The story opens in a general store that is also being used for a court of the Justice of the Peace, where a boy—Sarty Snopes, though we’re not yet told his name—is crouched at the back, smelling the cheese and processed meat that crowds the shelves. He tries to identify a number of his feelings, from fear, despair, and grief to a sense of loyalty to his blood.
The fact that a country store is also being used as a courtroom underlines the rural setting of the story, while Sarty’s sensitivity to the smell of meat and cheese suggests that he may be hungry and his family poor. That he sees his “sense of loyalty to his blood” as a feeling also establishes how that feeling of family loyalty is treated in the story as instictual, as being a deeply embedded and inescapable part of a person.
Sarty can’t see his father (Abner Snopes) nor his father’s “enemy” at the front; then he tells himself that it’s both his and his father’s enemy.
The Justice asks the other man (the enemy), Mr. Harris, for his proof. Mr. Harris says that Abner’s opponent’s hog got into his corn several times: first he warned him, then gave him wire to fix his pen, then told him to pay him a dollar to get his hog back. That night a black man, a “nigger,” he says, came with the dollar and warned him that wood and hay can burn—later that night, his barn burned to the ground.
Mr. Harris is describing the actions of Sarty’s father, whom Harris portrays as wilfully defiant and careless about other people’s property. This is also the story’s first case of derogatory language used to describe African Americans, a word that was often used by whites at the time.
Since Mr. Harris doesn’t know anything more about the man who threatened him, the Justice says this doesn’t count as proof. Harris says the boy should come up and vouch for Abner—not the protagonist’s brother, who’s older, but the boy, who looks so muich like his father.
Sarty initially imagines that he’s only an observer, that he can’t have any part to play in this trial. But in being called on to testify it is made clear that he is implicated in his father’s actions. His resemblance to his father further highlights that familial connection, while also suggesting the way that inheritances are passed down in families in ways that the family-members themselves can’t control.
Sarty looks at the serious faces and at the shabby, older Justice beckoning him up. His father doesn’t look at him, but he realizes his father wants him to lie, and he frantically realizes he’ll have to.
Sarty knows what Mr. Harris is saying is true, and that lying would mean going against justice, but he can’t imagine another option. Yet his frantic realization that he will lie suggests his discomfort with being made to lie, even if his loyalty to his father compels it.
The Justice asks for his name, and he whispers “Colonel Sartoris Snopes.” The Justice says a boy with that name must tell the truth, while the boy continues to think “enemy” when he looks at Harris. He doesn’t notice the justice’s kind face or worried tone when he asks Harris if he really wants the boy to testify.
Colonel Sartoris is a character in some of Faulkner’s other stories who was a noted Civil War officer. Naming Sarty after that office suggests that Abner has some sense of honor about his service during the civil war (though later in the story this sense will be deeply complicated). Anxious and afraid, Sarty deals with these feelings by continuing to remind himself of the loyalties he must keep. He can’t recognize the kindness in the judge’s face as his world is defined solely by a sense of justice on one hand and loyalty to his family/father on the other.
Finally, after a long pause, Harris violently curses and yells, “No!” For Sarty, time seemed to have halted, but now begins to flow again. The Justice says he can’t find Snopes guilty but advises him to leave the area for good. Snopes agrees, saying he doesn’t want to stay in a place with certain people—and he curses them in an unprintable way.
Harris has some basic decency, and realizes – despite his frustration – that it’s unfair to make a boy testify against his father. Abner’s defiance is evident in his insistence that the Justice’s advice is no punishment, and instead is just what he already wanted. His lack of decency is evident in his unprintable curse.
Sarty follows his father in his stiff black coat out of the room. His father walks stiffly, since a Confederate musket ball had lodged in his heel when he’d stolen a horse thirty years before. The brother also joins, chewing tobacco, and as they leave someone whispers, “Barn burner!”
Sarty often thinks of his father as stiff and upright, an aspect both of Abner’s old war wound and of his general demeanor. Sarty’s brother seems to fashion himself after his father more naturally than Sarty.
Sarty whirls around and sees the face of another boy in what looks like a red haze: he pounces on the boy and begins to beat him until the boy runs away. Sarty’s father grabs him, ordering him to get in the wagon.
