Barn Burning

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Blood Symbol Analysis

Blood Symbol Icon

While “blood” can be a metaphorical way of referring to genetic relationships—an important theme in “Barn Burning”—blood is also referred to symbolically on a more basic, visceral level throughout the story. Sarty’s mother attempts to wipe off his bloody face after he fights with other children who call his father a barn burner, thus attempting to express her own affection for him, even as he brushes her off. Abner Snopes, in turn, is referred to as “bloodless,” an adjective that only underlines his generally strict, stiff, and rigid attitude.

Much of the thematic significance of blood in the story has to do with its inevitability: the adjective “old” is often affixed to the word “blood,” as in “the old fierce pull of blood.” Surviving through various generations, blood represents (as in terms of “bloodline”) the way in which the past works inexorably on the present, even in ways that are not immediately evident. In addition, though, the fact that Sarty cannot escape from his family heritage, the physical presence or absence of blood is more related to how the family responds to such bonds—with affection, for instance, or not.

Blood Quotes in Barn Burning

The Barn Burning quotes below all refer to the symbol of Blood. 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

He could see his father against the stars but without face or depth—a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin: “You were fixing to tell them. You would have told him.”

Related Characters: Abner Snopes (speaker), Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Abner has pulled his son aside in order to tell him that he suspects him of disloyalty: he saw Sarty’s anxiety and desperation in the courtroom, and interpreted that to mean that if Mr. Harris had made him testify, Sarty would have told the truth and betrayed his father. Abner does not recognize that Sarty had, in fact, committed himself to lying and defending his father—and Sarty cannot find a way to let him know.

This quotation, however, is also significant in terms of the way that Abner is described from Sarty’s own viewpoint. Sarty often sees his father as flat, as two-dimensional, and as unemotional or “bloodless.” To him this is a puzzle, since many of his father’s actions seem to stem from rage, like setting barns on fire. But the rage is siphoned into these acts, while Abner’s personality remains cold and impassive. By seeing his father as a two-dimensional shadow, Sarty intuits (even if he cannot fully put into words) what an impenetrable mystery his father remains to him, and how little he can imagine making his father understand his own fears.

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Then he was moving, running, outside the house, toward the stable: this the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed to him willy nilly and which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him. I could keep on, he thought. I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can’t. I can’t.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Abner has once again begun to prepare to burn down a barn. He has ordered Sarty to go fetch more oil, and although Sarty doesn’t want to, he runs outside the house to the stable to do so anyway. Here, while running, Sarty reflects on the choices that he understands to be available to him. He recognizes that he is running to get the oil not because of anything he believes himself, but because of his “blood,” his connection to his family—which means both loyalty to his father, and an inability to be free from his father even if he could choose not to be loyal.

Indeed, for the first time Sarty doesn’t halt his thoughts before they go too far; instead he allows himself to imagine running away from his father and his family. Acknowledging the fact that, on some level, he despises his father is a major event for Sarty. Even so, however, he still feels that he is unable to take the next step, to actually keep running away. It is this inability that Sarty has more trouble articulating, as he only repeats, “I can’t”—but it clearly has to do with the ties of “blood” that remain so strong for him.

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Blood Symbol Timeline in Barn Burning

The timeline below shows where the symbol Blood appears in Barn Burning. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Barn Burning
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...of his feelings, from fear, despair, and grief to a sense of loyalty to his blood. (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...struck the mules. He tells Sarty that he must learn to stick with his own blood in order to survive. Twenty years later, Sarty would understand that if he said the... (full context)
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...ask why, but his father orders him to go. Out of the “old habit of blood” Sarty rushes to the stable. He imagines continuing to run, never looking back to see... (full context)