Selected Short Stories
Blood is Thicker than Water, or is it?
In William Faulker’s short story “Barn Burning”, a struggle erupts when Abner Snopes expects his son, Colonel Sartoris, to ignore his personal moral obligations in order to protect the family honor after a crime is committed. In their small town of Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner creates a moral dilemma between the characters to analyze the complexity of growing into manhood. In “Barn Burning”, Faulkner uses the arson trial, the Snopes family’s move, and the burning of the second barn to illuminate the danger of blindly accepting a particular southern region’s culture.
At the young age of ten, Colonel Sartoris is faced with his first test of manhood: will he lie for his father in court or will he be truthful about his father’s crime? Even though he is very young, Colonel already understands the task his father has placed in front of him as he thinks of the man prosecuting his father as “our enemy” solely because he reasons, “He’s my father!” (Faulkner 801). It is blatantly clear that Abner has raised Colonel Sartoris to support his actions in any situation, even if it means committing perjury. Young Colonel understands his mission in the court as he thinks, “He aims fir me to lie, And I will have to do hit” (Faulkner 802).
Faulkner uses regional dialect in the thoughts of Colonel to reflect his Southern roots and the prevalent culture, in which families are tightly knit and respecting your elders is very important. Even though Colonel plans to lie for his father, the first sign of his conscience appears when the Snopes are leaving town and Colonel hopes, “Forever. Maybe [Abner] is done satisfied now” (Faulkner 802). Here, Colonel Sartoris feels relieved that he does not have to lie and he hopes that he will not be put in a position to trespass his moral obligations again. The scene in the courthouse reflects Colonel Satoris’s respect for his father which stems from his Southern upbringing. One thing his culture could not change is Colonel Sartoris’s duty to his internal conscience.
Faulkner combines the strong Southern concepts of family and manhood in a conversation between the corrupt father and young son in a way that condemns the regional moral code. After the courthouse scene, Abner Snopes beats Colonel Sartoris as he screams, “You’re getting to be a man… You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (Faulkner 803). Abner is both guilting and threatening his son into accepting their culture. Abner appeals to Colonel’s yearning to be a man so he will feel guilty for wanting to be truthful. Also, Abner threatens his son that he will be abandoned if he continues to stray away from Abner’s corrupt moral standards. Abner rephrases the proverb “blood is thicker than water” when he threatens his son into conformity.
Ironically, as Faulkner probably knew, the proverb “blood is thicker than water” is constantly misinterpreted. The proverb is actually “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”, meaning that the blood soldiers shed while fighting is stronger than the water shared by siblings of the same womb. Abner blindly follows a quote that he does not fully understand, further displaying his ignorance. The real proverb confirms that Colonel Sartoris is morally right as he betrays his family in order to follow his conscience.
As Abner decides to set fire to the second barn, he is forced to choose between his family’s honor and what he knows is right, even if it hurts him in the end. As Abner commands his son to fetch the can of oil to start the fire, Colonel debates internally, “I could run on and on and never look back… Only I can’t. I can’t” (Faulkner 810). Colonel obeys his father in getting the oil but he begins to think for himself, deciding that he can stand up to his father and run away from his criminal activities. As Colonel’s mom struggles to restrain him, Colonel Sartoris wants to hit his mother to free himself, but his Southern values which stress chivalry towards women prevent Colonel from using violence. After he warns the owner of the barn, Colonel knows it is too late to save his father and he begins to feel guilty when he hears the gunshots that kill Abner Snopes.
Colonel Sartoris feels guilty after his father’s death due to his young age and the way that manhood is suddenly thrust upon him. A combination of feelings well up inside of him, what Colonel describes as, “despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair” (Faulkner 812). In traditional Southern culture, boys are taught from a young age not to openly express their emotions. In the pure darkness of the woods where he is suddenly found alone, Colonel Sartoris is overwhelmed with pain. He cries out at the darkness, thinking loudly but whispering, “He was brave!” (Faulkner 812) After all his father put him through, Colonel tries to comfort himself by reinventing his father’s image as a brave man. Faulkner uses this scene to show how even in death, southern culture prevails through Colonel’s emotions. Brave is considered the highest of praises in Faulkner region, as “brave” is synonymous with “manly”. Once again, Colonel struggles to fit into this particular mold of manhood that he has been raised to strive towards.
