The Flight of the Unholy Family in Faulkner's "Barn Burning"
Patrick Dooley, United States Air Force Academy
Faulkner was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia for academic 1957-1958. He declined to lecture but agreed to answer questions from the assembled groups of students, faculty members and interested townspeople from Charlottesville. In the twenty-third (of thirty-six) session Faulkner was asked, “Do you think it’s easier to write a novel than a short story?” He responded,
"Yes sir. You can be more careless, you can put more trash in it and be excused for it. In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right. In the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t. I mean by that a good short story like Chekhov wrote. That’s why I rate that second—it’s because it demands a nearer absolute exactitude. You have less room to be slovenly and careless." (Gwynn and Blotner207)
In light of his self-prescribed dedication to finding just the right words, this article offers an explication of Faulkner’s intriguing inventory of the worldly possession of the Snopes family exiled by the Justice of the Peace after the case accusing Abner of barn burning has been dismissed for insufficient evidence and the lack of eye-witness testimony. The Justice of the Peace orders, “Take your wagon and get out of this country before dark. Case dismissed.” (Faulkner 5). The wagon contains, “. . . the sorry residue of the dozen and more movings which even the boy [Sarty] could remember—the battered stove, the broken beds and chairs, the clock inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which would not run, stopped at some fourteen minutes past two o’clock of a dead and forgotten day and time, which had been his mother’s dowry” (6).1
Though remarkable detail of “fourteen minutes past two o’clock” has struck and puzzled readers, only a few scholars have offered suggestions about Faulkner’s meaning. Surprisingly in their well-regarded volume of “glossary and commentary” on Faulkner’s stories, Towner and Carothers make no mention of the clock. On the other hand, Johnson proposes that Faulkner’s reference is to the start of Pickett’s charge at the Battle of Gettysburg and Cackett speculates that the hour and minutes described, refer to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) wherein Jay “begins shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon to wait for Daisy’s arrival” (10). Other scholars have searched for time and clock symbolism in the story: Mitchell connects the clock that will not run with Faulkner’s depiction of Abner’s wounded foot, “as it came down on the boards with clocklike finality” (11), whereas Johnson cites a slightly different account of Abner’s “stiff foot striking the hollow portico with that wooden and clocklike deliberation” (15). While these suggestions regarding time and timepieces shed some light on Faulkner’s carefully crafted prose, I recommend looking in quite another direction. I submit that his hint does not have to do with time but with a verse in the New Testament.2
Faulkner, I propose, is making a coy and ironic allusion to another family’s exile. Matthew 2:14, one of the shorter verses of the first evangelist’s gospel, describes the Holy Family’s flight from Bethlehem, “And he [Joseph] rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt.” Further, just like the Holy Family who must journey beyond Israel’s borders, the Snopes are banished, not to a neighboring county but to another “country.” Indeed, the Justice of the Peace orders Abner “Leave this country and don’t come back to it” (5) and then he repeats his sentence, “Take your wagon and get out of this country before dark” (5).
As for Faulkner’s attention to scripture, the picture that emerges in Joseph Blotner’s biography is a childhood familiarity leading to regular adult reading of the Bible. Particularly germane to my contention is Blotner’s discussion of several revisions made in The Sound and the Fury that led him to conclude, “Thus Faulkner opened out further possibilities of both direct and ironic Christian symbolism” (Blotner: 1984: 224). Likewise telling is Stallings’s report (repeated in Blotner’s biography—in both the one- and two-volume versions) that while Faulkner was in Hollywood in May and June of 1932 working on a movie script for Howard Hawks: “He bought one book to read over his lonely nights. It was second-hand twelve-volume . . . Cambridge edition of the Holy Bible” (27). And so if my hypothesis is sound, Faulkner’s lifelong Bible reading prompted him to offer the clue in “Barn Burning” that the Snopeses’ exile sardonically mirrors the one that Matthew’s gospel records.
While my interest is calling attention to Matthew 2:14 as the specific resource for Faulkner’s narrative of the exile of Abner Snopes, noting religious overtones in the story suggests other interesting possibilities. If one considers several verses before and after Matthew 2:14 as ironic analogs, Abner, his wife Lennie and Sarty become Faulkner’s “holy family.” For example, Joseph is a clear foil for Abner. While Joseph (2:13) flees to protect his family and later (2:22) changes his flight in response to dreams and out of fear, Abner reacts only when ordered by the court which he mocks. This despite Faulkner comment that Abner thinks he is above the law, “admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag . . . [things which] meant nothing and less than nothing to him” (24-25). Hence the “absolutely undeviating” (10), defiant and ferocious Abner is the diametric opposite of the gentle, humble and obedient Joseph. While Abner’s wife Lennie is a faint echo of Mary, at the climax of the story Sarty emerges as a striking Christ-figure who does the right thing at the cost of making himself an orphan estranged from his family. Despite Abner’s earlier sermon, “‘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” (8) Sarty chose moral probity over family allegiance. Eventually he realized that the reward for his resolve was “no long terror and fear,” nonetheless he had to deal with the “grief and despair” that remained (24). In the end, mature beyond his years Sarty turned an ethical corner that put him so far beyond the point of no return that “he did not look back” (25).
- Even though the 1980 PBS film version, directed by Peter Warner, with screen play by Horton Foote is told from the point of view of Sarty, Tommy Lee Jones dominates this version with his powerful depiction of Abner’s icy and controlled anger. As the family begins its exile we are shown Lennie Snopes sitting at the back of the wagon holding a clock with inlaid mother-of-pearl; it is stopped but at 2:35. Viewers are only given two fleeting glimpses of the clock and only one who was concentrating on discovering when the clock was stopped would notice this detail. More generally, see Skaggs for an informative discussion both the short story and film versions of the story.
- Though highly unlikely, another possibility suggested by my colleague, Rod Hughes, is that 2:14 could also refer to Valentine’s Day!
- Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 Vols. New York: Random House, 1974.
______. Faulkner: A Biography, One-Volume Edition. New York: Random House, 1984.
- Cackett, Kathy. “‘Barn Burning’: Debating the American Adam.” Notes on Mississippi Writers 21 (1989): 1-15.
- Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning” (1939). Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1950. 3-25.
- Gwynn, Frederic L., and Joseph L. Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, 1957-1958. Charlottesville, VA: The University of Virginia Press, 1959. 201-08.
- Johnson, Kenneth G. “Time of Decline: Pickett’s Charge and the Broken Clock in Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning.’” Studies in Short Fiction 11 (1974): 434-436.
- Mitchell, Charles. “The Wounded Will of Faulkner’s Barn Burner.” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (1965): 185-89.
- Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. “Story and Film of ‘Barn Burning’: The Difference a Camera Makes.” Southern Quarterly 21.2 (1983): 5-15.
- Stallings, Laurence. “Faulkner in Hollywood.” Conversations with William Faulkner, M. Thomas Inge, ed. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999. 27-29.
- Towner, Theresa M. and James B. Carothers. “Barn Burning.” Reading Faulkner: Collected Stories. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006. 3-20.