This impressionistic scene is confusing, but its confusion mimics Sarty’s own frantic feelings as he lunges unthinkingly in his father’s defense.
Sarty’s two “hulking” sisters, his mother, and his aunt are waiting for them with their old, run-down pieces of furniture loaded into their wagon, including the broken mother-of-pearl clock that had been his mother’s dowry. She begins to cry once she sees that Sarty is hurt, but the father orders her to get back in the wagon.
The clock, stopped at an unknown day and hour, reflects the family’s poverty, the mother’s attempt to cling to any small symbol of past joy, and the way in which life for the family repeats itself, making time irrelevant. Sarty’s mother cares for him in ways his father simply doesn’t, but she can never stand up to Abner.
Abner gets in the wagon and strikes the mules savagely: it is the same movement with which his descendants in later years would over-run a car engine before starting it.
Abner’s viciousness toward the mules reflects his actual resentment and anger, despite his assertion that he wants to leave this area. Also, note how the story often moves back and forward in time, making the family’s saga a multigenerational one, and further establishing the idea that a family’s traits are naturally and inevitably passed down.
Sarty wonders to himself whether his father is satisfied, now—maybe it’s over. His mother asks Sarty if his shoulder hurts, and he brushes her off. He doesn’t know where they’re going—no one in the family ever does, though it’s always some house waiting for them a day or more away. It’s even possible his father had already arranged a job at another farm before… but here the boy stops his thoughts.
Sarty wants desperately to be loyal to his father, but he also knows that what his father does is wrong, but finds it painful to think about. Here he hits upon the thought that his father might have set up this next house ahead of time, which would imply that he burned down Harris’s barn not in a fit of rage but in cold blood. But Sarty stops that thought before he has to face the implication.
His father, Sarty knows, always can stop himself—he has a “wolflike” independence and courage that impresses strangers, in his insistence that his actions are right and that anyone who shares his interests will also share his advantages.
Sarty’s father is not just rigid and despised: here we learn that his faults can also be strengths, and in another situation could well benefit the family.
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 fire was so small, given his father’s experience in war and his own voraciousness with whatever is not his. He might then have imagined that this small blaze was what resulted from his father’s nights spent during those four years of war hiding from both sides of the conflict with his “captured horses.”
The narration here uses a number of hypotheticals to, once again, shuttle between the past, present, and future, as well as to allow the reader to enter into knowledge of the father that Sarty does not now possess, including that his father’s role in the Civil War was not as honorable as Sarty thinks, as it seems to have involved stealing horses from both sides.
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 just thinks of it as normal. He is almost asleep when his father tells him to follow him up to the road, where he looks at his father’s stiff, sharp outline.
When they are alone, Abner says that his son was going to tell them during the trial—would have told on him. He strikes Sarty on the side of the head like he’d 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 men only wanted truth or justice, his father would have hit him again. Now, though, he says nothing, and then simply whispers, “yes,” before his father sends him back to bed.
In the courtroom, Sarty had believed it was necessary for him to lie, but it appears that his father saw only his fear and anxiety and interpreted that as disloyalty. Again, the story moves forward in time to suggest that in the future, Sarty will have a more confident, rational understanding of his father, and his father’s belief that family loyalty, and loyalty specifically to Abner himself, outweighs any other principle. Now, though, Sarty can only obey.
The next day they arrive at a two-room house identical to all the dozen others they’ve lived in since Sarty was born, ten years ago. The mother and aunt begin to unload the wagon, while one sister says the house probably isn’t fit for hogs. But her father tells her to help unloading, and the two sisters, bovine and passive, wearing ribbons, begin to unload as well.
This particular journey of the family from one place to the next is the only one in this story, but we are meant to understand that such journeys define the family’s existence. While the mother and aunt are stoic and dutiful, the sisters deal with their reality with lazy passivity.
Abner tells Sarty to accompany him to see their new employer, who the father says will own him for the next eight months. Sarty recognizes that before last night, his father had struck him but never explained why. Young as he is, Sarty is both “heavy” enough to prevent him from taking pure joy in the world, but not “heavy” enough to take a stand in it, to try to resist or change it.
