Blood Thicker Than Oil: An Analysis on William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” - By Alaina Barnett
Blood Thicker Than Oil: An Analysis on William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”
English 112, Week 10
October 27, 2019
Which is more valuable: loyalty to family, or duty to conscience? In “Barn Burning”, a short story written by William Faulkner, this question is posed to the reader in the form of seemingly flat characters, almost daring his audience to read in-between the lines. On the surface, the story is one of a tyrannical father and a son who is in the grip of that tyranny, desperately fighting against it in his own mind, but not outwardly. For Abner, the main character’s father, this tale is nothing but one of his descent even further into madness; even further than where he already dwelled. Yet for Sarty, our main character, it is so much more. In so many ways, Sarty is not a traditional hero. He is young, weak-minded and cowardly, yet, when it all comes down to it, he rises to the occasion beautifully. This is a coming-of-age story that is laced symbolism, examples of social injustice, mental disorders and pain; this is a showcase of a young soul in deep anguish. Faulkner effortlessly paints a picture of the very heart of this young boy, showing us the struggles that he has deemed as ordinary -- even insignificant; however, we can see that this is no ordinary story and no ordinary boy. He is anything but a coward; he is simply a child.
One of the most evident themes in this short story is concerning the hierarchies that are portrayed every which way.
All of this ties back to social class. In the Snopes’ case, they are at the very bottom of the totem pole. Abner is a share-cropper. With this profession being so, completely brutal, unfair and at times, fruitless, it is relatively easy to see why he would resent anyone who is apart of upper-class society. To him, the society that he is apart of and the society that Major de Spain is apart of are two completely different things. In Abner’s mind, he slaves day after day in the beating sun, pestered by the various insects and vermin, and all he has to show for it, is a two-room shack and very little property. Because this is all he has to show for his work, upper-class society has rejected him -- shaming him right back to the bottom, where he belongs. Major de Spain on the other hand, doesn’t seem to do much. He is gone most of the time, and when he isn’t, he is sitting pretty on the glorious hill that he calls home. He definitely isn’t out in the sun, slaving away like Abner. There is deep and bitter resentment in Abner’s soul that he simply can’t contain. There is a scene in the story that portrays this resentment exactly as it is: repulsive. “And now the boy saw the prints of the stiff foot on the doorjamb and saw them appear on the pale rug behind the machinelike deliberation of the foot which seemed to bear (or transmit) twice the weight which the body compassed” (Faulkner 161). Because Abner is so disgusted by the luxurious quality of Major de Spain’s home, he instinctively reverts to the child-like action of smearing horse manure on the Major’s expensive, white carpet. This is a perfect example of how the nature of hierarchy and the broken society in which the Snopes live, creates such desperation that this is what’s being reserved to: smearing feces on a rug, such as a monkey would do. Yet, even in something as simple as the family’s sleeping arrangements, there is a breathtaking touch of irony. While Sarty, his mother, two sisters, and aunt are all sleeping on pallets, Abner is sleeping in the only bed fit for human use. Abner has deemed himself worthy of this privilege because he is the head-of-the-household. For someone who hates the hierarchy so intensely, it is a beautiful detail that he has created one in his own home, perhaps unintentionally.
Loyalty to family, or “blood”, is perhaps the most obvious and prominent theme in the text. Faulkner hits the reader with the obvious blind trust and loyal nature in the very first paragraph. “He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair: ourn! Mine and hisn both! He’s my father! )...” (Faulkner 156). It is evident in this passage especially, that since a young age, Abner has drilled the concept of loyalty to blood into this young and malleable boy’s mind. The moment that someone becomes an enemy of Abner, they become an enemy of Sarty’s, sheerly by power of association. Sarty is dead-set on the fact that his father’s enemy (and his too, now) is in the wrong, until he believes he will have to testify. “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (Faulkner 156). He is automatically struck with intense fear, because at this point, he has a dilemma on his hands. He will either have to tell the judge the truth, getting his father, his own blood, into a large amount of trouble, or, he could lie and only suffer himself - in his own mind. He has been trained to do the former, but there is something biting at him to tell the truth. This is a tale as old as time: a battle of conscience. Faulkner puts it all out on the line for the reader; he practically begs them to come to their own kind of conclusion, but one seems to be fairly obvious: Sarty has been brain-washed and almost stripped completely of his free-will. It isn’t explicitly stated, but by the tone of the text, we get a sense that Sarty feels very confused and completely alone. An empathetic reader might begin to feel helpless, desperate to reach out to the young child and guide him in the right direction, but alas, the only one doing the guiding is Abner. There is a deeply tragic issue within Sarty’s soul concerning moral code. His spirit is torn in half; one half feeling a certain level of pride. He would be willing to lie for his father’s sake, just like he’s been trained to do, over and over again. Yet, the other half, knows how utterly wrong this dirty secret would be to keep. The only question that seems to stand, is which side of his soul will prove to be stronger.
