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Barn Burning by William Faulkner Summary

Familial bonds are complex and difficult to break. The severing of these connections almost always results in a deep loss and unimaginable suffering. Faulkner's “Barn Burning” demonstrates the complexity of a bond between a father and a son and how this bond was forever broken because of the actions of the father.

Abney Snopes and Colonel Sartoris Snopes are like many fathers and sons in their relationship with one another. Faulkner presents Abner as a father that has a great deal of control over his entire family which includes a wife and three additional children. The father's control is haunting in many ways because of the psychological and physical violence that he demonstrates throughout the literary work. His youngest son Sartoris views his father as the leader of the home but also recognizes his father's temper and his seemingly inherited affection for starting fires.

Abner's temper and use of fire as a weapon has gotten him into a great deal of trouble in the past. He has already burned at least one barn and Sartoris is very aware of his father's tendency to burn barns when provoked to anger. Although Abner tries to teach his son that families should not betray one another, his young son has a conscience and grows weary of his father's destructive ways.

The last straw is Abner's attempt to burn down the barn of Major de Spain, a farm owner whose home the Snopes were living at while Abner worked as a farmhand. After damaging a rug at the home, Abner is ordered to pay the Major de Spain 10 bushels of corn. This angers Abner and once again he chooses to use fire as a weapon.

Once Abner makes his motive apparent and orders Sartoris to get a can of oil to assist with the arson, the young boy makes up his mind that he is going to warn Major de Spain of his father’s intentions. Major de Spain catches Abner in the act and proceeds to shoot and kill Abner. Sartoris decision to betray his father and tell the truth is painful but necessary. Sartoris understood that exposing his father was the only way to stop his father’s abuse. Despite his best efforts, Abner could not diminish the desire of his son to act with nobility. Even if this nobility meant betraying the familial bonds, Sartoris was willing to take that risk.