Analysis of William Faulkner's "Barn Burning"

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Character Analysis of Abner Snopes

William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” short story portrays a typical relationship between the poor people and the wealthy during the civil war with the main character in the play as Abner Snopes, a man who despises the rich people. The writer portrays him as a man who is insecure and at war with the community where he lives (Billingslea 211).

Abner Snopes' Lack of Emotion and Cold-Hearted Traits

He appears as a man who lacks self-confidence, and this causes him to brutalize and reject others before they do it to him. It seems like Faulker’s intention in the play was to create a character that is irredeemable and unlikeable in Abner Snopes.

He appears to contaminate all that he sets his hands on and seems bestial in his lack of respect for other peoples’ belongings. Despite experiencing poverty and hard life, Snopes is remorseless and cruel that nobody has any empathy or sympathy for his predicament in life as well as his character (Peyser 15). He appears like someone with no emotions and no love for anything or anyone in life. Generally, his traits in the story seem rigid presenting him as lawless, violent and cold-hearted.

Physical Aspects of Abner Snopes

Faulkner presents the character of Snopes regarding metallic in which he portrays him like an iron that has no sense of emotion which makes him lack any sense of morality (Lee and Ida). He is a thoughtless, primitive, violent and destructive person and in his relationship with the family, his character is stiff without any depth of emotion. The physical presence of Snopes reveals that he enjoys revenge, violence, and cruelty since he cannot express himself intelligently or articulately, and this character has blinded his worldview entirely that they have permeated the sense of the person he is.

Selective Diction and Sympathy for Abner Snopes

At some point, Faulkner applies selective diction and other characters’ actions to portray Snopes as a sympathetic character (Billingslea 210). We see a static but a troubled man whose actions can pass for justification as a man with no power and cares and honors his family. At some point, one may be tempted to believe that Snopes is a rebel with a cause to justify his actions as he tries to fight the evils in the society associated with social class.

Abner Snopes as a Husband and Parent

In his family life, Snopes appears oppressive and therefore not a model husband, individual or parent. A look at his son reveals that son is struggling for his independence from a parent who dominates everything in his life (Billingslea 232). It is evident that the wife Lennie gets rarely mentioned and she respected and had fear for each and everything the husband said, and it is no wonder the family appears as accomplices in all the evils that Abner does. Faulker presents Abner as a man who wanted so much in life than he had desired to do so much more than he was able to do. He informs his family that he is a soldier hero and uses physical strength, strong will, and oppressive character to terrorize his family as well as others. Sarty and his mother try to make the violent situation change, but see Abner determined to continue with his disparaging traits and has no intention to change.

Cold-heartedness and Lack of remorse

Faulker’s presentation of Abner’s unchanging character reveals to the audience his cold-heartedness. Abner portrays no sensations to his family at all when decreed to leave the country after burning a man’s barn. Throughout the story, there is no point where he apologized or encouraged his family (Peyser 10). The choice of his words, when speaking as well as his tone of voice revealed a bitter and bossy person. He orders his family which is evident in the arrival to the next house as he instructs the wife, the sister and the daughters to unload the wagon. When he goes to DeSpain’s place, he enters without permission and wipes his feet on the rug leaving it stained with horse manure. He has no apology for his action but further reveals his arrogance by throwing the carpet on the porch after also destroying it. It is clear that he lives his life with no regard to anyone ’s possession and has no respect for anyone (Billingslea 320). As a person, he feels that it is other people who have wronged him and therefore his actions towards them are valid.

The Unchanging Nature of Abner Snopes

When charged once again for destroying DeSpain’s rug, he got contented that the social system favors the rich, and therefore decides to seek revenge that night by burning DeSpains’s barn (Billingslea 256)), a clear depiction of his unchanging character.

Abner is a lawless individual who reveals his unchanging character throughout the script. Faulkner attempts to present a case to show the audience that Abner is a pitiable creature of the nobility who tries to find dignity and integrity for himself but the only chance for this to come through is through his action of using fire as a defense mechanism regardless of social status (Waggoner 23). The audience can see Abner’s act of breaking the law began way back when was to involve himself as a fighter in the Civil War but instead got involved in the theft of horses from both sides and therefore a trait embedded in him as he continued to break the law even after the incidence. Abner is in the courtroom accused of burning Mr. Harris barn although there was no to rule against him and hence advised to leave the country (Billingslea 217). Abner’s reaction was full of arrogance as he stated that he had no intention to live in a country with that kind of people.

Violence and Defiance of Abner Snopes

Abner’s violent character further reveals his unchanging nature as presented in instances where he burns the barns of different people in the society (Dasher 32). When the son is about, to tell the truth about the burning of Mr. Harris’ barn, he slaps the son forcing him to play as an accomplice to his dad’s act to save him from more beatings from the dad. In the burning of DeSpain ’s barns, he shoves the wife away as she tries to tug his arm and restrain him from his action. At the same time, he holds Sarty by the back of his shirt and hands him over to the wife in an attempt to guard against Sarty’s betrayal.

