Spring Break Short Story Recommendation 2023: “Barn Burning”

In lieu of the typical Monday Morning Movie Review today, I’m dedicating most posts this week to reviews of short stories (and possibly one short novella).

Spring Break has sprung, which means it’s time for my annual Spring Break Short Story Recommendations.  Spring Break is one of the few times each year where I find myself with the leisure time necessary to read literary (and non-literary) short stories, and to celebrate this wonderful format.

It seems that in our age of hyper-connectivity and bite- (and byte-) sized content, we’re either reading massive amounts of digital fast food (like this blog), or settling in over the course of many evenings with long-form novels.  My perception could be completely slanted towards my own experience—quite likely—but I get the sense that the noble short story has suffered somewhat.

(A quick aside:  for the best bite-sized writing I’ve yet to find on the Internet, check out Stacey C. Johnson‘s blog Breadcrumbs; her writing is so inviting and mysterious, and probes at the interesting corners of life.  Check out her piece “Survey of Poetry“; it’s excellent, and it’s about a mischievous [and real!] octopus.)

Even if I’m wrong about that assessment, I am right about this one:  the short story is a form worth preserving.  I have long harbored, though not acted upon, ambitions to write a collection of short stories; perhaps I’ll one day put cursor to digital paper and get the thing done.  My own incalcitrance, however, is no reason for you not to read (or write!) short stories.

All philosophical ramblings aside, let’s get to today’s short story:  William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning“:

I first read Faulkner’s work in high school, and found it impenetrable and excessively wordy at the time.  Twenty years on, his work makes much more sense, and my own excessively wordy and windy writing style has vastly increased my tolerance for sentences that run on for a page or more.

While casting about for some good short stories to read, I found a collection of Faulkner’s short stories among my ever-expanding collection of unread, but still loved, books.  I thought it was time to tackle Faulkner again.

The first story in the collection was “Barn Burning,” the story of a troubled, proud, violent man, Abner Snopes, who has a penchant for burning his enemy’s barns.  The story opens in a general store doubling as a makeshift courtroom, with a man accusing Abner of burning his barn.  His son, Sartoris Snopes, is called to testify, but the Justice of the Peace and the complainant realize they are putting the boy in an untenable situation, and call off the testimony.  Abner is ordered to leave the country by nightfall.

Sartoris gets into a scrape with a boy who shouts “Barn Burner!” at the family, and Abner smacks Sartoris later that night because father believes that son would have ratted him out.  Abner tells Sartoris that blood is more important than the law.

When the family arrives at their new sharecropping gig, Abner immediately insults his wealthy employer: he intentionally tracks horse dung onto an expensive white rug, and when the owner sends a house servant with the soiled rug back to the Snopes family for cleaning, Abner damages it with a rock.  The landowner demands payment in the form of twenty additional bushels of corn, but Abner sues him.

The local Justice of the Peace reduces the payment to ten bushels, and it becomes clear that Abner is planning to burn his new landlord’s barn.  Little Sartoris manages to escape and warn the landlord, then disappears into the night after hearing three gunshots—implying his father’s death, though the outcome is unclear.

That brief summary does not do the story justice.  Faulkner explores some very deep themes in this book—and some very Southern ones:  blood ties and loyalty; class envy; the influence of genetics and family on our decisions.  It’s clear that Sartoris desperately wants to do what is right, but is trapped between what it is right in the eyes of the law and what is right by his family.  His warning to the landlord is both a redemption—he has finally revealed his father’s wickedness—and a betrayal:  after that point, he can never return to his family.  Sartoris seems to be at peace with his decision.

There is one passage in which Abner Sartoris’s handling of his mule is likened to the way his descendants would handle cars:

His father mounted to the seat where the older brother already sat and struck the gaunt mules two savage blows with the peeled willow, but without heat. It was not even sadistic; it was exactly that same quality which in later years would cause his descendants to over-run the engine before putting a motor car into motion, striking and reining back in the same movement.

That theme of inherited, genetic habit is a strong one in the story.  Little Sartoris struggles with the weight of family obligation while also striving for justice; the latter requires breaking from his past.  But Faulkner suggests that no matter how decisive our actions to the contrary, we can never truly escape the ties of blood.  Abner Snopes has marked Sartoris Snopes, whether the latter wishes to be so marked or not.

Alternatively, Faulkner seems to imply that blood is not destiny, that we still have free will.  The cost of exercising it at the expense of blood is a hefty one, though; in the case of Sartoris, it means he must totally divorce himself from his family, and head (literally) into the wilderness.

There might something of the story of Exodus here, too:  Sartoris escapes the bondage of his overbearing father, but at the cost of leaving behind Egypt—the familiarity of his family.  To do so means entering the wilderness, and Sartoris at the end of the book heads into the forest, towards an uncertain future.

The figure of Abner Snopes is one familiar to any Southerner:  fiercely independent, irascible, stubborn to the point of self-destruction.  These qualities can be virtues and vices, often simultaneously.  Abner clearly hates his lot in life, and especially hates the wealthy landlords upon whom he is dependent for his living.  He strikes back in ludicrous and prideful ways, both big and small:  not just burning barns, but tearing planks from other men’s fences to start campfires.  Sartoris describes one campfire as “a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather.”  Even when looting other men’s property to burn, Abner mysteriously limits his scavenging to only what is minimally necessary.

That contrasts, of course, with his willingness to burn entire burns—an extremely egregious and deadly offense.  The wronged individual in the opening ad hoc courtroom scene managed to get his livestock out of the barn, but the loss is still catastrophic.  It’s an extremely revolutionary act:  the sharecropping Abner putting ablaze the structures of the (probably only marginally wealthier) men for whom he works.  Abner does not even think in these revolutionary terms, of “burning it all down,” as modern parlance would have it; he just can’t stand anyone being better off than him, and pure hatred and envy appear to be his motivation.

How do we support family when our family commits wanton, prideful acts of wickedness and destruction?  Sartoris’s solution is escape—the price for justice, on top of his father’s supposed death.

A brutal choice, but one made by a plucky young man torn between loyalty and righteousness.


5 thoughts on “Spring Break Short Story Recommendation 2023: “Barn Burning”

  1. Port, thank you so much for this shout out! Hand over heart, friend. And THANK you for bringing me back to “Barn Burning.” My adoration of Faulkner’s novels is so immense, I sometimes forget about his short stories. Happy Spring Break! Here’s to slowing down time : )

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re very welcome, Stacey! Your blog has become an important part of my daily reading (or, when I am too busy, to my weekend reading).

      I appreciate Faulkner far more now than I did as a teenager. He captures “Southerness” in all its complexity—and it is wildly complex. In doing so, he captures the human condition, which is even MORE complex.


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