28 pages 56 minutes read

William Faulkner

Barn Burning

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1939

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Barn Burning”

First published in Harper’s magazine in 1939, William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” comments upon inheritance, loyalty, and the heavy bonds that link fathers and sons. Many of Faulkner’s writings, including his short stories and novels, are set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, which is based loosely upon Lafayette County. The Snopes family, who are the main characters in “Barn Burning,” appear in many of Faulkner’s other short stories and novels.

The story opens in a country store-turned-courtroom, where a local judge is overseeing a property dispute. The main character, a boy named Colonel Sartoris Snopes, is there on behalf of his father, Abner Snopes, who is one of the men involved in the dispute. On the other side is Mr. Harris, whom Sartoris refers to as “his father’s enemy” (1). Harris describes the dispute as beginning with a hog belonging to Snopes. At first, the dispute seems benign; however, it becomes clear that Mr. Harris’s barn was burned, and Snopes is accused of burning it.

Harris calls for Sartoris to be questioned before the court. Sartoris knows that his father expects him to lie on his behalf, and the boy, “frantic with grief and despair” knows he will “have to do it” (2). Ultimately, Harris and the judge decide against cross-examining the obviously torn Sartoris. The judge declares that he does not see enough evidence to prove Snopes set the barn on fire but that Snopes should leave the area anyway due to his obvious involvement in the crime. Snopes is not gracious. He insults the judge and the court before turning to leave with Sartoris and Sartoris’s older brother. As the three turn to leave, another boy attacks Sartoris, injuring him.

The three return to their wagon, where Sartoris’s two older sisters, mother, and aunt are waiting, sitting amongst their ruined collection of belongings. Sartoris’s mother attempts to clean his injured face, but Snopes does not let her tend to the boy’s wounds. Instead, the Snopes family travels quickly away from the store. Sartoris is troubled by his father’s manner and his knowledge of his father’s guilt in the barn burning. He doesn’t want to admit, even to himself, that his father is guilty. Sartoris is sure his father has arranged for them to live somewhere else, working on another farm as tenants, because Snopes is the type of man who is self-preserving by nature and possesses a “ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions” that is generally “of advantage to all whose interest lay with his” (4).

Sartoris’s father accuses the boy of planning to tell the judge the truth about the fire. Snopes hits Sartoris and reminds him of the importance of family loyalty above all else. The Snopes family then comes to a large and grand estate, bigger and richer by far than the other farms and homesteads they have previously worked. Although Sartoris holds out hope that his father will be too intimidated to strike out against or fight with their new employers (as he has done in the past), Snopes immediately steps in horse manure and purposefully tracks it through the grand house of their new employer, Major de Spain, staining an expensive rug.

When Major de Spain brings the rug to the Snopes family for cleaning, Snopes and his daughters use harsh lye and a stone to ruin it, much to the despair of Mrs. Snopes, who tries and fails to stop her husband. Major de Spain, displeased with the damage to the rug, requests that Snopes pay a fine—20 bushels of corn against the crop the Snopeses would otherwise harvest. Once again, Snopes ends in court. The Justice of the Peace rules that Snopes is at fault for ruining the rug, but that—since he is too poor to afford 20 bushels of corn—Snopes only has to pay 10 bushels.

Snopes does not plan to make the payment. Instead, he orders Sartoris to get oil so that they can burn the de Spain’s barn. To keep Sartoris from ruining the plan and warning the de Spains about the fire, Snopes orders his wife to restrain Sartoris, but she is unable to do so. The boy bursts into the de Spain house warning them about the barn fire. In the ensuing showdown, Snopes is shot and killed. The story ends with Sartoris sitting alone on a hill, “the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair” (14). Eventually, Sartoris walks into the spring night, without looking back.