Abner’s claim about ownership underlines his resentment, but it also highlights the very real nature of sharecropping in the South, which is barely a step up from slavery (a fact that of course only increases Abner’s resentment, but also levels a subtle condemnation of the structure of Southern society more generally). Sarty, in turn, feels out of place, too old for innocence and too young for responsibility or control over his social familial situation.
The two come to a huge house: when Sarty sees it he forgets his father, his terror and despair. He’s never seen anything like this house, and, with a feeling of joy, he thinks to himself that the owners of this house are safe from his father, beyond his touch—even their barns are stable and impervious to his flames. This feeling ebbs, though, when he looks at his father’s stiff, limping figure and realizes his father never seems dwarfed by anything, even this house.
Sarty’s feelings of joy and security on seeing the house make a notable contrast to his father’s sense of resentment and defiance. Here, Sarty allows himself to separate himself a small amount from his father in imagining this massive home as an impervious, safe one. His sense of his father’s inability to touch it is not a source of frustration but one of hope that such places might exist, even, for him. And yet this sense dissolved when he looks again at his father and sees his inexorable resentment and anger.
Abner’s stiff foot comes down into a pile of fresh horse droppings, which he could have easily avoided. Sarty wonders if his father’s rage will be tempered by falling under the spell of the house. They cross the portico and the father marches up to the door, his wide black hat formal but ratty.
Sarty still has the capacity to imagine that his father might change, that he might be affected by the beauty of the house just like he was. But his father’s purposeful step into the horse dung along with his stiffness and rigidity signal that Sarty’s dreams of his father changing are no more than that: dreams.
An old black man in a linen jacket opens the door and tells the “white man” to wipe his feet, and that the Major isn’t home. The father orders the servant, calling him “nigger,” to get out of his way, and flings open the door. Sarty watches a dirty footprint appear on the pale rug inside the door, as if his father is stamping the footprint in. The servant shouts for Miss Lula: a lady in a gray lace-necked gown and apron rushes down, looking amazed and incredulous.
Abner’s behavior here, insane as it is, seems completely planned out: from stepping in the horse dung to soiling the rug. It is clear, then, that Abner is purposely and proactively announcing his defiance, that regardless of his status as a sharecropper he refusese to acknowledge the superiority of the landholders for whom he works. That the black servants are so much better dressed than Abner only further emphasizes his social position, and feeds his resentment and need to assert superiority, which he does by ordering the servants around and calling them by racial epithets.
Shakily, Miss Lula asks Abner to go away. He doesn’t speak again or look at her: he pauses, then just as deliberately pivots, smearing the stain into the rug without looking at it, and marches back out with the sound of a woman’s wail behind him.
Abner has such contempt for the servants that he barely considers them as other people: instead, he is fixated on the defiant purpose at hand, ruining the rug. Meanwhile, the story subtly implies through the black servants horror that they don’t just fear Abner but also what de Spain will do to them when he finds out what they couldn’t stop happening. The story thereby subtly portrays how racism in the South was deeply embedded everywhere (not just in Abner), even if it took many forms.
Abner stops to clean his boot, and looking back at the house, tells his son disparagingly that “nigger sweat” built it, and now the Major presumably wants to mix “white sweat” with it.
Two hours later, Sarty is chopping wood while the women of his family are inside preparing food (though not his sisters, who are lazy and idle). Sarty watches the male servant trot by on a horse, followed by a black boy, his face angry, on a carriage horse carrying the rolled-up rug. They deposit the rug at the corner of the house where his father and brother are sitting and gallop back.
Sarty, his mother, and his aunt all take up the necessary work of chores and errands, while his sisters refuse to join in (and their mother seems unwilling to force them to). Sarty may be too young to influence his father, but he is aware enough to pay close attention to everything around him. Meanwhile, the dropping-off of the rug indicates that de Spain expects Abner to clean what he soiled, but the passive aggressive way in which it is dropped off also shows the way that de Spain simply and naturally expects such cleaning to occur not only because Abner should clean up the mess he made, but because Abner, as an inferior, should of course show deference to de Spain.
