Barn Burning ? A comparative analysis Essay Samples
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Barn Burning – A comparative analysis
Literature and society have always had a symbiotic relationship. Literature draws inspiration from society and, in some cases, exposes its fallacies, while sometimes society draws important lessons from literature. Certain literary works have had a profound impact on the way the society viewed some of its institutions. For example, Stowe's ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin' was hugely responsible for creating an antipathy against the slavery system. In William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning,’ society plays a central role, as its norms and class divisions shape the characters’ actions and their relationship with each other. By comparing ‘Barn Burning’ with other short stories, in which society plays a central role, we would be able to understand how society shapes the character of the protagonists and contributes to the central theme of the story - Sarty’s moral dilemma and psychological growth.
Abner, the father of the protagonist Sartoris Snopes, is a person who exhibits extreme contempt for tradition and order. His anger is mainly directed towards the upper class of the Southern society, whom he blames of exploiting the labor of the poor. Abner’s hatred towards the Southern aristocracy, thus, forms the nucleus of the story and all the events that ensue are born out of this hatred. His barn burning activity is a show of his non-conformity, and his violent actions force his young son into a moral dilemma.
Abner is described by Faulkner’s narrator as an archetype of unsubmissiveness. In this way, Abner resembles one other famous character created by Faulkner, Emily Grierson of the story ‘A Rose for Emily.’ Both of them are victims of the Southern class distinctions and expectations. While Abner, considers himself a victim of the economic exploitation by the high class society, Emily, even though born to aristocracy, still becomes the victim of her own class.
Being born in a high class Southern family, Emily was expected to adhere to the norms associated with her birth. Her father rejected her suitors and she was forced into leading a lonely life. Once her father dies, the townspeople continued the role of reminding Emily her place in the society. For the townspeople, Emily served as a symbol of Southern pride and her love for a person, whom they considered a drifter from the North, was unacceptable to them.
Abner resented the economic domination of the affluent Southern families, who handed out an unfair deal to the working class through the sharecropping system.
"Pretty and white, ain't it?" he said. "That's sweat. Nigger sweat."
Both Emily and Abner are not flawless characters and the mode they chose to exhibit their anger was extreme and inhumane. While Abner burned the barn of his landlords, Emily poisoned her boyfriend. However, through these characters, Faulkner highlights the unfair treatment meted out to women and the working class, by the Southern society of that era.
Apart from being a story of class conflicts, ‘Barn Burning’ also throws light on the power imbalance of gender that existed in the then American society. Sarty’s mother is treated shabbily by her father, and she is forced to follow wherever her husband goes without having the courage to stand up to him. Her society has assigned her a role, which is to blindly obey her husband, and her silent suffering when Sarty is being ill treated by his father accentuates the fact that she has no active role in familial decision making. Similarly, Abner’s treatment of the African American servant of Major de Spain underlines the racist nature of the early nineteenth century south.
In this way, the society depicted in Barn Burning can be compared with that of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ In ‘The Lottery’, Jackson, through a fictional account of a lottery ritual taking place in a small town, delineates how obsolete traditions and beliefs can cause extreme social ills and affect individuals and family. Similarly, ‘Barn Burning’ by depicting a society, which is still stuck in the past, where class distinctions, race distinctions and gender distinctions are still upheld as important determinants of social standing, highlights the harm it can cause to communal harmony.
Another theme, which can be predominantly seen in ‘Barn Burning,’ is fear of alienation. Sarty wants to conform to the rules of the society and truly ‘belong’ to the community of which he is a part of. At the same time, he does not want to be alienated from his family either. His father puts him in a grave predicament by making the young boy choose between family and society.
“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.”
When his father plans to burn down de Spain’s barn, Sarty realizes that he can no longer justify his father’s action. So, he warns de Spain and runs back to join his father. But, his young legs are no match for horses, and once he hears the gunshots being fired, he knows that there is no retreat from there and his alienation from his family is complete. He walks down a hill abandoning both his family and the society.
Such exploration of mental and emotional alienation was common in American literature during the aftermath of the WWI. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway, which like ‘barn burning’ was published during the 1930s, is another short story that deals with the theme of alienation. Hemingway and Faulkner have drastically different styles of writing. While Hemingway believes in direct, crisp dialogues, Faulkner trusts in elaborate and complex dialogues punctuated with distinct Southern touch.
The waiters’ conversation about the old man in ‘a clean well lighted place’ conveys society’s disregard for the existence of the elderly and the way they are alienated. Though Sarty is a young boy his alienation can be compared with that of Hemingway’s old man, as both of them feel disconnected from their loved ones and the society of which they desperately want to be an integral part of.
Abner’s anti-social behavior is a direct product of the class distinctions of the society. The splendid mansion of de Spain and the paint-less two room house of the Snopes is a clear indication of this economical gap that existed between the two classes. To erase this class distinction, Abner uses fire as a weapon. Faulkner employs fire as a symbol to represent both Abner’s quest for power and his inherent powerlessness. For Abner, fire is a means of preserving his dignity and also a tool used to express his frustration over his status in the society.
Faulkner’s use of fire as a symbol can be compared with John Cheever’s use of water as a symbol in ‘The Swimmer.’ In Cheever’s story, the water is used as a symbol to indicate passage of time and escapism from life. Like Abner, who gets a temporary escape from his economically oppressed life and a false sense of power, by torching others’ barns, Neddy Merrill of ‘The Swimmer’ uses swimming as a way to block the truth about his deteriorating life. Swimming is an act of denial and the water in the pool of his neighbors indicate their standing is social circle. Both Abner and Neddy use fire and water respectively to hide the harsh realities of their lives.
Society creates literature and literature mirrors the society. But the reflection may be reactionary or progressive depending upon the writer. In Barn burning, Faulkner has adopted a critical approach about the society, and, through the use of his characters and symbols, has explicitly presented the moral entrapment a young boy suffers, due to the rebellious nature of his father. The comparison of this story with other literary works that deal with the society’s influence on an individual’s life sheds light on the distinct and indulging style, in which Faulkner has interwoven his critical view of the Southern society and his characters.
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