glitter of chandeliers and a mute gleam of gold frames (378). Sarty is taken by the house, its possessions and its security, but while Sarty imagines the house as a sanctuary, secure against his fathers malevolence, Abner Snopes sees the house as a symbol of his inferiority. He describes it to Sarty as “pretty and white,” and he draws the parallel between his position in society and that of the Negro servants, saying thats sweat, nigger sweat.
Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it (378). The encounter at the door of the white aristocrats mansion not only accentuates class distinctions within the white race, but also emphasizes the superior position of the black servant over the poor white tenant farmer. At the de Spain mansion, the finer quality of the blacks garments, his position within the house, and his power to deny a white man entrance increase the racial tensions.
In Abners time, the quality of life of the poor whites and that of the blacks are too similar: whites may claim racial superiority but not class superiority. Poor whites can now be owned as blacks were. The racial element in the doorway only fuels Abners rage. His supposed supremacy as a white man is challenged by a black servant who obviously holds a position of superiority in the doorway. Abner Snopes understands too well the hardships, deprivation, and ignorance that the Southern social system has brought about.
At the heart of Abner’s defiance is his awareness that de Spain, in a way, is his master who will own him, body and soul for the next eight months (376). His outrage at his plight as tenant farmer fuels Abners rebellion against the class structure. To attack the aristocratic class, Abner Snopes deliberately builds his fires to first destroy the expensive rug belonging to his mistress, and then burn the masters property. Between the de Spain mansion and the Snopes tenant farmer possessions and vagrancy is a clear contrast that highlights the terrible divide between owner and tenant.
Faulkners Barn Burning portrays poverty, inequality, and lack of freedom and opportunity. These were common issues after the Civil War and the collapse of the slavery institution. Abner is obsessed with the realization that no matter how hard he works in the fields, he will never be able to earn enough to become a powerful, wealthy landowner like de Spain and the others who employ him. Abners family fall victim to his patriarchal abuse and their subordination is parallel to their extremely inferior position in society and the family power structure.