Understanding literary elements such as patterns, reader/writer relationships, and character choice are critical in appreciating William Faulkner’s Barn Burning. Some literary elements are small and almost inconsequential while others are large and all-encompassing: the mother’s broken clock, a small and seemingly insignificant object, is used so carefully, extracting the maximum effect; the subtle, but more frequent use of dialectal words which contain darker, secondary meanings; the way blood is used throughout the story in many different ways, including several direct references in the familial sense; how Faulkner chooses to write about poor, common people (in fact to the extreme) and how this relates to the opinions of Wordsworth and Aristotle; and finally, the relationship between the reader and writer, Faulkner’s choice of narrator and point of view, and how this is works successfully.
One of the formal choices Faulkner uses is the clock, the dowry of Sarty’s mother, which does not work. On a simple level, the clock represents the Snopes’ poverty, being all her parents could offer the newlyweds, and the only fancy object ever mentioned in the Snopes’ possession. More important, however, is that it does not work-symbolizing the brokenness of their relationship and her happiness.
To obtain the maximum effect, Faulkner mentions the mother’s unhappiness directly after the clock: … the clock inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which would not run, stopped at some fourteen minutes past two o’clock of a dead and forgotten time, which had been his mother’s dowry. She was crying…. (Faulkner 4) Her unhappiness is justified in the story by Abner’s treatment of his wife. He is cold and gives her orders, not to mention her feeling of hopelessness and despair about their way of life and his habit with fire. One very interesting, and questionably deliberate, use of words by Faulkner is the substitution of “hit” for “it” and, although less frequent, “kin” for “can.
These are clearly used to communicate the character’s southern drawl, but he way Faulkner chooses to place these substitutions in sentences communicates the possibility of the substituted words’ actual meanings. For example, in this dialog between Sarty and his mother, just after he is hit and knocked down by a boy outside the courthouse, the word “hit” can be taken in two ways. “His mother’s hand touched his shoulder. ‘Does hit hurt? ” she said. ‘Naw,’ he said. ‘Hit don’t hurt. Lemme be. ‘ ‘Can’t you wipe some of the blood off before hit dries? ‘(Faulkner 5)” Of course, Faulkner makes sure to incorporate other accented words like “Naw” and “Lemme” to make the use of “hit” more justifiable.
In another example, Sarty uses both “hit” and “kin,” just after Sarty’s father is informed of the consequences of ruining the rug: “If he wanted hit done different why didn’t he wait and tell you how? He won’t git no twenty bushels! He won’t git none! We’ll get hit and hide it! I kin watch… (Faulkner 16)” The last two sentences particularly make use of the words’ dual meanings. “We’ll get hit and hide it” can be taken with full meaning both ways. The Snopes will once more get “hit” with the responsibility of Abner’s actions. The family will once again have to hide this fact by leaving town and never returning. The “I kin watch” is a fragment, as Sarty is cut off by his father.
Considering what he might have said were he allowed to finish his sentence, the double meaning of “kin” shows Sarty’s pull towards imitating his father’s example, exemplifying the struggle between blood and his virtuous character. It is Sarty’s flawed blood line from which he imminently escapes. Blood, in the familial sense, is consequently a major theme in this story. To further clarify Sarty’s dilemma, the author often juxtaposes blood with the words fear, despair, and grief to illustrate what Sarty’s blood has brought him. In the very first paragraph, he senses “fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. ” Shortly after, we hear his thoughts as he sits in front of the judge and his father’s enemy, “(our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both!
He’s my father! Faulkner 1)” This “fierce pull of blood,” contrasting with his own belief in truth and justice (described later as “being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses(Faulkner 17)”), sets the tone and theme of the story, and is what Sarty finally breaks by running away. This is repeated virtually word-for-word, offering more emphasis and greater effect, when Sarty sits at the stand in the courthouse and hears their voices “through the smell of cheese and sealed meat, the fear and despair and the old grief of blood. (Faulkner 3)” Faulkner incorporates blood again when Sarty’s mother asks him to wipe the blood off his face before it dries.
Sarty’s father “had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, (Faulkner 6)” and advises his son, “learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. (Faulkner 7)” Faulkner steps in later to describe Sarty’s blood: “this the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him. (Faulkner 21)” And it is this perspective Sarty eventually takes by running away. In one of our classes, we discussed the advantage of using non-aristocratic or common people as characters in literature instead of nobility or rich, sophisticated characters.
Faulkner takes the use of common people to the extreme by writing about a family of tenant farmers, the lowest class of whites in the south, and by doing so, supports Wordsworth’s claim: “Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heat find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated… (Smith 500)” Abner’s jealous contempt of society and total lack of pride could not possibly be communicated through a wealthy southern plantation owner.
This is also vital to the plot, since it is Abner’s very way of life, or class, that he disdains. As for Aristotle, none of the Snopes’ are nobles, and, aside partly from Sarty, neither are they good or proprietorial. The reader feels a certain sympathy for Sarty’s situation that would be difficult were his family wealthy. Another of our class discussion topics that most interested me was the relationship between the reader and writer. Being more aware of this relationship while reading, I noticed an interesting one in Barn Burning. Faulkner uses an intrusive narrator with a limited point of view-telling the story through the thoughts and experiences of Sarty, and throwing in his own comments as needed.
Most of the comments made by the narrator refer to Sarty’s future and things he will think, know, and feel later in life. The first example of this appears in the description of the father’s “niggardly” fire. “Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one…. Then he might have gone a step farther and though that that was the reason…. And older still, he might have divined the true reason…. (Faulkner 6)” While this example only speculates Sarty’s future thoughts, Faulkner later makes it a definite statement. “Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, ‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again. ‘ But now he said nothing. (Faulkner 7)”
Although the narrator never directly addresses the reader as in The Yellow Wallpaper, the reader is given information that the characters do not yet know. The successful effect of this gives the reader a better understanding of Sarty’s character, and creates a more complex frame of ideals and virtues than would otherwise be believable in an uneducated ten year old boy. By reading closely and paying attention to details, I was able to get so much more out of this story than I did from the first reading. In short, this assignment has greatly deepened my understanding and appreciation of the more complex and subtle techniques Faulkner used to communicated his ideas in the story.