The literary bug bit me when I was young. The deepest bite was from William Faulkner. His short stories and some of his novels marked me in a way only a handful of other literary writers’ works have. I am reading through many of Faulkner’s works again but focusing on his short stories. Recently I reread “Barn Burning.” One of Faulkner’s most anthologized stories, it is often assigned reading for college and high school kids. I, too, read it at that age, but I have read it many times since. My appreciation for “Barn Burning,” like for much of Faulkner’s fiction, has only increased as I have aged. Many of his themes are too weighty for most kids to fully appreciate, in my view.
“Barn Burning” illustrates Faulkner’s philosophy of literature and what enables great literature to endure: writing that lasts is writing that explores “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Here are Faulkner’s words from his 1950 speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.1
“The human heart in conflict with itself.” Yes, that is the stuff of enduring literature. Will Romeo and Juliet’s love endure despite the feuding of the Capulets and Montagues? Will Hamlet avenge his father’s murder and restore order to Elsinore? Will King Lear learn before it’s too late that he has tragically misjudged his daughters? And in “Barn Burning,” will Sarty, the boy-protagonist, son to Abner, a poor, ignorant, violent, vengeful, injured, ravenous, brutal father in the defeated South of post-Civil War America about which Faulkner wrote for a lifetime, will Sarty be able to escape the conflict pulling him two different directions simultaneously?
Sarty loves his rapacious father, even though he (Sarty, the son) knows his father is a doomed man. Abner (the father) is caught. He is a poor ignorant white man who is a sharecropper in the South. He is dependent upon wealthy landowners like Major De Spain for work. But Abner hates his plight. He is proud. He, too, has a family. He, too, is a father, a patriarch, but a very fallen man seeking to provide for his dependents. But he is hateful to his employers and even to his own family. He seems, as is common in Faulkner’s characters, a doomed man.
But Sarty, perhaps, may escape from the cycle. Sarty’s father, Abner, when he is slighted, when he feels humiliated, he avenges his wounded pride through violence. He slaps his children until their lips burst and bleed. He whips the emaciated mules that pull their wagons. He smears excrement on the white rug of his employer, Major De Spain. All these lashings-out bespeak his sense of frustration, of woundedness, of Abner’s heart, too, in conflict with itself. And his family sees it, especially his sensitive son, Sarty, through whose eyes we view the story, “Barn Burning.”
We see Abner’s anger even in the way he speaks to Sarty, early in the story. Listen to the father’s tone and think how this would affect a sensitive boy who both loves his father but is also terrified by him:
“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?” Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.” But now he said nothing. He was not crying.” He just stood there. “Answer me,” his father said.
“Yes,” he whispered. His father turned. 2
Sarty is torn. Should he obey every directive from his father out of love? Or should he disobey and wait for his father’s fist to descend like a malicious claw? This is the human heart in conflict with itself.
One of the most revealing illustrations of Sarty’s conflict comes in these lines:
His father had struck him before last night but never before had he paused afterward to explain why; it was is if the blow and the following calm, outrageous voice still rang, repercussed, divulging nothing to him save the terrible handicap of being young, the light weight of his few years, just heavy enough to prevent his soaring free of the world as it seemed to be ordered but not heavy enough to keep him footed solid in it, to resist it and try to change the course of its events.3
Sarty, a boy smarting from the pain of having been hit by his abusive father, feels almost old enough to flee but too young to leave from what he knows. He, too, seems doomed, trapped in a no-win predicament, aware of his terrible plight but unable so far to extricate himself. Again this is the human heart in conflict with itself. Is he to remain with his abusive father or leave and essentially orphan himself and have nothing to show for it?
Finally, Sarty resolves he cannot endure his father’s ways, the violence, the repeated pattern of vengeance. Sarty warns of his father’s burning De Spain’s barn and De Spain (it is implied in the story) shoots Abner, and Sarty runs away, a fugitive from the only life and way he has ever known:
At midnight he was sitting on the crest of a hill. He did not know it was midnight and he did not know how far he had come. But there was no glare behind him now and he sat now, his back toward what he had called home for four days anyhow, his face toward the dark woods which he would enter when breath was strong again, small, shaking steadily in the chill darkness, hugging himself into the remainder of his thin, rotten shirt, the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair. Father. My father, he thought.4
I know literature appeals only to a small number of people. I’m in that little remnant. I know that because when I reread passages like these from Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” and I see a boy who both loved his father but was terrified of him, and I see a boy who somehow knows his father was destroying the very group of people he should have loved the most, and I see the costs Sarty would endure if he stayed weighed against the costs he would endure by fleeing the dysfunction and lies, I am moved in a way that great literature moves some of us. We see the tragedy and the beauty of it all—of families torn apart by forces both external and internal. You move me still, Faulkner. Thank you for enduring and prevailing through what you left us.
1Faulkner, William. Collected Stories. [New York: Penguin Group, 1967], 649-650.
2Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning” in The Portable Faulkner, ed. Malcolm Cowley. [New York: Penguin Group, 1967], 8.
4 Ibid., 24.