The father begins to shout for his daughters, one of whom drags the rug into the house, and tells the other to set up the wash pot (though she tells Sarty to do so). With the mother looking on anxiously, he orders the daughters to clean the rug: lethargically, they pick it up. The mother says she’ll do it, but he orders her to go back to making dinner.
While it was Abner who soiled the rug, he now takes pleasure in asserting his own authority within the family by ordering his wife and children around. His wife wants to avoid conflict at all costs, but even that is something overrules.
Sarty watches them all afternoon, lazily and reluctantly cleaning the rug with harsh homemade detergent while the father stands over them implacably. Then the mother comes over and looks at them in despair. Abner picks up a fragment of field stone and puts it into the wash pot, though his wife is begging him not to.
Abner seems to enjoy ordering his daughters to work. However, in throwing the stone into the wash pot he also renders the washing effort useless, since now the rug will be stained and even more ruined. His wife fears this, but Abner seems unable or unwilling to stop himself from defiantly showing his independence from his “superiors” through destructive acts.
They eat the cold food left over from their afternoon meal and then go to bed. Abner, though, is not yet in bed, and the last thing Sarty remembers before going to sleep is his harsh silhouette bending over the rug. It feels like he’s hardly slept when that same silhouette is standing over him, and his father orders him to get the mule.
Sarty often perceives his father as almost two-dimensional, a flat though intimidating silhouette: it is as if flattening his father in his mind is a way for him to try to come to terms with his father’s incomprehensible decisions and impenetrable mind.
When Sarty comes back with the mule his father is standing with the rolled rug over his shoulder, and he orders his son to help him onto the mule. Together they go back up to the now dark house. He asks his father if he wants help, but Abner doesn’t answer. He walks up to the portico and thunderously dumps the rug onto the ground. A light goes on, but they don’t stay and return to their shack together.
Abner often does seem to want his son around, but not to help or assist him in anyway—merely as a witness to his actions. Perhaps he is providing a model for his son to follow, as Sarty’s brother seems to have learned to do, or perhaps for Abner his defiance only can register if it is witnessed.
Early that morning, father and son are equipping the mules for plowing when the Major rides up. He tells Abner, who remains stooping with his back to the Major, that he must realize he ruined the rug, which cost a hundred dollars. Since that sum is far too large for Abner, the Major continues, he’s going to charge Abner twenty bushels of corn against his crop—it won’t make Mrs. De Spain happy, but it might teach Abner a lesson. Then the Major leaves.
Major de Spain seems more surprised than angry, which only underlines the rarity of someone in a position so far beneath him ever even being able to cause him harm. Their economic statuses, indeed, are so radically distinct that the Major struggles to find a punishment that might be “fair” for both, as the rug in house costs more than Abner will make in a lifetime. The economic inequality on display in the story is staggering.
Sarty calls to his father and cries that he did the best he could. Mr. de Spain won’t get his twenty bushels: he’ll gather and hide it, he says. His father simply asks if he’s put the cutter back like he asked, and when Sarty says no, he orders him to do it.
Sarty almost instinctively begins to blurt out expressions of loyalty to his father about how they’ll never give up the twenty bushels, yet despite Abner’s prior insistence that Sarty be loyal to him, here he’s just as dispassionate to his son as to the Major.
For the rest of that week Sarty works steadily and dutifully, which he’s learned from his mother. With the older women he builds pens for the animals. One afternoon, when his father is absent, Sarty goes to the field where his father is plowing. He wonders if perhaps the twenty bushels will be a cheap price to actually change his father. He thinks that perhaps Major de Spain won’t try to collect the twenty bushels, that somehow the whole thing will all balance out between the corn, rug, and fire, or between the terror and grief.
Unlike his sisters, and unlike his father, Sarty knows how to work hard and obey authority—an element of his “blood” that seems to stem from another member of the family, his mother. As he has before, here Sarty tries to imagine an alternate reality to his situation in which his father changes and does not pursue the kind of “justice” than the one his father insists on. That Sarty even thinks of “fire” as part of the “balance,” though, shows that Sarty already senses that his father is going to resort to burning things. Even as he hopes that things will change, Sarty’s inclusion of a “fire” that has not occurred in his thoughts shows that nothing will.
