Barn Burning

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Fire Symbol Analysis

Fire Symbol Icon

Abner Snopes asserts his independence, his defiance, and his own view of justice through fire – by setting fire to the barns owned by those who he feels have slighted him. But fire, in “Barn Burning,” is not solely related to Abner—it is a generally ambivalent element that can signal both creative power and comfort as well as destruction. The Snopes family, for instance, crouches around a small, “neat” fire while they are between homes on the road, using the fire to warm themselves, to cook, and to keep themselves comfortable by a potent source of light. Fire was, after all, necessary to the development of civilization at all. And yet this same element can also be used for destruction and retribution, as Abner lights up both Mr. Harris’s barn and Major de Spain’s, enlisting both Sarty’s brother and Sarty (at least at first) in these tasks by filling up cans of kerosene. While fires can be restrained through vigilance—Abner’s neat, “niggardly” (that is, stingy) fire is an example—they can also quickly careen out of control. Fire’s dual function thus represents the junction between authority, control, and desperation at which the Snopes family’s experiences are located.

Fire Quotes in Barn Burning

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

And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker), Abner Snopes
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 7-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, the narrator moves back and forth through time, positing a number of hypotheticals regarding the relationship between Sarty and his father, as Abner makes a small, “niggardly” (that is, stingy) fire while the family rests on the way to their next community. Abner has a reputation for playing with fire, of course, for setting fires that extend and expand out of control—making it in some ways odd that he takes care to make such a small, puny one now. But this passage suggests that Sarty is still too young to understand something vital about his father’s character, and about his relationship to fire. Fire is in fact something—one of the few things—that Abner feels like he can control. He can manipulate it exactly as he wants to, whether that means keeping it small or ensuring that it will be as destructive as it can be. Abner takes solace in fire’s dual power for civilization and comfort and for destruction—it is a “weapon” for him which he can use against others, even when it seems that nothing else he does will change the way things are.

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But there was no glare behind him now and he sat now, his back toward what he had called home for four days anyhow, his face toward the dark woods which he would enter when breath was strong again, small, shaking steadily in the chill darkness, hugging himself into the remainder of his thin, rotten shirt, the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair. Father. My father, he thought.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker), Abner Snopes
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

After racing to the de Spain house to warn the Major about the father, Sarty has raced away, running just like he ran to fetch the oil for his father—though this time he is running away from his family in a way that, earlier, he still could not imagine doing. While racing, he has heard two shots ring out, and while we are not explicitly told what happened, we are left to conjecture that Abner and Sarty’s brother both have been shot by de Spain, and possibly killed.

Now Sarty recognizes that he has definitively abandoned his family—indeed, he has betrayed his family’s loyalty, in the interest of a greater justice, to the extent that his father and brother may be dead. It is at this moment that Sarty’s fear turns to grief, and he begins to think once again of the more admirable qualities of his father—even though, as the narrator will go on to tell us, Sarty isn’t aware that his father was actually mercenary, in the war for his own private benefit, rather than as a patriot or hero. This passage underlines the ambivalence with which the book ends: on one hand, Sarty never turns back to his home and family; on the other hand, he continues to think of Abner as “my father,” someone to whom he will remain indelibly bound. He has abandoned his family in fact, but perhaps in doing so is bound even more closely to it in spirit.

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Fire Symbol Timeline in Barn Burning

The timeline below shows where the symbol Fire appears in Barn Burning. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Barn Burning
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
The family camps that night and makes a small, neat fire, something the father excels at. If Sarty was older, he might have wondered why the... (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
And if Sarty was even older, the story suggests, he might have realized that fire spoke to something deep inside his father and was his only weapon. Now, though, Sarty... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...bushels, that somehow the whole thing will all balance out between the corn, rug, and fire, or between the terror and grief. (full context)