The irony of Colonel Sartoris remembering his father as a brave man is that he also claims that his father is patriotic, another prevalent southern ideal for men, although his father was no more than a thief during the Civil War. Abner Snopes built himself up as a wounded veteran because it places him into a respected social circle in their region. Ironically, Abner goes on to name his son after Colonel Sartoris, a man who he never fought for, because he was too busy attempting to steal the soldiers’ horses. Colonel’s memory of his father is another example of the way the boy has been deceived by his culture.
As he walks away from the scene of his father’s death, Colonel Sartoris begins to breath easier as the weight of responsibility is lifting off of his chest. Now that he has become a man in his family’s eyes, he has also betrayed them and therefore can not return to his mother and sister. Although he saved his family’s honor by having his father killed, Colonel Sartoris has also disgraced his family by turning his back on his dad. In return, he walks off into the woods and does not look back (Faulkner 812). Abner Snopes’s influence on the family has caused them to see Colonel as a traitor for following his moral responsibility. Colonel has matured and realizes that he does not have to accept this culture of “blood is thicker than water”, so he moves on to start living by his own moral code.
In conclusion, Faulkner uses his particular brand of regionalism in “Barn Burning” to point out discrepancies in southern culture. The relationship between Colonel Sartoris and his father Abner condemns the way that boys are raised to be men in such a way that they trade their personal moral code for family ties. Colonel Sartoris’s fear of abandonment plays into his ability to ignore his conscience in order to lie for his father’s criminal activities. As manhood is thrust upon him, Colonel Sartoris steps into his new role and does not look back.
From the Page to the Plantation: A Comparison of Hemingway and Faulkner
A comparison between the texts of Hemingway and Faulkner lies in the same fruitless category as comparing apples to oranges. The contrasting elements that set them apart from each other establish two immensely different reading experiences, both rewarding in their own way. However, in the case presented here, only one can be explored further in years to come. Faulkner’s writings challenge the mind with their elevated vocabulary, fascinating characterization, and controversial subject matter to create a beneficial addition to the learning process beyond the reach of Hemingway’s pieces. The unique literary elements presented in Faulkner’s work expose a different take on literature rarely encountered by young readers, one that leaves a lasting impression on how writing is to be perceived for years to come.
One such aspect unfamiliar to the majority of this generation is the elaborate language introduced in these pieces. While the vocabulary in Hemingway’s stories could be comprehended at a third grade level, Faulkner’s work proffers a slew of words that expand the mind and offer an undeniable chance to learn. A single sentence written by Faulkner is a step outside of one’s comfort zone and into a realm of fanciful descriptions abound with intricate adjectives, unexpected metaphors, and ornate imagery that furthers its plot with a thrill of flair. In his classic short story A Rose for Emily, he immediately introduces the oddity of both a home and its owner amidst their surroundings,“lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps” (Faulkner 47); without even being informed of the context, the reader knows how out of place the character and what she represents are already. Among the surreal descriptions, such as “the mild dust of the starlit road and the heavy rifeness of honeysuckle, the pale ribbon unspooling with terrific slowness under his running feet” (Faulkner 23), lie accounts of experiences so familiar one can lose themselves in them, as when the young boy in Barn Burning feels in a moment of silence “as if he had swung outward at the end of a grape vine, over a ravine, and at the top of the swing had been caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless in time” (Faulkner 3). Under the frills of these impressive literary elements copiously put to use, though, the true focal point of any Faulkner piece is his darkly enchanting characters.
