Barn Burning

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Major de Spain Character Analysis

Abner’s new employer after he is asked to leave his former community, the Major de Spain is a wealthy rural landowner and is the Snopes family’s landlord as well as their employer. He thinks of himself as fair and even-tempered, but he also is incredulous at the idea that his authority might be questioned, as it is by Abner.

Major de Spain Quotes in Barn Burning

The Barn Burning quotes below are all either spoken by Major de Spain or refer to Major de Spain. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Barn Burning published in 1995.
Barn Burning Quotes

“Pretty and white, ain’t it?” he said. “That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it.”

Related Characters: Abner Snopes (speaker), Major de Spain
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

After Abner soils the de Spain’s rug, he turns around and leads Sarty back out of the house. He’s been mostly silent this entire time, refusing to tell Sarty why he’s acted the way he has. Here, he still doesn’t explain himself to his son. Instead, he looks back up to the house and, rather than the feelings of peace and joy that characterized Sarty’s reaction to the house, expresses his own reaction of scorn and ugly prejudice.

Abner attempts to deny the value or beauty of the house by saying that it was built by black people, who to him have no value. The de Spains, in this prejudiced logic, also lose much of their sheen precisely because they have enough money to hire black labor.

In addition, Abner scoffs at the idea that he should be thought of on the same plane as such black laborers. Mixing “white sweat” with their sweat is a travesty, in this view of racial superiority. And the de Spains are even more subject to scorn because they are willing to hire both races and have them “mix.” Unfortunately, such ideas were prevalent in the South after the Civil War. The story shows them to be both an aspect of Abner’s own flawed character, as well as a source of the real poverty and desperation of sharecropping in the South. Poor whites often responded to their own economic anxiety by clinging to the one sense of superiority they had left, racial superiority, even as wealthy whites exploited both black and white laborers.

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He saw the man in spectacles sitting at the plank table and he did not need to be told this was a Justice of the Peace; he sent one glare of fierce, exultant partisan defiance at the man in collar and cravat now, whom he had seen but twice before in his life, who wore on his face an expression not of rage but of amazed unbelief which the boy could not have known was at the incredible circumstance of being sued by one of his own tenants.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, Abner Snopes, Major de Spain, The Justice (II)
Page Number: 17-18
Explanation and Analysis:

For the second time in the story, Sarty is entering a courtroom, this time because his father is suing the Major de Spain for charging him twenty bushels of corn against his crop after Abner ruined de Spain’s imported rug. As he enters the room, Sarty recognizes the Justice of the Peace from the physical marks of authority and stability, from his spectacles to his position at the front of the room. Just as he did before, when his father was in a trial against Mr. Harris, Sarty embraces a “partisan” stance: that is, he firmly takes his father’s side against whomever the enemy might be. While Sarty’s loyalty has begun to waver throughout the story, such an event as a trial makes it easier for him to want to be loyal to his father.

Meanwhile, the Major de Spain’s incredulity reflects both the entrenched inequality between landowner and sharecropper in the South, as well as Abner Snopes’s refusal to acquiesce to these social norms. Having gotten to know the justice system at first hand, Abner now imagines he can manipulate the system to his own advantage, using its tools against the Major de Spain. The Major, in turn, is shocked rather than angry—just as he had been when he realized that Abner ruined the rug even more by cleaning it—that Abner would even dare to sue him, rather than submit to being punished. The Major de Spain has never had to question his superiority, as indeed many people in the South at this time did not. Abner, then, comes off more sympathetically here, even if he cannot really claim the moral or legal high ground. Abner does have the nerve to challenge a legitimately unfair and exploitative situation, even if he is doing so in both horribly destructive (and self-destructive) ways.

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Major de Spain Character Timeline in Barn Burning

The timeline below shows where the character Major de Spain appears in Barn Burning. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Barn Burning
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
...opens the door and tells the “white man” to wipe his feet, and that the Major isn’t home. The father orders the servant, calling him “nigger,” to get out of his... (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...at the house, tells his son disparagingly that “nigger sweat” built it, and now the Major presumably wants to mix “white sweat” with it. (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Early that morning, father and son are equipping the mules for plowing when the Major rides up. He tells Abner, who remains stooping with his back to the Major, that... (full context)
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
Sarty calls to his father and cries that he did the best he could. Mr. de Spain won’t get his twenty bushels: he’ll gather and hide it, he says. His father simply... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...bushels will be a cheap price to actually change his father. He thinks that perhaps Major de Spain won’t try to collect the twenty bushels, that somehow the whole thing will... (full context)
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
...man with glasses and understands it’s another Justice of the Peace, and also sees the Major in collar and cravat. The Major has an expression of unbelief, not rage, at being... (full context)
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...instead marches past the wagon to the blacksmith shop. Sarty whispers to his father that de Spain won’t get even one bushel. He continues to whisper until his father glances down at... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...in, gasping for breath, and sees the black man looking astonished. Then a white man, de Spain , emerges, and Sarty cries, “Barn!” into his face before wheeling around and back out... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
Behind Sarty, the Major shouts for his horse. Sarty thinks he should cut across the park, but doesn’t know... (full context)