Born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897, William Faulkner became famous for a series of novels that explore the South’s historical legacy, its fraught and often tensely violent present, and its uncertain future. This grouping of major works includes The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1931), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), all firmly rooted in the fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha. By creating an imaginary setting, Faulkner allows his characters to inhabit a fully realized world that serves as a mirror to and microcosm of the South that the novelist knew so well and explored so deeply. Faulkner’s legendary milieu serves as a safe and distant—albeit magnifying—lens through which he could examine the practices, folkways, and attitudes that have united and divided the people of the South.
Faulkner was particularly interested in the moral implications of history. As the South emerged from the Civil War and Reconstruction and attempted to shake off the stigma of slavery, its residents were often portrayed as being caught in competing and evolving modes, torn between a new and an older, more tenaciously rooted world order. Religion and politics frequently fell short of their implied goals of providing order and guidance and served only to complicate and divide. Society, with its gossip, judgment, and harsh pronouncements, conspired to thwart the desires and ambitions of individuals struggling to unearth and embrace their identities. Across Faulkner’s fictive landscapes, individual characters often stage epic struggles, prevented from realizing their potential or establishing and asserting a firm sense of their place in the world.
“Barn Burning,” in its examination of a boy’s struggle with family loyalty and a higher sense of justice, fits firmly in Faulkner’s familiar fictional mode. Poverty and irrational, criminal behavior divide a family and, in the end, leave them more indigent and dependent than ever. The story first appeared in the June 1939 issue of Harper’s magazine and received the O. Henry Award for the year’s best work of short fiction. The story, a critical and popular favorite, was included in Faulkner’s Collected Stories (1950) and later reprinted in the Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (1961). In his portrayal of the Snopes clan, an underprivileged family with few economic prospects, Faulkner examines the deep-rooted classism and systems that rigidly divided southern society along racial, economic, and familial lines. The Snopeses and their struggle, in particular, symbolize the falling away of an old order, as the agrarian South slowly shifted to embrace a new era of industrialization and modernization. Although Faulkner’s merciless portrayal of Abner Snopes precludes any sympathy for his peculiar brand of vigilante justice, the harsh reality the family faced was little more than institutionalized slavery and a life sentence of poverty and subsistence living.
Abner Snopes represents a common trope in Faulkner’s fiction—the dispossessed male, shorn of power and lashing out at a world that he perceives as habitually wronging him and thwarting his felonious desires. Faulkner examines the sway that such menacing figures have over family and community by portraying the individuals caught up in the shadows of these savage personalities, individuals who are powerless and often culpable. Freedom comes only for Sartoris, the youngest Snopes boy, but, as is frequently the case in Faulkner’s works, emancipation comes at a price. Sartoris has defended his sense of honor and attempted to restore the family name, but he ultimately faces an uncertain future alone.
Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, and he donated half the prize money to a fund that supports new writers. His gift takes the form today of the PEN/Faulkner Award. He died in 1962.
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