Faulkner’s complex, often twisted characterization serves as much more than a mere supplement to his purposefully simplistic plotlines. Granted, Hemingway’s deliberately flat personalities serve a clear purpose in provoking a deeper thought process, yet it is all too easy for the audience to subconsciously slip these characters into their own mold. We, as readers, all too often allow our own experiences and influences to justify or invalidate a character’s actions in any given situation, without giving much thought to their personal background and the values this entails. Faulkner’s elaborate character explanations and clearly outlined thought processes guide the reader past any dangerous assumptions and straight into the dark minds of the characters. This type of writing may seem overbearing to some, but is completely necessary when the moral of each story is so heavily reliant on the audience’s understanding of the influences and cultural values that dictate each decision or action. One such instance where character development is outlined meticulously is in the short story Barn Burning. Through the young boy’s panicked and often conflicted perspective in this tale, one is able to follow the psychotic actions of the father, a characteristically mechanical man described as “flat, bloodless as though cut from tin” (Faulkner 6) with a voice “still without heat or anger” (Faulkner 7). His lack of emotions and any type of warmth whatsoever makes his penchant for setting other people’s property ablaze seem almost contradictory, until one views how he controls his family with a heavy, unyielding grip reminiscent of his own apparently metallic construction. This ultimate desire to control the uncontrollable, symbolized in the unpredictable, leaping flames of fire, translates into how he raises his own son. The son, in his part, remains for the majority of his childhood a prisoner of the iron reigns of familial responsibility; Faulkner’s expressive style provides us with a glimpse into the boy’s constant need to remind himself that his father’s latest victim is “our enemy… ourn! mine and hisn both!” (Faulkner 1). The son is, in the end, consumed by the chaotic fire that has ravaged his life for so long; although he escapes from the tangible blaze, he explodes in a panic of frantic emotion in his flight, finally settling down “small, shaking steadily in the chill darkness” (Faulkner 25) much like a fading, forgotten ember and is left to sift his new life out from among the ashes. This concentrated insight into the complicated minds and the culturally influenced actions of people living in a world truly different from our own can seem unfamiliar to many readers, but represents a step closer to understanding that the mild characters constructed by Hemingway could never guide us in the direction of. Calling upon eccentric personalities such as Miss Emily or the ignorant citizens in A Rose for Emily, Faulkner was never afraid to delve into the dark psychology of Southern culture, and was often aptly lauded as “one of the great explorers of that madness” (Sullivan 7).
As asserted in this passage of the 2012 New York Times article How William Faulkner Tackled Race, Faulkner never shied away from attacking the complexities of rural Southern society, and many of his works rapidly became a catalyst for social change in the Southern community in which he had grown up. In his classic short story, A Rose For Emily, the narrator begins with a purely unbiased perspective of the occurrences in a small Southern town concerning an aging pariah and her isolation from the rest of the population. However, as the story progresses, the narrator begins to identify more and more as a part of the scoffing masses, recalling that “when she got to be thirty and was single, we were not pleased but vindicated” (Faulkner 51) and “we said ‘Poor Emily’ from behind the jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon” (Faulkner 55) in contrast with his/her previously detached commentary of the “old people” whispering rumors “behind their hands” (Faulkner 53). This subtle character transition from a childishly innocent, almost mythical view of Miss Emily, such as the awestruck account of her watching intruders enter her lawn from the window, with “the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol” (Faulkner 51), to the later jaded, exclusive view of the old woman paints a picture of a child growing up in a poisonous Southern environment. Faulkner sought to expose the cancers of this society by telling the story of not only an entire town turning their back on a woman clearly struggling mentally, but an ordinary child’s increasing entanglements in the cynical superiority of its citizens. Although Hemingway’s stories are often applauded for their ability to force the reader into looking below the surface, the subtext in Faulkner’s works like this is often overlooked, but equally important to the understanding of both the specific piece and the time period overall. While A Rose For Emily hides Faulkner’s reform-minded implications under the veil of a simple, macabre story of insanity, some of the beliefs expressed in his works are far more pronounced, as illustrated in Barn Burning, the tale of a young boy trapped in an abusive, dangerous lifestyle by traditional Southern family values. In this story, the boy is only able to watch as his father scorches every opportunity their family grasps, suppressing his own urges to obey the law and save his father’s victims from the senseless destruction in a desperate attempt to stay loyal to his family. Faulkner ends the tale on a note meant to be followed by its readers, with the boy breaking free from the snares of suffocatingly unconditional loyalty, which was an act many in a position like his could barely dream of due to the steadfast values that no one dared to go against. The South during this era was trapped in the rhythm of its ways and the customs that had been in practice since the very beginning, hinted at in Faulkner’s many references to frozen time in clocks “stopped at some fourteen minutes past two o’clock of a dead and forgotten day and time” (Faulkner 4). However, Faulkner’s numerous works served as a shrill alarm to awaken a region lost in the past and tackle the issues that so many had refused to face for decades; finally it could be said that “the South escaped itself” (Sullivan 7). This lasting legacy that shaped an entirely new social climate at the very least deserves a place in future curriculum, as opposed to the Hemingway pieces that ambitiously attempt to embrace a wider spectrum of people in their ideals to little avail.
