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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.
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.