Barn Burning Summary

William Faulkner

Barn Burning

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Barn Burning Summary

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“Barn Burning,” a short story by William Faulkner, was first published in 1939 in Harper’s Magazine. It was adapted into a short film in 1980, staring Tommy Lee Jones. Noteworthy themes include class conflicts, the influence of fathers, courage, youth, family, choices, judgement, and justice.

The story opens in a general store currently being used as a courtroom. A ten-year-old boy, Colonel Sartoris Snopes—Sarty for short—crouches on a keg in the back. He can barely see up to the front where his father, Abner, and neighbour, Mr. Harris, are arguing. Mr. Harris has filed a complaint against Abner, claiming Abner let his hog into Harris’ yard several times. Harris finally decided to keep the hog, and told Abner if he wanted it back he would have to pay for it. Abner then apparently set Harris’ barn on fire. Harris says he doesn’t have any proof, though, so he asks Sarty to testify against his father. Sarty, like any child, is frightened at the thought of lying to defend his father, but Harris changes his mind. The Justice tells Abner that he can’t find him guilty, but he should probably leave town soon. Abner says he was going to anyway.

Abner, Sarty, and his brother leave the general store. A child in the crowd yells at Sarty, calling him a barn-burner, and hits him. They meet the mother, aunt, and twin sisters of the family, who are waiting with a wagon, all of their possessions piled on top.

Later, the family makes camp and has a small fire. Abner takes Sarty away from the group and accuses him of wanting to betray him in front of everyone in the courtroom. Abner hits his son, saying that his loyalty must always remain with his family.

The next day, the family arrives at their new home. Abner takes Sarty with him to speak to the Major de Spain, his employer and the owner of the land on which they are to live. Abner purposely steps in horse manure and treads the filth throughout de Spain’s mansion, especially on a very expensive looking rug. A black servant tells him the Major isn’t home. Abner scoffs at the fact that the house was built by black labourers, and leaves with Sarty in tow.

The Major returns home, and is horrified at the ruined rug. He tells Abner that he will charge him twenty bushels of corn from the next crop, because he will never earn the worth of the rug in his life. Sarty tries, and fails, to defend his father this time, but it doesn’t work. A servant brings the soiled rug to the Snopes family and tells them to clean it. The two sisters reluctantly do it, but Abner throws in a stone fragment, which will further ruin the rug. When Abner returns the rug, he kicks the door loudly and flings the rug to the ground. Sarty is left to hope his father’s destructive tendencies will stop somehow.

The weekend arrives, and Abner tells his two sons to prepare the wagon. They ride to another courtroom, where Sarty sees Major de Spain. Again he tries to defend his father, saying he never set fire to the barn, but Abner pushes his son away, and tells him to wait by the wagon. Sarty stays, though, and realises Abner is suing de Spain for the twenty bushels of corn. The Justice decides that Abner is responsible for the ruined rug, but twenty is too much for the poor man to produce, so he lowers the amount to ten.

After, the boys and Abner spend time in town, not returning home until the sun has set. They go to the blacksmith’s, buy some cheese for the boys, and go to the corral to look at all the horses.

Later that night, Sarty hears his mother protesting to her husband. Abner is filling a kerosene can with oil, and Sarty realises he is about the set the de Spain barn on fire. His father tells him to get more oil, and even though Sarty wants to refuse, he somehow can’t. When he returns, Abner realises that Sarty is planning to alert de Spain to the fire. Abner leaves Sarty behind, held tightly by his mother, but he is able to wriggle free. Sarty runs to the main house, screaming “Barn!” at de Spain, who follows him quickly. De Spain is astride his horse, and Sarty has to dive out of the way to keep from being run over. He continues to run in the opposite direction, and hears three gunshots, and then sees the fire rising behind him.

Finally, it is late and dark. Sarty sits, mourning his father whom he believes is dead. He sleeps for a time, and then wakes to the sound of birds singing. He feels a little better, and continues to walk away from his family and home.

