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