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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 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.