On Saturday, Sarty’s father orders him to gear up the wagon, and the father and two sons go to the store, mounting the steps and once again looking at a sea of faces. Sarty sees a man with glasses and understands it’s another Justice of the Peace, and also sees the Major in collar and cravat. The Major has an expression of unbelief, not rage, at being sued by his tenant (though Sarty doesn’t know this).
This court scene is in many ways a repetition of the one that started the story, though this time it’s Abner who is trying to turn the system of justice to his own advantage by bringing a case against de Spain. Once again, the Major seems more incredulous than angry that Abner has dared to challenge his proper place in the world.
Sarty goes up to the Justice and cries that his father didn’t burn—but his father interrupts him and orders him back to the wagon. Rhe Justice is confused.
To ten-year-old Sarty, his father’s various misdeeds meld into one. He thinks he’s been given another chance to defend his father and does so with vigor – he’s always looking to gain his father’s favor, to show his loyalty to his blood, though such a desire to do so communicates Sarty’s conflicted feelings about that loyalty.
Rather than go to the wagon, Sarty remains in the back of the room, where he can hear the Justice ask if Abner thinks twenty bushels of corn is too high for the damage done. Abner says he washed out the tracks and took the rug back, but the Justice says he didn’t carry it back in the same condition—and Abner refuses to answer.
At first, Abner does seem to want the Justice to understand him and confirm his sense of his own rightness. When it looks like the Justice is challenging his account, however, Abner refuses to participate any longer.
The Justice says he’s going to find against Abner, but twenty bushels seems high for someone in his circumstances. October corn will be worth fifty cents, and given that Abner can stand a five-dollar loss he hasn’t yet earned, he’ll hold him responsible for ten bushels of corn to be paid out of the crop then.
This time the Justice does find against Abner, but like the Major he tries to find a fair balance between the two parties’ vastly different social situations—but such “fairness” only further highlights that ultimate difference between de Spain and Abner’s situations, and that is never something Abner will abide.
After the trial, while Sarty imagines they’ll return home, his father instead marches past the wagon to the blacksmith shop. Sarty whispers to his father that de Spain won’t get even one bushel. He continues to whisper until his father glances down at him, his voice almost gentle and pleasant, and says they’ll wait until October anyway.
Sarty continues to try to win his father over by showing that he’s on his father’s side. Abner’s uncharacteristically gentle response that they’ll wait until October seems to indicate a kind of mellowing, but also might indicate that his father already has a plan.
In the blacksmith shop they fix some of the problems with the wagon, which has become run-down, and then Abner orders Sarty to hitch up the mules. Sarty listens to his father tell the blacksmith and another man a long story of when he was a professional horsetrader. As he listens, Sarty stares at posters of last year’s circus taped up on one side of the store.
The narrator, and thus the reader, know more than Sarty does about his father’s true past occupations. Here Abner exaggerates in order to make his relationship to horses sound more glamorous (rather than a horse-trader he stole horses during the war). What is evident, nonetheless, is that he does genuinely love horses. Sarty staring at the circus poster is a reminder of his youth, but also a reminder of the sort of world of fun and entertainment that is inaccessible to him.
The father gives his two sons some cheese and crackers to eat and they sit silently, eating and drinking. Still they don’t go home, instead heading to a horse lot, where his father comments to no one in particular about some of the animals being shown.
Abner is perhaps in a better mood while boasting about horse trading: Sarty does get to eat some cheese, which he could only smell at the general store at the beginning. Though, again, Abner’s cheer might actually be an indication of a planned response to the court decision against him.
After sundown they reach home and eat supper. Suddenly, as Sarty is sitting on the doorstep, he hears his mother cry her husband’s name and repeat, “No!” He turns around and watches his father empty the lamp reservoir back into the kerosene can as his wife tugs at him, until he flings her back, hard but not viciously, into the wall.
After a more pleasant lull amid the anxious activity that has characterized most of the story, Abner puts his new plot in motion. This time Sarty’s mother attempts to resist, but ineffectually. Abner’s combination of cruelty combined with a lack of outright viciousness captures the sense that he feels that he is following a kind of principle rather than just rashly acting out: he believes he must assert his defiance and independence.
