Barn Burning

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Resentment, Race, and Prejudice 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
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Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon

The Snopes family is made up of poor white sharecroppers, an economic class from the post-Civil War American South through which poor farmers earned their living by working off land of owned by another, a landowner who provided certain materials and sometimes housing in exchange for the labor and a percentage of the resulting crop. While former slaves often became sharecroppers in the upheaval after the Civil War and Reconstruction, struggling white people increasingly turned to it as well, even though the system could be grueling and unforgiving, with many sharecroppers entering a cycle of debt to their landowners from which they might never emerge.

Abner Snopes, the patriarch of the Snopes family, is deeply resentful of his economic situation—but this resentment is also racial. Economically, the Snopes family has much more in common with other black sharecroppers, or even with the black servants who work at the de Spain house, than with the white landowners. And racial prejudice is not, of course, limited to the Snopes family, in American history or in this story. It appears that part of the reason the black servants at Major de Spain’s house are so terrified when Abner soils the rug is that they live in such fear of their master.

But Abner in particular finds it vital to distinguish himself from black people in order to cling to one last sense of superiority and self-respect. And Abner uses his prejudice to justify his own superiority to everyone else. For instance, he positions himself as superior to the much richer de Spain family because their house is built, he says derogatorily, from “nigger sweat.” In other words, Abner has found a way to make his own status as a poor white person one of “purity” based on his prejudice. He holds black people as naturally inferior to him because he is white. But he also holds wealthier white people as inferior to him because they use their money to hire black labor, and thereby are surrounded by black people. Under this prejudicial logic, Abner as a poor white person is superior because he neither is black nor can hire blacks. And his ideas seep into the rest of the family—Abner’s son, Sarty, also uses derogatory language in talking about blacks, even if he hasn’t developed as full-bodied a logic of racism as his father.

Yet the story also makes clear that Abner’s viewpoint is ultimately motivated by resentment at the fact that he and the black servants are in the same position, his “white sweat” mixing with theirs. Such ugly prejudices are, the story suggests, meant to be seen in part as an element of Abner’s own personal resentment and selfishness. But they are also portrayed, through the story’s broader portrait of the society in which Abner lives, as indicative of the larger racial and economic relationships that underlie—and warp—the entire American South.

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Resentment, Race, and Prejudice ThemeTracker

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Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Quotes in Barn Burning

Below you will find the important quotes in Barn Burning related to the theme of Resentment, Race, and Prejudice.
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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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.

And now the boy saw the prints of the stiff foot on the doorjamb and saw them appear on the pale rug behind the machinelike deliberation of the foot which seemed to bear (or transmit) twice the weight which the body compassed.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, Abner Snopes
Related Symbols: The Rug
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Step by step, Abner slowly and deliberately begins a process of destructiveness (and self-destructiveness) that will prove nothing has changed, despite Sarty’s hopes to the contrary. In this passage, we watch through Sarty’s eyes as Abner, who has stepped in horse droppings on purpose, now makes sure to step on the expensive imported rug at the entrance to the de Spain house, and to rub it in.

Like so many of Abner’s actions as perceived by Sarty, this one is “stiff” and yet very intentional. At the same time, Sarty is left to attempt to intuit the meaning of Abner’s actions, since Abner never explains himself, nor gives his son any other lesson than the importance of sticking to one’s own family. Sarty—or rather the reader, since as we know, Sarty is in a profoundly in-between stage of childhood and maturation—is left to interpret Abner’s action as reflecting his defiant scorn of the fine house of his employer, and of its fine rug that cost more than Abner will ever make in his life. Ruining the rug, of course, will not give Abner the wealth of the de Spains—indeed, it can only harm his own chances to stay afloat—but it is one small way he can assert his own independence and self-control.

“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.

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.