Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Loyalty to Family versus Loyalty to the Law
In “Barn Burning,” Sartoris must decide whether loyalty to family or loyalty to the law is the moral imperative. For the Snopes family, particularly for Sartoris’s father, family loyalty is valued above all else. The family seems to exist outside of society and even outside the law, and their moral code is based on family loyalty rather than traditional notions of right or wrong. Snopes tells Sartoris that he should remain loyal to his “blood,” or family, or he will find himself alone. This threat suggests how isolated the family really is and how fully they rely on one another for protection, even when their faith in this protection is unfounded.
Blood in a literal sense appears as well, underscoring the intensity of the ties among family. For example, when the Snopeses are leaving the makeshift courthouse at the beginning of the story, a local boy accuses Snopes of being a barn burner, and, when Sartoris whirls around to confront him, the boy hits Sartoris and bloodies his face. The blood, dried and caked on his face during the ride out of town, is, in a way, a mark of pride: Sartoris had defended the family name. However, after Snopes once again plans to burn a barn, Sartoris understands that family loyalty comes at too great a cost and is too heavy a burden. He rejects family loyalty and instead betrays his father, warning de Spain that his barn is about to be burned. Only when Snopes is killed—presumably shot to death by de Spain at the end of the story—is the family free. They were loyal, but they still wind up alone.
The Search for Peace
Surrounded by violence and conflict, Sartoris is constantly overwhelmed by fear, grief, and despair, and he knows that he must search for peace if he ever wants to be free from these tumultuous emotions. Sartoris specifically refers to fear, grief, and despair throughout the story, revealing the depth of his struggle to find his place among the demands of his family and his own developing ideas of morality. To Sartoris, peace, joy, and dignity are the alluring promises of a different kind of life, one that seems very far away from life in the Snopes household. His sense that a different kind of life exists grows particularly acute when he and Snopes approach de Spain’s house. Sartoris is enamored with the grounds and the imposing house, and the domestic bliss that seems to emanate from the estate gives Sartoris a temporary comfort. The “spell of the house” seems to change everything, and Sartoris foolishly hopes that it has the power to turn his father from his criminal ways. For the first time, Sartoris has glimpsed a peaceful future.
Although Sartoris eventually frees himself from his father and his oppressive family life, he does not immediately find the peace and dignity that he expected would await him. Perhaps the happiness he seeks does exist for him in the future, as he leaves his family and old life behind without looking back. However, Sartoris has found a quieter, more subtle form of happiness. Life under his father was lived in a heightened state of extreme fear, grief, and despair. Now, the extreme emotions that loomed over Sartoris’s young life have eased. His life may not have undergone a radical transformation, but “grief and despair [were] now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair.” Sartoris can’t escape entirely, but he has already achieved a kind of peace.
The pervasive darkness in “Barn Burning” gestures to the lack of clarity that prevails in Snopes’s thoughts and actions as well as the bleakness into which Snopes drags his family. Several significant episodes in the family’s life occur under cover of darkness. For example, when the family camps by the roadside on their way to their new sharecroppers’ cabin on the de Spain property, Snopes beats Sartoris and scolds him for planning to reveal his guilt at the courthouse. Sartoris can’t see his father in the darkness, which reveals the alienation that is at the heart of their relationship. In the final portion of the story, darkness changes from being suffocating to suggesting freedom and escape. Snopes’s plan to burn yet another barn is hatched in the darkness, and the night seems to promise nothing but more crime and despair. However, Sartoris rallies his own sense of morality during this night as well, finally standing up for what he believes in. Sartoris embarks on his new life just as the darkness ends and dawn approaches.
The Word Ravening
The word ravening, which means devouring greedily, destroying, or preying on, appears several times in the story, and every time it highlights Snopes’s malicious character. In its first sense, “devouring greedily,” the word resembles “ravenous,” which gestures to the poverty the family must endure. When the family does eat, the meal is makeshift and cold. For example, when Snopes and his sons are in town to pursue their case again de Spain, Snopes buys a small portion of cheese, which he divides into three even smaller pieces. Faulkner also uses the word to link Snopes and fire. Snopes’s “latent ravening ferocity” and his “ravening and jealous rage” are expressed in the fire, which hungrily destroys the beams and dry hay bales of his employers’ barns. Finally, Faulkner’s use of the word also suggests the overpowering destructive impulse that defines Snopes. He is a parasite, preying on others to his own advantage, gleefully seeking the destruction of others’ livelihood and property in his own hunger for revenge.
Fire is a constant threat in “Barn Burning,” and it represents both Snopes’s inherent powerlessness and his quest for power and self-expression. After the family has been run out of town because Snopes burned a barn, Snopes steals a split rail from a fence and builds a small fire by the roadside, barely functional and hardly suited to the large family’s needs on a cold evening. He’d committed his fiery crime in a desperate grasp at power, but now he reveals how utterly powerless he is to adequately care for his family. When Snopes turns the fire on others’ property, however, his power increases, albeit criminally. Snopes has grown adept at committing crimes and escaping undetected, and his entire family is drawn in to this pattern of lying and evasion. Unlike the small, inadequate fire Snopes built for his family, the criminal fire that Snopes set in Mr. Harris’s barn sent Confederate patrols out for many nights of searching for the rogue and horse thief. For Snopes, fire is a means of preserving his integrity and avenging the slights he believes have been ceaselessly meted out to him throughout his life. Powerless and poor, Snopes turns to fire to tilt the balance in his favor, even if it is only for one brief, blazing moment.
The Soiled Rug
The rug that Snopes soils with horse manure in the de Spain home indicates a critical shift in his typical method of operating, because this is the first time that Snopes has intruded into and violated a home. Snopes’s destruction is a swipe at the financial security that de Spain has and that Snopes lacks, as well as a clear statement of his unhappiness at being subservient to de Spain for his livelihood. Without even knowing the de Spains, Snopes resents them simply for being prosperous landowners and in a superior position. A barn holds a farmer’s livelihood, including crops, livestock, and machinery, and this is Snopes’s usual target. Extending his criminal reach to the rug signals that Snopes’s resentment now encompasses the domestic sphere as well. The shocking act of smearing the rug with excrement eventually leads to the rug’s complete destruction, which then leads to another court hearing, another act of revenge, and ultimately Snopes’s death. The expensive rug represents for Snopes every comfort, opportunity, and privilege he feels he has been unfairly denied, and in destroying it, he renounces all regard for his life and family’s future.