A Socio-Political Critique of Barn Burning by William Faulkner

The main focus of the story is on the moral dilemmas confronting the young boy Sarty, who is torn apart between his loyalty to his violent and anti-social father and the tendency to abide by the norms of the society at large. But, around that scaffold, Faulkner builds his statements depicting serious discords within the American society. These aspects of the story are easy to miss if we pay attention only to the central theme of the story. There is also a tendency on part of a reader not to delve into uncomfortable issues and concepts. The remainder of the essay is an attempt to bring to the reader’s notice those apparently peripheral and implicit messages about the social realities of this era in American history. Though the story was set in the last decades of the 19th century, Faulkner wrote it following the Great Depression. So bringing to awareness the oppressive labor system and the suffering of underclass white workers who sold themselves in contracted servitude is an important motivation for the author. This is besides the primary theme depicting the mental conflict of Sarty Snopes.

The class distinction between the families of Major de Spain and Abner Snopes is illustrated by the material imagery that the author presents. A crowded grocery store/courthouse for a place of justice and an unpainted two-room cabin for a home contrasts sharply with the splendor of the grand mansion. Such differences are more telling in the possessions in those abodes. While the de Spain mansion is manifest with symbols of opulence – glittering chandeliers, gleaming gold frames, and curving carpeted stairs, the expensive French rug, etc., the Snopes’ possessions are what is rightly described as the “sorry residue of the dozen or more movings”. This includes a broken clock, a battered stove, beds and chairs that could collapse anytime, a worn-out broom and a battered lantern.

The oppression and cruelty to black Americans through the centuries had been well documented in Literature, but not so the equally deplorable conditions of the poorest of white Americans. Abner Snopes comments on the mansion as a product of “nigger sweat” and slave labor. He suggests that the status of poor whites is equal to that of blacks, if not on occasion worse, as in this particular case. He says, “Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants some white sweat with it”. We can also trace contempt for blacks in his words, without any grounds to base such an attitude. This is obvious when he rebukes: “Get out of my way, nigger”. Ironic as it is, he also at times feels superior to them in spite of the pathetic condition of his own life. In fact, the black slave owned by de Spain wore better clothes and rode better horses than Snopes.

At the time period when the story was set, the concept of “owning people” was quite common, though it would appear on the outside as a mutual agreement. This is evident in Abner Snopes’ description of Major de Spain as the “man that aims to begin tomorrow owning [my] body and soul for the next eight months”. While Snopes being physically and economically oppressed is one side of the story, the other side is that he is also an oppressor. He treats his wife and children harshly and endangers their survival due to his anti-social behavior. Here then is a case of what in sociology is called “the cycle of violence”. The perpetrator and the victim of violence are embodied in the same person.

Special treatment is meted out to the wealthy and the privileged class. When Major de Spain was sued by Snopes for claiming excess compensation for damaging the rug, de Spain “wore on his face an expression. . . of amazed unbelief . . .at the incredible circumstance of being used by one of his own tenants”. Snopes’ daring act had breached an implicit order of the society, and thus raised many an eyebrow, including that of the accused. This proves how wealth is more powerful than justice and the wealthy expect not to suffer any judicial retribution.

The concepts of “sharecropping” and “tenant farmer” were extremely disadvantageous for the workers. The economic and legal control exerted by the owners in this system of feudal privilege is highly repressive and leaves the tenants, in most cases “poor whites”, with no choice but to accept the imposed condition.

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