Abner orders Sarty to get the can of oil from the stable. Sarty begins to 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 his father’s face again—but he can’t make himself do it.
Sarty runs back and hands the can to his father, crying that at least his father sent a “nigger” before as a warning. Instead of striking him, his father grabs him by the back of the shirt. Sarty’s brother advises his father to tie Sarty to the bedpost, but Abner only responds by ordering the brother to empty the smaller can into the bigger one. He then drags Sarty into the other room, telling the mother, “Lennie,” to hold him, or else he’ll escape to the main house. Abner departs.
Even though Sarty could not bring himself to disobey his father, he continues to retain his own sense of justice—he thinks it only fair for his father to warn the Major de Spain of what he plans to do. Now Abner is once again convinced that Sarty, unlike his brother, is the one whose loyalty is up for question.
Sarty begins to struggle, while his mother catches him in both arms. Sarty cries that he doesn’t want to have to hit her, and the aunt cries to let him go, or else she’ll go up to the house himself. His mother cries that she can’t, and protests as Sarty struggles out of her grasp and races out of the house.
This is the only moment at which Sarty’s aunt seems to express her own opinions and desires—she too thinks that what Abner is doing is wrong, and that Sarty should be allowed to escape to warn de Spain.
His mother cries at his sister to grab him, but his sister—a twin, we now learn—is too large, slow, and impassive. Sarty races out of the house and up to the gate, running up to the big lighted house. Sarty bursts in, gasping for breath, and sees the black man looking astonished. Then a white man, de Spain, emerges, and Sarty cries, “Barn!” into his face before wheeling around and back out the door.
Running as before, this time Sarty’s desperate racing allows him to refrain from thinking too long about what he is doing, the disloyalty that he is showing to his father. Instead he simply works based on his own instinct of justice, even as he refuses to say more than a word to the Major.
Behind Sarty, the Major shouts for his horse. Sarty thinks he should cut across the park, but doesn’t know how high the fence is, so he continues down the drive, hearing the galloping horse behind him and then overtaking him. Sarrty throws himself aside into the ditch to avoid it.
Now Sarty is caught between two homes, the mansion and the shack, and between two worlds. He knows, however, that his word to the Major has been effective, as he hears the man’s horse behind him. The Major’s own brutality in pursuit of “justice” is evident in the way he disregards Sarty’s safety, such that Sarty has to thrown himself from the road to avoid being trampled.
Then Sarty springs up and continues racing, though he knows it’s too late. Even after he hears one, then two shots he keeps running, crying, “Pap!” and then “Father!” and glancing backward at the glare of the burning barn.
By midnight Sarty reaches the top of a hill, not knowing how far he’s come, his back still to the shack that was his home for four days. His face is towards the woods, which he’ll enter when he’s recovered his strength. Shaking and sobbing, he thinks of his father, then cries aloud that he was brave—he was in Colonel Sartoris’s cavalry. He doesn’t know that his father had actually served in war as a “true private,” giving no one authority, and interested only in booty from any side.
While on his race to de Spain’s mansion Sarty was momentarily poised between two worlds, the very position of his body now underlines the fact that he has left his family behind. Once again the narration separates from Sarty’s own mind, in an instance of dramatic irony in which we come to know more about Abner than his son does. Sarty continues to feel the pull to find things to love and honor in his father, and finds it in his father’s military service as part of Colonel Sartoris’s cavalry. But the story makes it clear that his father, in fact, was just a mercenary looking for money. Sarty will never know this fact which makes his own name, given to him by his father, a kind of lie. And so, even as Sarty leaves his family, separates from his “blood,” the story makes it murky indeed about whether he can ever actually escape his familial “inheritance.”
While Sarty will soon be hungry, for now he is only cold, so he decides to keep walking, the sound of the whippoorwills telling him that it’s almost dawn. He’s a little stiff, but counts on walking to cure that. He doesn’t look back behind him.
Sarty’s stiffness serves as a final suggestion of his father’s own stiff gait, creating a physical image that challenges the notion that Sarty might ever be able to rid himself of his father’s heritage for good.