In the comparison of two renowned authors and their impacts on the literary world, the debate could run with no end. Faulkner, though, with his detailed command of language; dark, complex characters; and revelations of a flawed, disturbingly real society; takes the upper hand in this situation. The distinctive factors that make up Faulkner’s work combine to create a transformative encounter like no other.
Fahrenheit 451 Through the Lens of “We Wear the Mask” and “Barn Burning”
Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 explores the idea of a person living a tedious, restrictive life while trying to fool himself into believing in a sense of happiness. Similarly, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask,” proposes the idea that people are wearing masks in order to deceive themselves and others and suppress their real emotions. Fahrenheit 415 further elaborates that one can only find true happiness if he makes the decision to abandon everything familiar and just run away, achieving tranquility and inner delight. “Barn Burning,” a short story by William Faulkner, also presents the life changing decision to flee from the unpleasant, well-known life in order to find true contentment. This essay, through explicit use of “We Wear the Mask” and “Barn Burning,” will explore the superficial urban life of Guy Montag, the main character in Fahrenheit 451, and later on his important decision to run away from civilization, thus finding his true self and inner peace. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury argues that the best way to break free from the vicious circle that is exemplified by a fake monotonous life without real feelings or excitement is by making a conscious decision to escape from this reality and find a new place to begin exploring one’s inner self and observing new surroundings.
While going through this empty, false life, a person capable of thinking for himself has to pretend that he is foolishly content and oblivious to the faults of his way of living. The characters in these texts find different ways to escape or conceal the real feelings about their own lifestyle. In “We Wear the Mask,” the mask represents one’s face as something still and immutable, and this is the standard. “We smile” because this has become the only acceptable behavior. These two words insinuate that putting on this fake grin is effortless and simple. The genuine emotions, on the other hand, are heavily suppressed, and people “let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.” Allowing others to see one without his usual, content countenance is regarded as a sign of weakness. Therefore, this person may feel wretched or miserable but “let[s] the world dream otherwise,” for hiding his true feelings deep down inside the mind serves as the only way to ephemerally escape them. In “Barn Burning,” Sarty’s constant moving embodies the way he and his family try to break away from their critical problem. His father’s bellicose burning torments the whole family, so they flee from one town to another without knowing “where they are going” (Barn Burning, 7) in a desperate attempt to temporarily forget all about the Abner’s issues. “It was always somewhere, always a house of sorts waiting for them a day or two days or even three days away” (Barn Burning, 7). This quote illustrates Sarty’s attitude towards this nomad-like existence. He constantly keeps a little ray of hope inside, for he feels that there will always be a suitable place for the family, and they can carry on pretending to be happy in a new location. In Fahrenheit 451, people are accustomed to concealing all genuine emotional bursts and living this pseudo-delightful life, only showing what lays on the surface, similarly to “We Wear the Mask”. Montag and his wife, Mildred, are “not in love with anyone,” (Fahrenheit 451, 51) but pretend they are happy with their marriage. When he confronts her in regard to something real like “t[aking] all the pills in [her] bottle last night,” (Fahrenheit 451, 27) Mildred has already absorbed this problem, saying that she “wouldn’t do that” (Fahrenheit 451, 27) and dismisses it as a figment of Montag’s imagination. These two passages demonstrate that in Fahrenheit 451, people are unable to deal with unadulterated feelings, so they just hide them at the bottom of their minds.
