Southeast Missouri State University

Property, wealth, and the "American Dream" in "Barn Burning"

Pamela S. Saur, Lamar University

In the teaching of literature, we often make fruitful use of the Socratic method, a term that generally refers to the attempt to help students generate their own thoughts by guiding them through questioning.  Such questions range from general queries involving such key elements as character, plot, setting, and theme, to major and minor questions posed by each particular work, to questions involving the application of particular theoretical frameworks.  Often valuable are questions that go beneath the surface level of first or dominant impressions, probing questions that can be said to “go against the grain,” because they encourage students to resist their own first inclinations, the author’s manipulation, or the apparent simplicity of what is actually a complex and ambivalent creation.

In teaching William Faulkner’s widely anthologized, widely taught story, “Barn Burning” (1939), I have learned the importance of posing certain questions that encourage reading “against the grain.”  These questions are not designed to encompass all the important aspects of the story, but rather aspects of the story that students often resist or overlook, both because of the way the story is structured and because some students resist unsettling or threatening ideas.  Customarily teachers need to draw student’s attention away from surface events in a story and toward implied abstract idea and moral problems.  However, the reverse is true in teaching “Barn Burning,” for in this story moral concerns, abstract problems involving justice and right and wrong, are in the foreground, and it is important to draw students’ attention to the importance in the story of concrete or material reality.  Doing so does not abrogate the story’s moral dimension, but actually casts light upon its full implications.

At first glance, the story seems primarily to focus on the moral dilemma of Sarty, the story’s young protagonist, who is faced at a young age with agonizing conflict created by a demanding criminal father, intent on drawing him into crime and its dire consequences.  Sarty’s dilemma is indeed compelling, perhaps especially to readers who are minors themselves, but exclusive concern with his dilemma does not do the story justice.  Painful as Sarty’s situation is to contemplate, we opt too soon for an easy, comfortable interpretation if we assume that the story applies only to that tiny percentage of the population whose parents try to force them into criminal careers.  There is more to the story than the simple and obvious lesson that young people cannot be blamed for disobedience to criminal parents.

The following six “Socratic” questions, focusing on a “materialist” approach, are offered as useful for class discussion or writing assignments.  They are presented with answers that are not intended as the only “right” ones, but as examples of possible answers or starting points for discussion.

