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"Barn Burning" is a short story by the American author William Faulkner which first appeared in Harper's in 1939 and has since been widely anthologized. The story deals with class conflicts, the influence of fathers, and vengeance as viewed through the third-person perspective of a young, impressionable child. It is a prequel to The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, the three novels that make up the Snopes trilogy.
- Colonel Sartoris Snopes ("Sarty") - protagonist
- Abner Snopes – patriarch of the Snopes family, personal hobby of burning barns, Antagonist
- Lennie Snopes – wife of Abner and mom of Sarty
- Lizzie – unmarried sister of Lennie Snopes
- Major de Spain - Snopes's employer who Sarty warns about the barn burning
- Mr. Harris - Abner's first mentioned landowner
Barn Burning (set in about 1895) opens in a country store, which is doubling as a Justice of the Peace Court. A hungry boy named Sarty craves the meat and cheese in the store. He's afraid. His father, Abner Snopes, is in court, accused of burning down Mr. Harris's barn. Sarty is called up to testify against his father, and he knows he's going to have to lie and say his father didn't burn the barn. The Justice and Mr. Harris realize they are putting the young boy in a bad position, and they let him off the hook. The Judge tells Mr. Snopes to leave the county and never come back.
On the way out of the courthouse a kid calls Sarty "Barn Burner!" and knocks him down, twice (16). Sarty tries to chase the kid but his father stops him. Sarty, his older brother, and his father get into the family wagon, where his mother, aunt, and two sisters are waiting. The wagon is already loaded with their broken possessions. That night, the family camps. After Sarty falls asleep, his father wakes him up and tells Sarty to follow him. Sarty does. His father accuses him of being on the verge of betraying him in court. He hits Sarty. Then he tells him that the most important thing is to stand by your family.
The next day the Snopeses arrive at their new home, a shack on the farm where they will be working as tenant farmers. Abner wants to talk to the owner and he takes Sarty with him. When Sarty sees the owner's fancy, white mansion he feels like everything just might be all right after all. He thinks his father can't possibly hurt people who live in a house like that. In the yard, Abner deliberately steps in some fresh horse excrement, forces his way into the mansion, and tracks the excrement all over the white rug in the front room.
Later that day, the owner of the rug and mansion, Mr. de Spain, has the rug dropped off at Abner's shack. Abner sets his two daughters to cleaning it, and then dries it in front of the fire. Early the next morning, Abner wakes Sarty and the two of them return the rug to de Spain. De Spain shows up shortly after, insulting Abner and complaining that the rug is "ruined" (62). He tells Abner he's going to charge him twenty extra bushels of corn to pay for the hundred-dollar rug. When he leaves, Sarty tells Abner that they shouldn't give de Spain any corn at all.
After working hard all week, Sarty goes with his family to town that Saturday. He goes with his father into a store, and sees that a Justice of the Peace Court is in session. De Spain is there. Sarty doesn't realize that Abner is suing de Spain to have the fee of twenty bushels reduced. Sarty blurts out that his father isn't guilty of burning any barns. Abner sends him back to the wagon, but he stays in the store to see what happens.
The Justice decides that Abner is responsible for the damage to the rug, but he reduces the fee to ten bushels. Sarty, his father, and his brother spend some time in town and don't go home until the sun has almost set. After dinner Sarty hears his mother trying to stop his father from doing something. He realizes his father is planning to burn the de Spain barn. His father and brother realize that Sarty is planning on alerting de Spain, and they leave him behind, held tight in his mother's arms.
Sarty breaks free and runs to the de Spain house. He's only able to say "Barn!" a few times, and then he's on the run again. De Spain is right behind him, about to run him over. Sarty jumps into a ditch and then returns to the road. He hears three gunshots and soon after, behind him, sees the red glow of the de Spain barn on fire.
At midnight Sarty is on top of a hill. He's come a long way. Everything is behind him. He mourns the loss of his father (who he seems to assume is dead), but is no longer afraid. He falls asleep and feels better when he wakes up. The whippoorwills (birds) are singing and it's almost morning. He starts walking toward the woods in front of him. He doesn't turn around.
In 1980, the story was adapted into a short film of the same name by director Peter Werner. It starred Tommy Lee Jones as Abner Snopes, Shawn Whittington as Sartoris Snopes, and Faulkner's nephew as De Spain.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. New York: The Modern Library, 1993. 1-25. 1962.