The world of “Barn Burning” as Abner Snopes sees it—and as his son Sarty originally does as well—portrays social and economic inequalities as a given. One’s professional and class-based identity, as a judge, sharecropper, servant, or landowner, is understood as inescapable, and Abner seems to feel these inequalities more acutely than most. Other members of the family deal with their economic reality differently. Sarty’s sisters, for example, who are described somewhat condescendingly as “bovine” and passive, embrace lethargy rather than actively trying to defy the system. His mother, in turn, seems mainly fearful and desperate. She knows that there’s little she can do to stop her husband’s defiant actions, though she frets over them all the same.
Abner, indeed, chooses an openly defiant attitude, one that embraces actions that seem to do nothing other than signal his refusal to accept his lot—and he seems, initially, to be succeeding in encouraging his two sons to adopt the same stance. Like the other adults in the family, Abner sees the wealth and success around him and recognizes that it is outside his reach. Because he likes to think of himself as a once-successful “horsetrader,” his social and economic descent is only more painful. At the same time, he’s fully aware that setting a barn afire or soiling an expensive rug will ultimately do little to nothing to change things. But his destructive bent is also a kind of self-destructiveness—and, at the same time, a reminder that for the family’s place in Southern society at this moment in history, passivity and defiance are in many ways the only choices available to the poor.
The only way the story challenges this attitude, is through the ambivalence of Sarty regarding his father’s choices. In many ways, Sarty wants to align with his father’s defiance: he babbles on about how they’ll refuse to give up the ten bushels of corn due to the de Spain family for the soiled rug, for instance (though much of this may well stem from his general desire to be loved by his father). At the same time, though, Sarty does have the imaginative capacity to picture other realities, to choose a posture that wouldn’t be his sisters’ passivity, mother’s desperation, or father’s defiance. That posture is one of hopeful aspiration, epitomized by the sense of “peace and joy” that he feels in looking up at the de Spain home. When Sarty looks at wealth, he sees not inequality, unfairness, and unattainable dreams, but safety and security, as well as an idea that things could be different for him.
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance ThemeTracker
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Quotes in Barn Burning
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hit’s big as a court house he thought quietly, with a surge of a peace and joy whose reason he could not have thought into words, being too young for that: They are safe from him.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.