  1. Describe the buildings in the story, their presentation and importance.  Significant structures in the story include grocery store/courthouses, Major de Spain’s fine mansion, the Snopes’ cabin, and the barns alluded to in the title.  Barns, already burned or vulnerable to Snopes’ flames, loom threateningly in the background of the story, threatening not only all barnowners in the area, but the already precarious livelihood of the family depending on Abner Snopes as a breadwinner.  The story’s shabby grocery store/courthouses are the peculiar sites of Snopes’ conflicts with the law, his employers, and his son, their shabbiness and smell of cheese casting a bit of doubt on the abstract justice they supposedly dispense, especially when Sarty later compares de Spain’s mansion with a courthouse.  Perhaps society can only dispense shabby grocery story justice, and the wealth represented by the mansion is more powerful.  Sarty’s real concern, however, is his fervent, rather superstitious wish that the de Spain’s grandeur would make them invulnerable to his father’s attacks: he thinks wishfully, “People whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity are beyond his touch” (11).  Likewise, Sarty’s father projects his own thoughts onto the mansion, which he sees as a product of slave labor, of “nigger sweat.”  Bitterly associating himself with the black slaves he thinks he ought to be able to feel superior to, he adds, “Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him.  Maybe he wants some white sweat with it” (13).  Finally, the story presents a sharp contrast between de Spain’s mansion and the “paintless two-room house” (9) he provides his employee’s family of seven, about which one of the  Snopes daughters says, “Likely hit ain’t fitten for hawgs” (9). We can conclude that passages about these buildings relate not only to issues of crime, punishment, and father/son conflict, but also to issues regarding inequality on the basis of race and wealth.
  2. What are the possessions of the Snopes family?  How are they described and what significance do they have?  The family owns one wagonload of possessions, which are called the “sorry residue of the dozen or more movings.”  They include what was once the mother’s small dowry:  a clock, inlaid with mother-of-pearl that long ago stopped running, along with other things:  a “battered stove,” “broken beds and chairs,” (6) a “battered lantern,” and “a worn broom” (10).  The fact that Mrs. Snopes’ dowry is now broken emphasizes how poorly she has fared since her marriage.  Not only are the family goods meager and damaged, but they are not secure.  The survival of the family and continued ownership of their goods are by no means assured, as the family and pitiful wagon move from place to place following the unstable and unreliable breadwinner they depend on, Abner Snopes.
  3. Locate and analyze passages in the story that emphasize the characters’ differences in wealth.  The vast gulf between the de Spain and Snopes family is shown by the differences in their houses and possessions, the contrast between their horses, and the fact that de Spain has servants, and even they have better clothing and ride better horses than Snopes.  Ironically, de Spain’s black servant, to whom Abner says, “Get out of my way, nigger,” (12) is dressed in fine linen, while the Snopes family dresses shabbily.  Sarty’s shirt is “rotten” and falling apart because it has been washed so many times (25).
  4. What crimes against property is Abner Snopes guilty of before the events of the story?  During the time interval of the story?  What punishments result?  As a young man, Snopes stole horses from both sides during the Civic War, (as recounted in the novel The Unvanquished in which this character also appears).  These were crimes of property, although they show his indifference to the moral and patriotic issues of the war.  While he was never officially caught or punished, he was shot in the heel by a Confederate soldier (thus, presumably by soldiers on his own side of the war), and he limps as a result, thus bearing a permanent physical mark of vigilante justice.  When the story opens, Snopes is being tried for burning a neighbor’s barn because the neighbor tried to charge him money for feeding his hog after Snopes refused to fence the hog even after the neighbor had given him fencing wire.  The Justice of the Peace does not have sufficient evidence to convict him, but he strongly advises Snopes to leave the county, which he does.  During the story, Snopes deliberately tracks horse manure onto his employer’s expensive French rug, for which he is assessed a fine that is high considering his earning power, but inadequate to replace the rug.  Finally, the story relates Snopes’ preparations to burn de Spain’s barn.  The reader learns that during the fleeing Sarty hears shots fired, but the story’s disturbing presentation of justice in the story is further confused by our uncertainty as to whether or not this means that Snopes, and perhaps his other son, have been “executed” outside the system of justice.  One could conclude that civilized courts cannot always dispense justice to outlaws like Abner Snopes.  It seems likely that Snopes’ luck has run out; while he escaped a Confederate vigilante’s bullet years ago, this time he may have been hit.  Sarty is too anxious to escape his father to find out.
  5. Locate and explicit reference to the idea of “owning people.”  Is the idea implied in other passages?  Abner Snopes describes Major de Spain, his new employer, as “the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning [him] body and soul for the next eight months” (10).  If Snopes is oppressed or even “owned,” it is easy to note as well that his wife and children are oppressed by him in turn;  not only by his violent hand and harsh, sometimes unreasonable commands (such as asking Sarty to lie in court and the females to wash a rug he purposely soiled), but also by jeopardizing their livelihood through his crimes.  While readers tend to be quick to focus on Sarty’s moral oppression, the story contains ample  evidence, if less prominently featured, of the economic and physical oppression suffered by Snopes’ entire family.
  6. What are the story’s implications regarding the “American Dream” and ideal of the United States as the land of opportunity and justice?  Just as some students tend to over-emphasize abstract moral values in the story at the expense of material reality, they may well be more comfortable concentrating on “human universals” and thus looking past the “surface” of the story's unflattering portrait of America.  While the story can legitimately be discussed in terms of universal abstract issues involving good and evil, social control and anarchy, it is clear that one of Faulkner’s intentions is to reveal pervasive inequality and unfairness in the nation called the “land of opportunity.”  When Snopes sues his employer over how much compensation he should provide for deliberately damaging his rug, de Spain at the trial “wore on his face an expression. . . of amazed unbelief . . .at the incredible circumstance of being used by one of his own tenants” (19).  Faulkner makes it clear that de Spain’s amazement is not based on the case, but on the mere fact that a tenant would dare to sue.  His amazement suggests that in his experience wealth has always been more powerful than abstract justice.  The impression that inequality and injustice prevail is reinforced by the arithmetic provided by the justice of the peace.  Here, Faulkner takes great pains to point out, in monetary terms, the vast gulf between de Spain and Snopes, for according to the justice’s arithmetic, it would take Snopes at least twenty years to earn the $100.00 the rug cost, so he reduces de Spain’s demand of ten dollars worth of corn by half.  These cold facts regarding Snopes’ earning power indicate that no matter how hard Snopes works, he will never be able to increase his economic situation.  It would be going too far to say that the story therefore justifies Snopes’ crimes, but it does force us to acknowledge the reasons for his resentment and need to assert his sense of manhood and dignity.