Experts’ Interpretation of Abner Snopes' Behavior

In an attempt to justify the character of Abner, some experts state that emotional instability is a prime factor that contributed significantly to his unpredictable actions all through the story (Lee and Ida). They argue that it is traumatizing for a family man to get moved a dozen times from one home to the other and sometimes forced to go against his agreement with the landlords. They state that the effect of emotional stability is what caused Abner to develop a rebellious character a symbolism of dissatisfaction with the system and, therefore, a drastic approach to revolt against it. Well aware his actions could subject him to punishment, the experts present an argument that his defiance serves to convey a message (Lee and Ida). They argue that systems work in favor of the rich and the main reason why despite being aware that the economic injustices could lead to his prosecution, he constantly rebelled hence burning his landlord’s barns, a sign of despair and hope.

Themes Driven by Characters' Actions

The play manages to bring out the different themes of the act through the depiction of the characters on different people in different parts.

Loyalty, Blood, and Family

The idea of loyalty, blood, and family is evident through the traits of the Snopes family. Sarty has inherited his father’s blood which is evident in other family members too which the story reveals that even the future generation of Snope will have similar characters (Dasher 34). Due to blood relations, Sarty has no choice but to be loyal to his family above justice and truth by lying to cover his father. When he thinks of running away, Sarty remembers that the family comes first above anything else and therefore chooses to stick with them. In the end, though he betrays the dad to Major de Spain, he serves his family bond hence gets separated from his family.

Independence and Justice

The theme of independence and justice are evident in the play through the characters of Snopes and the son Sarty. The family of Snopes entirely depends on landowners for landowners, but Abner always wants to affirm his independence which goes to the extent of bending the wills of his family and other people (Nicolet 34). Abner’s resentment and lack of concern towards rules and regulations as well as refusing to work for other people to support his family reveal his desire for independence. Due to Snopes, character, justice plays a vital role in the family of Snopes in which Sarty finds himself in the courtrooms listening to court proceedings involving the father (Dasher 9). At some point in the courtroom, he finds himself defending the father well aware that he was the one who burned the barns belonging to Mr.Harris making him an accomplice. In the courts, when justice does not go his way, Abner was always willing to disregard whatever anyone tells him and maintain independence.

Aspiration, Defiance, and Desperation

Aspiration, defiance, and desperation as a theme in the play appear through the social class difference, Snopes family is a typical presentation of the lower class living a life subjected to poverty (Lee and Ida). Abner through his character reveals defiance as he openly denies he is not poor and cannot work for any man at the same time, Abner has an open hatred for the rich because he cannot afford the kind of life they live. His family members, on the other hand, look at their lives differently although Sarty in some instances appeared to be like emulating his father’s defiance like when he babbles on how to decline to give up the bushels of corn to the family of de Spain (Billingslea 221). Sarty’s mother looks desperate throughout the play, she wishes for a better life and the change of character of the husband. Although young, Sarty looks at life differently unlike his father. He sees wealth as a sign of safety and security and not unattainable, unfairness, or inequality, and thus he aspires for the best in his future life. He believes that things could be different for him.

Race, Prejudice, and Resentment

Race, prejudice, and resentment as themes in the play are evident through the characters of different actors. Snopes character is a clear depiction of dislike of his economic status which goes further to reveal racial prejudice in him (Peyser 9). Snopes has no advantage over the other Black servants who work at the house of De Spain, but he aspires to show himself different from the rest in an attempt to appear superior and earn self-respect. Abner uses prejudice which reveals his superiority to everyone (Nicolet 23). He holds other people as a naturally low class compared to him because he is white and equally looks at the rich Whites as inferior to him with a reason that they hire black labor using their cash. It is because of prejudice that Abner considers himself rich based on the fact that Abner neither can hire blacks nor is he black. Sarty as a child through his dad has learned the derogatory language when talking to the whites though he has not mastered the dull language of logic racism.


The play manages to reveal the unchanging characters of Abner Snopes as depicted through his lawlessness, violence and cold-hearted traits as presented in the above discussion. At the same time, the characters in the play through their habits have managed to help build on the themes of the movie such as race prejudice and resentment, aspiration, defiance and desperation, and independence and justice. Generally, through the different characters, Faulkner managed to pass the message intended about what life the Whites and Blacks lived during the Civil War.

Works Cited

Billingslea, Oliver. "Fathers and sons: the spiritual quest in Faulkner's"Barn Burning."The Mississippi Quarterly 44.3 (1991): 287-308.

Dasher, Thomas E. William Faulkner's Characters: An Index to the Published and Unpublished Fiction. Routledge, 2017.

Lee, Ng Wen, and Ida Baizura Bahar. "Abner Snopes’ Defence Mechanism, Projection in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.”

Nicolet, William P. "Faulkner's Barn Burning."Explicator 34.3 (1975).

Peyser, Thomas. "Faulkner, Jews, and the New Deal: The Regional Commitments of ‘Barn Burning.’"The Cambridge Quarterly 42.1 (2013): 1-19.

Waggoner, Hyatt H. William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

November 24, 2023



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