‘Barn burning’, which was first published in the year 1939, is one of the most anthologized short stories of William Faulkner. It is a story about the coming of age of Sarty, a ten year old boy, who undergoes a moral dilemma of having to choose between his family loyalty and his personal moral codes. His father Abner is a disgruntled southern farmer, who blames his financial woes on the upper class and exhibits his dissent by burning down the barns of his landowners. Sarty, on the other hand, warns the landowners about his father’s plans and in doing so, invites his father’s wrath. Sarty reveals his father’s actions because of his inherent decency and his sense of justice, and he is completely justified in choosing his morality over his allegiance to his father.
Sarty’s family espouses the plight of the poor Southern Share croppers of that era. They were the victims of an unfair economic system, in which the rich land owners paid very little to the sharecroppers, who put in all the hard work, yet saw little in terms of rewards. Sarty’s father chooses to right this wrong, through violence and sets his land owners’ barns on fire if they antagonize him. In this process, he pressurizes his son to side with him and lie for him, and through this imposes his version of justice over his son.
"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.”
The boy is subjected to both emotional and physical violence from his father, and he struggles to decide between his individuality and his family identity. The entire story is essentially the depiction of Sarty’s metamorphosis into adulthood. He is a young boy, who is just learning about good and evil, and it is a formative phase in his life. He is in the process of character and personality building, and he is put to the ultimate test by his father.
He has two choices in front of him. He can either become like his elder brother, who has accepted his father’s version of morality or become a more refined individual by rejecting his father’s ways. He in the end chooses his own sense of justice over his father’s and in the process undergoes three stages – blind conformity to his father’s authority, a mental struggle between justice and family loyalty, and resolution about justice.
In the first court scene, Sarty prepares himself to lie for his father and later when De-Spain fines Abner for ruining his rug, Sarty comes to the support of his father.
"You done the best you could!" he cried. "If he wanted hit done different why didn't he wait and tell you how? He won't git no twenty bushels! He won't git none! We'll gether hit and hide hit! I kin watch"
The above words show his sincere efforts to exhibit his loyalty to his family and confirm with his father’s authority. However, he knows that his father is being unreasonable and struggles to find justifications for his actions.
In the end, he decides that warning the De-spains about his father’s action would be the right thing to do, and he runs ahead and informs them about his father’s plan. Once that is done, he immediately runs back to be at his father’s side, which shows that Sarty tries to balance between his moral codes and his love for his family. Hearing the gun shots, he assumes that his father is dead, and he never returns to his home. Thus, Sarty enters into his adulthood, and takes the decision of a matured person, by upholding moral values over blind loyalty.
Fargnoli, A. Nicholas and Michael Golay. Critical Companion to William Faulkner. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
Faulkner, William. Barn Burning. 1939. Web. 28 March 2014.
Ke-dong, LIU and LIN Shi-rong. "Sarty’s Initiation in Faulkner’s." Journal of Literature and Art Studies Vol. 3, No. 5 (May 2013): 327-331. Print.