Barn Burning

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Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Analysis

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.
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon

What “Barn Burning” calls the “old fierce pull of blood” is a profound motivating force for Sarty—a force that, he both expects and fears, may turn out to determine his own life as well. In the story, blood is referred to in almost a genetic sense: young Sarty has inherited his father’s blood, and various similarities can be traced between the other family members as well. By discussing both past and future generations of the family, the story suggests that this blood lineage makes certain features, certain attributes, crop up again and again in a family through history.

The stable, enduring legacy of blood has several implications for Sarty. It suggests that he must be loyal to his father, putting blood above justice or truth, for instance, and being willing to lie in order to do so. But it also suggests that Sarty may well be fated to repeat his father’s actions.

Indeed, the bonds of blood can seem like real, physical chains to Sarty, wedding him to his family even when he wishes he could escape them. When he first thinks of running away, Sarty realizes that he simply can’t—that he’s indelibly bound to this family. He does, nonetheless, end up betraying his father by warning Major de Spain that Abner is going to burn down his barn. Yet this betrayal results in Sarty’s bonds to his family being irrevocably severed—with his father and brother shot by de Spain and possibly dead, Sarty’s sense of justice or honor has physically and not just emotionally separated him from his family and blood. And whatever has happened to his father and brother, at the end of the story Sarty walks away without looking back, making clear that he will never return to his family. In acting in a way that led to his father’s shed blood, Sarty has shed the “blood” of his ties to his family. What does remain an open question in the story, though, is the extent to which Sarty’s escape will, or won’t, prevent him from following in his father’s footsteps and fulfilling what is contained in his blood.

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Loyalty, Family, Blood ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Loyalty, Family, Blood appears in each chapter of Barn Burning. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Loyalty, Family, Blood Quotes in Barn Burning

Below you will find the important quotes in Barn Burning related to the theme of Loyalty, Family, Blood.
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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It was not even sadistic; it was exactly that same quality which in later years would cause his descendants to over-run the engine before putting a motor car into motion, striking and reining back in the same movement.

Related Characters: Abner Snopes
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Leaving the courtroom, Abner Snopes pulls back harshly on the mule’s reins as he prepares to leave town with his family in a wagon. Here, as in many instances in the story, the narrator takes a step back in order to shuttle between different time periods. We are reminded here that the story takes place in a particular historical moment, at the end of the nineteenth century, when horse and carriages were the main means of transportation. In later generations, Abner’s descendants would be finding their way around in cars instead.

Nonetheless, that the narrator points out such similarities between Abner’s movements and those of his descendants underlines the story’s interest in how behavior gets transmuted through generations, and how one may or may not ultimately be able to escape from one’s own family. Sarty is struggling to figure out how he wants to act, and to what extent he wants to align with his father: this passage suggests tha, just as his father’s gestures will be repeated by his descendantsyears in the future, there is an aspect of inevitability to Sarty’s own decisions, as much as he wants to think himself free.

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.

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.

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.”

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

Abner says these words as he is about to strike Sarty as punishment for his disloyalty—or what Abner imagines is his disloyalty, since he is simply conjecturing what Sarty would have done if Mr. Harris had made him testify in the courtroom.

Here Abner lectures his son on the proper attitude to have regarding his family. For Abner, what it means to grow up is to “stick to your own blood,” even if that means lying in a court of law. Abner seems to see this loyalty as justifiable for its own sake rather than for some larger purpose—or rather because it is the best way to ensure one’s own safety in a hostile world. Throughout the story, Sarty attempts to figure out to what extent he buys into such a view of loyalty and family heritage. Here, he is still eager to please his father and to work harder at maintaining a wholeheartedly loyal attitude to him.

It was as if the blow and the following calm, outrageous voice still rang, repercussed, divulging nothing to him save the terrible handicap of being young, the light weight of his few years, just heavy enough to prevent his soaring free of the world as it seemed to be ordered by not heavy enough to keep him footed solid in it, to resist it and try to change the course of its events.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, Abner Snopes
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarty is thinking about the fact that although his father had hit him at other times before the previous night, he had never stopped afterwards to explain why he had done it. And yet this passage suggests that his father’s explanation did not really clear anything up—it “divulged” nothing to Sarty in terms of helping him to understand how he should act or what his father wants from him.

What Sarty is beginning to recognize, however, is the painful awkwardness of his particular age. He is, as the story has made clear, especially good at noticing what goes on around him, and as he is growing older he understands more and more about what is at stake in the various characters’ actions. But Sarty is still only ten years old, and he is yoked to his father and to his family in general with what seem like unbreakable bonds. He is just old enough, then, to perceive the injustices and unfairnesses of the world, but not old enough to choose how to respond to them himself, and it is this feeling of being so out of place, out of joint, that accounts for much of Sarty’s anxiety.

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.

“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.