Analysis of Major Characters
Colonel Sartoris Snopes
“Barn Burning” explores the coming of age of Sartoris Snopes, as he is forced to grapple with issues of right and wrong that require a maturity and insight beyond his years. “You’re getting to be a man,” Snopes tells his ten-year-old son after delivering a blow to the side of his head. In Sartoris’s world, violence is a fundamental element of manhood, something he knows all too well from living with his father. Sartoris is impressionable, inarticulate, and subject to his father’s potentially corrupting influence, but he is also infused with a sense of justice. Sartoris is in many ways a raw, unformed creature of nature, untouched by education, the refining influences of civilization, or the stability of a permanent home. The sight of the de Spain house gives him an instinctive feeling of peace and joy, but, as Faulkner notes, the child could not have translated such a reaction into words. Later, Sartoris reacts instinctively again when he prevents his father from burning de Spain’s barn. He cannot articulate why he warns de Spain or ultimately runs away, but his actions suggest that Sartoris’s core consists of goodness and morality rather than the corruption that his father attempts to teach him.
Sartoris’s worldview and morality may exist beyond the adult world of precise language and articulation, but he displays an insight that is far more developed than many of the adults who surround him. He sees through his father’s attempts to manipulate him by harping on the importance of family loyalty as a means of guaranteeing Sartoris’s silence. Sartoris’s brother, John, lacks Sartoris’s insight, and he is an example of what young Sartoris could easily become. Snopes has successfully taught John his ideas of family loyalty, and John blindly follows Snopes’s criminal lead. Sartoris, far from silently obeying, instigates the climactic end of Snopes’s reign of terror. At the end of the story, Sartoris betrays the family “honor” and must persevere on his own. As his father warned, if Sartoris failed to support his family, support would not be offered to him. As frightening as the unknown future might be, Sartoris has decided that the kind of “support” his family can offer is something he can do without. His flight marks an end to the legacy of bitterness and shame that he stood to inherit.
Snopes is an influential, towering presence in Sartoris’s eyes, but he himself is simply a primitive, thoughtless force of violence and destruction. With his family he is stiff, without depth, emotion, or complexity. This stiffness makes him seem almost less than human, and Faulkner often characterizes Snopes in metallic terms, portraying him as ironlike, cut from tin, a mechanical presence whose lack of emotion underscores his compromised sense of morality. Snopes’s physical presence fully reflects the inner corruption and love of revenge that he embodies. His leg, shot in the war when he was stealing Confederate horses for personal profit, drags lamely behind him, an external manifestation of his warped inner life. Because Snopes is wholly unable to express himself articulately or intelligently, his sole recourses for self-expression are violence and cruelty. These tactics have overtaken his worldview so completely that they have infused his sense of who he is.
Not satisfied with confining his deep unhappiness to his personal realm, Snopes seems to befoul everything he touches, and he becomes almost bestial in his lack of regard for others. In the de Spain home, Snopes intentionally steps in horse manure and tracks it throughout the house. Later, Faulkner compares Snopes to a stinging wasp or housefly, and Snopes lifts his hand “like a curled claw.” These images suggest that Snopes is not actually human but instead simply resembles the form of a man. Fed by jealousy and rage, Snopes’s need for revenge is borne of his sense of inferiority, lack of power, and gradual emasculation by the dismal sharecropping system. He compensates for these shortcomings by being a silent tyrant, ruling his family with threats and the promise of violence, as well as by destroying the livelihood of those individuals he believes have slighted him.
Opposite Abner Snopes, with his penchant for revenge and destruction, is Lennie Snopes, a voice of reason and morality in the family. Because her morals are so different from her husband’s, Lennie sharpens the conflict that Sartoris faces as he attempts to form his own ideas of right and wrong. The fact that Lennie has not simply succumbed to her domineering, violent husband makes her character remarkable. Surely, her spirit has been wounded by the grinding cycle of poverty, crime, and rootlessness to which Snopes has subjected the family. She has also endured physical violence throughout her married life. Lennie’s spirit has not been broken completely, however. She repeatedly attempts to stop Snopes from lashing out at the landowners who provide the family’s livelihood, even though her attempts are unsuccessful. Her unbroken spirit is perhaps most evident in the way she has influenced Sartoris. Although Lennie is forced into a quiet, inferior position in the family, she has managed to instill her values in Sartoris, despite the overwhelming, corrupting influence that Snopes tries to enforce. Although Lennie is abandoned by Sartoris in the end, he leaves because she has quietly taught him that it is the right thing to do.