Barn Burning

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Themes and Colors
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Barn Burning, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Independence and Justice Theme Icon

The Snopes family is entirely dependent on their landowners for their livelihood, but Abner Snopes constantly tries to assert his own independence anyway—even when that involves bending the wills of the other members of his family, too, to his own desires. Abner deeply resents having to work for other men to support his family, and many of his defiant actions, his lack of concern towards the rules and regulations of others, can be understood as stemming from such resentment. Yet even while asserting independence, Abner also appeals to other systems, such as the courts, becoming dependent on them at the same time as he refuses to play entirely by their rules.

Justice, then, plays an ambivalent role for the Snopes family, even as ten-year-old Sarty—watching his father as well as the other characters in the story—struggles to determine what “justice” might mean for him. Abner’s activities entangle his family, and Sarty in particular, in so many court proceedings that Sarty—who is eventually able to recognize any judge by his formal, bespectacled appearance—has trouble keeping them straight. Indeed, at one point Sarty confuses one trial with another, and as he and his father enter the courtroom, begins defending his father against the charge of burning a barn—when, in fact, it’s his father who is suing Major de Spain.

Abner may appeal to official court-sanctioned justice just as often as other people make formal complaints against him—but when justice doesn’t go his way, he’s willing to disregard what he’s told and claim independence once again. When a judge tells him he’ll owe ten bushels of October corn to Mr. de Spain, for instance, he tells his son that they’ll just wait until October and then see. Once again, Sarty seems to want to support his father even as he possesses a distinct, more innate sense of justice. It’s Sarty, for instance, who objects to the fact that his father appears to be planning to burn the de Spain barn without sending a man ahead to warn the de Spains, like he did the last time. And it’s Sarty who ultimately warns the Major as a result. But it is as a consequence of what Sarty understands to be justice that his father and brother (presumably) are shot—in the Major’s own form of vigilante justice. In the stuffy courtroom, verdicts can often seem unfair; yet as Sarty learns, the apparently independent system outside it turns out to function along an even more unpredictable logic of individual “justice.”

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Independence and Justice ThemeTracker

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Independence and Justice Quotes in Barn Burning

Below you will find the important quotes in Barn Burning related to the theme of Independence and Justice.
Barn Burning Quotes

He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair, ourn! mine and him both! He’s my father!) stood.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker), Abner Snopes, Mr. Harris, The Justice (I)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

As the story opens, Sarty is in a general story that doubles for a courtroom, where Mr. Harris—his “father’s enemy”—has made a complaint against his father for allegedly burning Harris’s barn down. Sarty cannot quite see what is going on—as a ten-year-old boy, he is only partially granted access to and participation in the world of the adults. But he knows enough to recognize that Mr. Harris and his father are opponents, and that for this reason he too should consider Harris as his own enemy.

Nonetheless, this passage makes clear that Sarty is struggling to align himself wholeheartedly with his father. He corrects his own thoughts in “despair,” as if conscious of the huge effort that this takes him. And he cannot find a rational justification for being loyal to his father—blood alone, the fact that the man is his father, will have to suffice. At this point, we do not yet know much about Abner Snopes, but we do immediately get a glimpse of Sarty’s tumultuous attempts to define himself in relation to his father, and determine his own sense of justice at the same time.

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Maybe he even won’t collect the twenty bushels. Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish—corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses—gone, done with for ever and ever.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

As he sometimes allows himself to do, here Sarty imagines an alternate reality for his family, one in which his father’s destructive and self-destructive actions might cede to a more stable harmonious way of life. Specifically, Sarty is referring here to the twenty bushels of corn that the Major de Spain has decided to count against Abner’s crop, as payment for ruining the rug—though more as punishment than payment, given that Abner would never make enough in a lifetime to pay for the rug entirely.

Here Sarty indulges in a different kind of calculation, which for him implies a different kind of justice. Rationally, the balance sheet that he sets up doesn’t make too much sense—it’s not clear how the corn, the rug, and the fire all will add up to nothing, though there is an implication that Sarty is thinking that if his father doesn’t go burn down de Spain’s barn perhaps in some way that will cosmically balance the scales of justice. And, if his father refrains, then it does seem to Sarty that, in the tribunal of life if not in the courtroom, his family has paid for their sins.

Sarty also makes a connection between the system of crime and punishment by which Major de Spain seeks to deal with Abner, and the balance sheet that he feels in his own relationship with his father. Sarty is constantly being “pulled two ways”: one way encourages him to be loyal to his father no matter what, and follow him in his resentment and defiance; but the other way pulls him to insist on his own sense of justice, distinct from his father’s.

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.

“Ain’t you going to even send a nigger?” he cried. At least you sent a nigger before!”

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

Sarty is watching his father carefully, deliberately prepare the oil in order to burn down the de Spain barn. He has watched his father do this before—indeed, young as he is, Sarty sometimes has trouble distinguishing certain instances of his father’s defiance from others, as when he began to yell and defend his father to the Justice for an entirely different charge. This time, though, there is something different: at the beginning of the story, we learned, Abner had sent a black man to warn Mr. Harris about the burning—now it looks like there will be no warning. Further, earlier Sarty had hoped that if his father didn’t burn down de Spain’s barn, perhaps everything would somehow even out. But, of course, his father does plan to burn down the barn, and even more mercilessly than he has in the past.

Sarty’s derogatory racial language comes straight from his father, as well as from the white society around him—in that sense Sarty is no different from them. But in other ways, Sarty does feel an innate sense of justice that distinguishes him from his father. He may not be able to stop his father from burning down a barn, but he cannot stand the idea that there will not even be a warning. While, in the past, Sarty has put his head down and obeyed his father, daring to question him only in his own thoughts, now his thoughts break out into speech, as he dares to challenge his father directly.

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.