“Barn Burning,” a short story by William Faulkner, was first published in 1939 in Harper’s Magazine. It was adapted into a short film in 1980, staring Tommy Lee Jones. Noteworthy themes include class conflicts, the influence of fathers, courage, youth, family, choices, judgement, and justice.

The story opens in a general store currently being used as a courtroom. A ten-year-old boy, Colonel Sartoris Snopes—Sarty for short—crouches on a keg in the back. He can barely see up to the front where his father, Abner, and neighbour, Mr. Harris, are arguing. Mr. Harris has filed a complaint against Abner, claiming Abner let his hog into Harris’ yard several times. Harris finally decided to keep the hog, and told Abner if he wanted it back he would have to pay for it. Abner then apparently set Harris’ barn on fire. Harris says he doesn’t have any proof, though, so he asks Sarty to testify against his father. Sarty, like any child, is frightened at the thought of lying to defend his father, but Harris changes his mind. The Justice tells Abner that he can’t find him guilty, but he should probably leave town soon. Abner says he was going to anyway.

Abner, Sarty, and his brother leave the general store. A child in the crowd yells at Sarty, calling him a barn-burner, and hits him. They meet the mother, aunt, and twin sisters of the family, who are waiting with a wagon, all of their possessions piled on top.

Later, the family makes camp and has a small fire. Abner takes Sarty away from the group and accuses him of wanting to betray him in front of everyone in the courtroom. Abner hits his son, saying that his loyalty must always remain with his family.

The next day, the family arrives at their new home. Abner takes Sarty with him to speak to the Major de Spain, his employer and the owner of the land on which they are to live. Abner purposely steps in horse manure and treads the filth throughout de Spain’s mansion, especially on a very expensive looking rug. A black servant tells him the Major isn’t home. Abner scoffs at the fact that the house was built by black labourers, and leaves with Sarty in tow.

The Major returns home, and is horrified at the ruined rug. He tells Abner that he will charge him twenty bushels of corn from the next crop, because he will never earn the worth of the rug in his life. Sarty tries, and fails, to defend his father this time, but it doesn’t work. A servant brings the soiled rug to the Snopes family and tells them to clean it. The two sisters reluctantly do it, but Abner throws in a stone fragment, which will further ruin the rug. When Abner returns the rug, he kicks the door loudly and flings the rug to the ground. Sarty is left to hope his father’s destructive tendencies will stop somehow.

The weekend arrives, and Abner tells his two sons to prepare the wagon. They ride to another courtroom, where Sarty sees Major de Spain. Again he tries to defend his father, saying he never set fire to the barn, but Abner pushes his son away, and tells him to wait by the wagon. Sarty stays, though, and realises Abner is suing de Spain for the twenty bushels of corn. The Justice decides that Abner is responsible for the ruined rug, but twenty is too much for the poor man to produce, so he lowers the amount to ten.

After, the boys and Abner spend time in town, not returning home until the sun has set. They go to the blacksmith’s, buy some cheese for the boys, and go to the corral to look at all the horses.

Later that night, Sarty hears his mother protesting to her husband. Abner is filling a kerosene can with oil, and Sarty realises he is about the set the de Spain barn on fire. His father tells him to get more oil, and even though Sarty wants to refuse, he somehow can’t. When he returns, Abner realises that Sarty is planning to alert de Spain to the fire. Abner leaves Sarty behind, held tightly by his mother, but he is able to wriggle free. Sarty runs to the main house, screaming “Barn!” at de Spain, who follows him quickly. De Spain is astride his horse, and Sarty has to dive out of the way to keep from being run over. He continues to run in the opposite direction, and hears three gunshots, and then sees the fire rising behind him.

Finally, it is late and dark. Sarty sits, mourning his father whom he believes is dead. He sleeps for a time, and then wakes to the sound of birds singing. He feels a little better, and continues to walk away from his family and home.