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					                     The Death Cycle in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”

       William Faulkner’s work “Barn Burning” is a short story depicting a young boy’s

struggle to choose between his family and justice. The narrator and protagonist, Sarty

Snopes, is torn between protecting his father and exposing him as the criminal he is. The

relationship between Abner, Sarty’s father, and the boy is an interesting depiction of a

dysfunctional bond and it’s impact on the protagonist. Sarty has difficulty realizing that

his father’s crimes are indeed wrong. The conclusion of the story infers Abner’s death.

Ironically enough, while progressing towards the realization that he must betray his father

and abandon his family, Sarty progresses through the five stages of death, as defined by

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. While Abner is nearing his

demise, his son is experiencing the classic stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining,

depression, and acceptance. Of course the stages apply to Sarty’s perception of his father

instead of death. The end of the story yields Abner’s apparent death and Sarty’s arrival at

the realization that he must leave his family to live a moral life. Emerging from a night of

depression into acceptance, Sarty walks away from his family into the unknown. This

theme of awakening to an understanding or new self runs throughout literature of this era.

        In the exposition of Faulkner’s story Sarty is in complete denial of his father’s

culpability. Before a Judge Sarty sits silently when questioned about the events

surrounding the barn burning his father is accused of. He refuses to accept any enemy of

his father as a person worth listening to. The judge questions Sarty and, “the boy said

nothing. Enemy! Enemy! He thought. For a moment he could not even see” (Faulkner,

1465). The boy’s hate for anything opposed to his father blinds him to the truth. Faulkner
symbolically points out that Sarty literally cannot see for a moment when sitting before

the Chief Justice. An interesting aspect of Sarty’s awakening is that his father never hides

his anger and hatred from the boy. Sarty’s loyalty runs so deep that he rationalizes his

father’s groundless flashes of destruction. From the initial flicker of doubt that Sarty feels

for his father’s infallibility, more misgivings grow.

       Sarty’s retrogression is powered by his father’s rage. The next stage of death and

of Sarty’s awakening is anger. Abner cannot seem to live a civil life with anyone. The

burning of a neighbor’s barn lands Abner and his family in court. Sarty is full of rage

towards the authorities thwarting his father. The rage runs from Abner down to the boy

and keeps Sarty at his father’s side. Faulkner writes, “He could not see the table where

the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought

in that despair; ourn! mine and his both! He’s my father!) stood” (1464). The boy corrects

himself, reminding himself that his father’s enemy is also his own. It is almost as if the

institution of family loyalty has programmed him to discount the enemies of his kin.

       From irrational respect Sarty’s view of his father becomes nothing more than

whimsical bargaining. The home of his family’s new landlord impresses Sarty with its

grandeur and pristine atmosphere. Sarty mentally bargains with fate hoping that his father

may keep in check, thinking, “they are safe from him. People whose lives are a part of

this peace and dignity are beyond his touch, he no more to them than a buzzing wasp:

capable of stinging for a little moment but that’s all; the spell of this peace and dignity

rendering even the barns and stables and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny

flames he might contrive” (Faulkner, 1468). Sarty wants to believe his rationale will have

an impact on his father’s wrath. The big farmhouse is fantastic place where the boy
dreams that his father’s frenzied fits will cause no ruckus. Sarty wishes for the place to

have this dreamt up impact on Abner thinking, “maybe he will feel it too. Maybe it will

even change him now from what maybe he couldn’t help but be” (Faulkner, 1468). The

young man’s fantasy bargain is in vain and he soon tumbles to reality.

       In the story’s dramatic action Sarty makes the decision to betray his father and

warn the landlord of Abner’s treason. In the glow of flames from the barn Sarty sprints

away in dejected isolation as two shots presumably kill his father in the night.

Depression racks the boy’s mind as he recounts his actions. Faulkner writes, “…shaking

steadily in the chill darkness, hugging himself into the remainder of his thin, rotten shirt,

the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair” (1475).

With the betrayal in the past and his father likely dead, Sarty reaches acceptance. This

last stage in the death cycle is not only marked by his father’s dying, but also the boy’s

awakening to a new self. Sarty comes to realize that with this acceptance of his father as

an irrational monster, he is free. He is free to live a moral life if he so chooses. A

realization that brings rebirth is a common climax to stories of this era.

       Literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often displayed

characters learning something about themselves and changing their lives. Kate Chopin’s

The Awakening is an example of this climax. The protagonist in Chopin’s novel, Edna,

lives a life of restraint and confusion. While she is expected to live the simple life of a

wife and mother, she desires more. Throughout the novel Edna struggles to understand

why she isn’t content. At last she grasps that she isn’t meant to live a caged life under the

thumb of her husband and family’s expectations. Clifford Odets’s dramatic work Waiting

for Lefty also exemplifies characters discovering something about themselves and
progressing towards change. The play shuffles between disconnected storylines and

characters. Many of the characters are coming to realizations and moving toward a

similar goal. Oppressed and abused by the managing class, these poor workers finally

realize they must strike. The play climaxes and concludes with a hall of frustrated union

members rallying loudly for a strike. “Barn Burning” is one of many literary works of it’s

time in which a character becomes conscious of a their need for change.

       Faulkner’s story brings Sarty through the phases that a dying person encounters to

shake him out of his family loyalty trance. The protagonist may as well die as he reaches

the end of the death cycle because he is instantly reborn. This rebirth brings him into a

new life in which the only influence he lives under is his own.

                       -Christian Austin

				
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