Analysis – “Book Burning” by William Faulkner
In ‘Book Burning,’ Faulkner follows Colonel Sartoris Snopes, who is forced to defend his father from counts of arson, which turn out to be true. Sartoris comes of age over the course of the short story, learning the true nature of his father and discovering how to stand up for himself. The primary conflict of the short story is between Sartoris and his father, an emotionally abusive and violent arsonist. Mr. Snopes is almost a metaphysical presence in the boy’s life, Faulkner presenting him as a cold, calculating, unemotional monster. With this in mind, Sartoris has to choose between the greater good and loyalty to his family, especially as he begins to learn about his father’s arson and other terrible deeds.
Faulkner tells the story from Sartoris’ perspective, complete with colloquial, incomplete language that is extremely stylized. It helps to underscore the lower-class, uneducated, naïve nature of Sartoris, and the innocence that becomes unraveled in the face of growing up under such a tyrant as Mr. Snopes. In the short story, he starts to become his own man, fighting against the cycle of violence that has led his father to a life of crime. He simply wants to find peace in his life, but the increasingly chaotic presence of Mr. Snopes prevents him from reaching that.
“Barn Burning” is essentially the story of a boy becoming a man and finding his own place in the world, particularly differentiating himself from his father. Sartoris makes the choice to be his own person instead of merely continuing in the shameful tradition of his forebears. His father, made bitter by the sharecropping system and the scandal with de Spain’s rug, has turned down a dark path that Sartoris, to his credit, chooses not to follow.