Throughout the entire story, Faulkner gently slips in symbolism in details of the story that, normally, one wouldn’t bother to pay attention to.
“There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral that impressed strangers…” (Faulkner 158). At first glance, this passage could be viewed as a generally simple description of Abner’s character, but it is no such thing. His independence is described as “wolf-like”, but wolves don’t actually have any tendency to be independent at all. In fact, most wolves will exclusively travel in packs, that is, unless they are rejected from their group and forced to wander on their own. Abner, has been excommunicated from his pack (humanity) and has been forced to pave his own way. In some of his actions, it might provoke a small part of the reader that wonders if he has any desire to have any kind of relationship with the outside world, but this proves itself to be quite unlikely as the story continues to progress and Abner becomes all the more needlessly aggressive and hateful. Another almost insignificant detail in the story is Abner’s foot injury. Faulkner paints an image of a thin, almost wiry man that limps because of a musket ball he took to the back of the heel when he was stealing horses in the civil war. The limp is one of the only constants of his character throughout the entire story. It is so much more than a limp, however. This represents his almighty weakness that will eventually be his downfall; his Achilles’ heel, one might say. Throughout the story, Abner’s criminality becomes more untamed and his complete defiance becomes more than just a characteristic. Like the limp, these things start to become his entire identity, worsening with each passing day. The most blatant of all of these symbols, however, is fire. Abner has a very complicated relationship with this element throughout the entire story. Because of his social class and family situation, he is essentially powerless. Most likely, he has never felt that he has had any kind of control over any portion of his life, therefore, he is determined to have some sort of control now, even if that means bringing destruction wherever he goes. Abner almost looks at the fire like an old friend, calling upon it whenever he feels the slightest bit lonely or upset. With a couple of motions that are so familiar by now they are fluid, he can burn down a barn — ruining lives — or, he can build a small and tame fire, warming his family and providing a space to cook. Abner himself could also be viewed as a symbol. He is apart of the generation where everything was chaotic and heartbreaking and nothing was kind. Abner’s generation could be held responsible for every kind of social injustice that was prominent in that time. This mixed with the other symbol having to do with the fire, represents the previous generation creating so much chaos, that the next generation, their children, will be the ones responsible for cleaning it up. It’s a tragedy in itself, and causes their children to harbor resentment, only causing problems for their mental health.
The saddest detail of the story, however, might be the nature of Sarty’s thought process; in particular, his tendency to dissociate. There are many times in the text that the reader can begin to see him slip through their fingertips. “He felt no floor under his bare feet; he seemed to walk beneath the palpable weight of the grim turning faces” (Faulkner 156). Sarty is barely aware that he is even walking from one place to another. The unbearable weight, that he feels is on top of his body, is the only thing that is keeping him even half-way present. Anxiety is also something that comes to play when it comes to Sarty’s dissociation. “...But he could hear, and during those subsequent long seconds while there was absolutely no sound in the crowded little room save that if quiet and intent breathing it was as if he had swung outward at the end of a grape vine, over a ravine, and at the top of the swing had been caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless in time” (Faulkner 157). The picture that Faulkner so creatively paints, is one of anxiety whilst dealing with a tinge of dissociation. At the top of the swing, the point of maximum fear, is when the human mind tends to wander off, protecting itself from fear or pain. But in Sarty’s case, emotional turmoil. “Dissociative disorders are increasingly considered as a chronic complex post-traumatic psychopathology closely related to childhood abuse and/or neglect . Subjects with dissociative disorders frequently report childhood traumas, both in clinical settings  and in the general population…” (Sar et al 1). Sarty, having dealt with a significant amount of childhood abuse and arguably, a good bit of neglect, could be considered to be a poster-child for the causes of frequent dissociation. The heartbreaking reality, however, is that Sarty will most likely never realize that dissociation isn’t a normal thing and could quite possibly continue to live his life in a confused state, only with these disorders starting to worsen.
In the end, William Faulkner doesn’t paint a thrilling tale of betrayal and deception; he paints a tragic tale of loss.
Loss of people whom Sarty held so dear; loss of faith in the human race; loss of that beautiful child-like innocence. The true heartbreak, though, doesn’t lie In the words, or even in-between the lines. It lies beyond, in the life that Sarty will continue to lead sadly, helplessly and completely alone. In less than 15 pages, blood really does prove itself to be thicker than that oil used to burn those barns — that oil used to manifest all of that pain — that oil that changed a little boy’s mind in a significant way. For better or for worse? God only knows — and maybe Faulkner.
Sar, Vedat, et al. "Childhood Trauma and Dissociation in Schizophrenia." Psychopathology, vol. 43, no. 1, 2009, pp. 33-40. ProQuest, http://lrc-proxy.abtech.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/233348952?accountid=8 387, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1159/00025596 1.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Barning.” Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, edited by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, 5th ed., Pearson, 2016, pp. 156-171.