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Barn Burning

William Faulkner

Structure and Style

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Setting

Faulkner is known for his distinctive style, especially his use of long sentences that are frequently interrupted by clauses. For example, the lengthy second sentence of “Barn Burning” would be considered typical Faulkner. This unique style lends Faulkner’s work a sense of scope and continuity. Faulkner seems to suggest that human understanding and perception are unstable and always changing, subject to the environment and other people. This style also suggests a lack of clear resolution to the action. For example, at the end of “Barn Burning,” Sartoris has finally escaped his father’s clutches, but we are left with an unresolved sense of the impact that Sartoris’s escape will ultimately have on him and his family. Faulkner’s syntax (the way a sentence is put together) helps contribute to this lack of a definitive conclusion, because many of his sentences meander and digress before ending—sometimes to the extent that we forget how the sentence began. This technique adds complexity to Faulkner’s fiction, which he intended to reflect the struggles faced in everyday world—struggles that usually don’t have clear resolutions.

Faulkner’s long, looping sentences form a stream-of-consciousness style in which a character’s roving thoughts and associations are reproduced on the page. The opening paragraph is a key example of this style. The second sentence spills out, each subsequent clause modifying the observations and thoughts that have come before it, ultimately forming a chain of loosely connected impressions and ideas. In real life, thoughts are not linear, and Faulkner represents the chaotic quality of private thought by interrupting the flow of the sentence with clauses. The sentence thus gives us a peek into Sartoris’s swirling sensory impressions, revealing much more than simply his observations of what’s around him. Sartoris’s impressions reflect the hunger, fear, and guilt he feels, an impoverished child watching his father’s hearing from the back of a general store. The sight and smell of the foods surrounding Sartoris remind him of his empty stomach, which then leads him to consider more abstract concerns, such as his sadness and struggle to sustain his family loyalty.

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