At the most conscious level of one’s mentality, on the other hand, is situated the basic command to be obedient and follow the orders issued out by his superiors. Sarty “had not been permitted to choose for himself,” (Barn Burning, 21) so his father’s commands are carried out without question or hesitation. A simple “Go.” sends the son “moving, running, outside the house, towards the stable” (Barn Burning, 21). This single word conveys the strength of Abner’s influence over his son, for Sarty seems frantic, desperate to fulfill the commands given out. In the same manner, Montag is also being harshly controlled by his boss, Beatty. “Everything to its proper place. Quick with the kerosene! Who’s got a match!” (Fahrenheit 451, 44). These fast-paced, energetic orders show how Montag has been taught to succumb to instructions without thinking individually in his mind. Like other firemen, he has become a mindless slave as he “grin[s] the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame” (Fahrenheit 451, 11). This quote gives even more insight on the ways that Montag, akin to his colleagues, has been brainwashed. He has been fooled into believing that he loves and enjoys this dreadful profession, but in reality, he only burns these books because such orders are issued out to him.
Under this superficial appearance, a person can easily keep his true identity intact. In “We Wear the Mask,” our true emotions are being concealed behind the fake, plastic smile. The mask “hides [one’s] cheeks and shades [his] eyes,” as these two parts of the face are a dead giveaway of one’s emotions. Therefore, they are kept secret from others. In “Barn Burning”, Sarty describes his own father as being “without face or depth – a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin,” (Barn Burning, 8). This vivid illustration of Abner evokes the sentiment that he is this unreal entity, inhuman and almost alien in appearance and behavior. He does not need to hide behind a mask, for he stays stolid, like a blank canvas. Montag, on the other hand, starts hiding behind a mask deliberately, for he begins thinking in a more vivid, poetic way, which shocks and petrifies him. “What?’ asked Montag of that other self, the subconscious idiot that ran babbling at times, quite independent of will, habit and conscience” (Fahrenheit 451, 18). Guy tries to mentally distance himself from this other wiser personality because being different is something truly horrifying and dangerous in his world. The fact that these genuine thoughts come at random times make them even more unusual for Montag. As a result, he feels obliged to keep this part of his entity hidden well.
The second most important step of a person’s path to finding his true self consists of the many small clues that there is something wrong in his life, leading to the lightning-fast moment in which he realizes that his existence so far had been everything but perfect and that his previous outlook had been tinted by rose-colored glasses. While wearing the mask, a person takes into account all the difficulties he had experienced, forcing him to put it on in the first place. As “We Wear The Mask” reveals, “[A]ll [his] tears and sighs” have been carefully kept under control, but one finally comes to term with these misfortunes. The excruciating pain caused by the “torn and bleeding hearts” finally catches up with the person, and he realizes that he has to change something in the name of his future existence. In “Barn Burning,” Sarty fully realizes that his family’s life is not in its proper state, but feels helpless when it comes to improving it. He is “not heavy enough to keep him footed solid in [the world], to resist it and try to change the course of its events” (Barn Burning, 9). Being so young, Sarty has absolutely no influence over the other members of the family, so any form of resistance on his part would be futile. In Fahrenheit 451, Guy has many moments in which he questions his actual feelings towards his marriage and overall lifestyle. “Well, wasn’t there a wall between him and Mildred, when you came down to it?” (Fahrenheit 451, 51) He has already found out the answer, but inside, he refuses to believe that his marriage is failing. After a while, as he begins to think more and more, Montag realizes that his relationship with Mildred can be described as being “a silly empty man near a silly empty woman…” (Fahrenheit 451, 51). This further startles him because he had become used to thinking that he had a perfect, strong marriage full of mutual love. From this point on, Montag begins thinking in an entirely new way, feelings like “[h]e was in someone else’s house…” (Fahrenheit 451, 49). He finally realizes that there is no room for him in his own ordinary, sub-urban house, where he dwells with his emotionless wife, sharing no real connection with him; analogically, his formerly docile mind can no longer contain the new untainted thoughts, rushing though his head. Montag’s realization of his artificial life marks an important moment, for it starts the snowball effect, leading to his liberation.