In this story, set in rural Mississippi in the late 1800’s, poverty, inequality, and lack of freedom and opportunity prevail.  The story also suggests that somewhat earlier, during the Civil War, anarchy had been the rule, rather than a just, orderly society.  In the story, the reader is pushed to admit that no matter how hard Abner Snopes works in the fields, he will never be able to earn enough to become a powerful, wealthy landowner like de Spain and the others who employ him.  Even lower on the scale of wealth and power are the “niggers” Snopes looks down on and has used as messengers in his vengeful plots, and the women and children under his tyrannical power.  Not only Sarty, the protagonist, but his sisters and mother are victims of patriarchal abuse; their subordination to Sarty in the story is parallel to their extremely subordinate position in society and the family power structure.

Besides the moral dilemma faced by Sarty that is usually perceived as being at the story’s center, the story makes many disturbing points.  Abner Snopes incorporates the frightening power of criminals who are not afraid of the consequences of their deeds, the difficulty of courts to prove guilt and determine or enforce fair punishments, and finally the unfairness and poverty that can motivate resentment and crime and are disturbing in themselves.  His wife and daughters represent meek submission to poverty and powerlessness, which is hardly a satisfactory alternative to Snopes’ destructive defiance.  Sarty, the protagonist, is poised between his mother’s submission and his father’s resentment, chooses renunciation as his reaction to deprivation and injustice, and runs away.

It is time to return to “Sarty’s dilemma” and look at it again in the light of the above questions.  Clearly, one side of Sarty’s dilemma is his affection, loyalty, and duty toward his father, a moral imperative Abner Snopes expresses thus, “You got to learn to stick to your own blood” (383).  But what is the alternative that creates a dilemma for him?  It is more difficult to find words for what Sarty has chosen instead of loyalty to his father.  Without considering the complications raised by he above questions, it may appear that Sarty has chosen simple goodness or conformity to a law-abiding, just society.  Actually, Sarty flees not only his tyrannical, outlaw father, but the alternative of abject submission represented by his mother, and a society in which justice is elusive and poverty, suffering, and inequality are prevalent.

Nevertheless, in his fleeing there is hope – hope for the son to lead both a more moral and a more prosperous life than his father, and hope for the American Dream as well.  Even as we concede that injustice and inequality are party of American society as any other, we know that Sarty’s flight embodies the mobility and possibility of that Dream.  We know that enough individuals have taken good advantage of the freedom Sarty exercise for us to have high hopes for him.  The story offers us troubling and disturbing moral challenges, but the ending offers us the inspiring, hopeful, and particularly American vision of an individual setting forth to create his own destiny.  Teachers of this rich and compelling story need to help students go beyond the temptations of its easy and comfortable interpretations to a more complete appreciation of its surface and deeper levels, its abstract and concrete aspects, its disturbing and more optimistic messages; in short, its rich complexity and ambivalence that remind us of the complexity and ambivalence of life itself.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William.  “Barn Burning.”  Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner.  New York:  Random House, 1961.  3-27.