“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.