In order to make this sort of life more meaningful, a person begins making miniature, but significant changes to his own lifestyle. In “Barn Burning,” Sarty begins to openly question his father´s orders and sees to it that other people discover about the father´s pyromaniac tendencies. At one point in the story, Abner gives orders to Sarty, expecting the boy to react like always; however, “[t]he boy did not move. Then he could speak. “What …” he cried. “What are you …” (Barn Burning, 21). This quote demonstrates Sarty’s first step towards finally reaching a better life. Even if he ends up complying with the father’s orders, at first, he tries to reason out why he has to obey. Correspondingly, in Fahrenheit 451, Montag also tries to understand the purpose of his job, but at first, he actually begins changing his life involuntarily. “His hand had done it all, his hand, with a brain of its own, with a conscience and a curiosity in each trembling finger, had turned thief” (Fahrenheit 451, 45). Guy practically steals the book, but due to his conscious upbringing that books should be burned, he is scared by his own act. As a result, he attributes this to his body’s impulses. Later on in the book, he contemplates that by using the power of books, he may be able to unite people again. “Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!” (Fahrenheit 451, 81). Montag is genuinely concerned with making changes to the whole world. He feels that the knowledge people can get from books is too valuable to be burnt away. As a result, Montag decides to finally break away from his fireman profession in order to learn all about books.
These changes begin to escalate, and in the end, a person is pushed to make a life-changing decision. In “Barn Burning,” Sarty makes this choice in a “flight or flight” moment. “I could keep on, he thought. I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again,. Only I can’t. I can’t…” (Barn Burning, 21). He either has to follow his father’s orders like always or he can disobey the commands and think for himself for the very first time. Sarty has finally matured enough to realize that his father’s actions are wrong and unforgivable. He flees in panic and confusion, and “[a]t midnight he [sits] on the crest of a hill. He [does] not know it [is] midnight and he [does] not know how far he [has] come” (Barn Burning, 24). Sarty’s decision has great influence on himself and probably his family. The boy is overwhelmed by his own freedom and his senses are numb. Neither time, nor weather make any impression on the stupefied Sarty. In Fahrenheit 451, Montag makes a series of important decisions, but the most significant one is his choice to leave the city behind and run away to meet the people living on the railroad tracks. Upon exiting the city, he finds himself around nature. “But he was at the river. He touched it, just to be sure it was real” (Fahrenheit 451, 147). This quote exemplifies Montag’s disbelief that he can be at a place so far away from the fake, industrial city and so tranquil and relaxing. “He felt as if he had left a stage behind and many actors” (Fahrenheit 451, 146). This quote further illustrates his attitude towards his wife, Mildred, and all the other citizens. Guy believes that none of them ever took off their mask, and he feels delighted to be away from all this. Montag’s choice to abandon the urban stage life of unsuspecting actors, ironically unaware of their own costumes, transforms him into a whole new person.
After such a purifying decision, a person has to come to terms with his new outlook and being. Sarty’s feelings are summed up in exactly five words. “He did not look back” (Barn Burning, 25). He feels no remorse because he can finally make decisions for himself, without a barn burner telling him what to do, what to get, or what to say. Similarly, in Fahrenheit 451, Guy finds peace and mental balance when he is alone, exploring his new scenery. He “float[s] in a sudden peacefulness, away from the city and the lights and the chase, away from everything” (Fahrenheit 451, 147). The word “away” is stressed in this quote because it shows how Montag has distanced himself from everything that had previously made him sick. He is finally a new person in a new place. Where he meets the group of new people, they further reassure him. “You’re welcome here” (Fahrenheit 451, 154). Guy finally belongs to a community with the same sense of awareness as him, and he understands that he is part of an initiative bigger than just stealing books. At last, Montag has come to terms with all the changes around and inside him, and he feels that his true life is just beginning.
Through “We Wear the Mask” and “Barn Burning,” this essay demonstrates the personal path of Fahrenheit 451’s main character, Guy Montag, as he evolves from being an ordinary face behind an ordinary mask to becoming a new individual with real thinking skills, who finally makes the colossal decision to abandon civilization. Montag becomes liberated from the urban chains, hampering his mental power, and he can go on to accomplish his new goals, connected with his realization that books are good for people.