Potential Free-Will: Sarty’s Choice in Barn Burning

January 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

Being the son of a pyromaniac involves a vast amount of trust and requires protecting the family at all costs. In William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, son of the pyromaniac Abner Snopes, is a young boy who must make a difficult decision: stay with his father and play into the life of an arsonist, protecting the family and risking his life for them, or leave his family and let them be taken by the authorities, ultimately being free from their dangerous lifestyle. Sarty’s dilemma is the internal conflict to disobey his father by betraying his trust and running away, and act that could damage the harmony of the family.

When the story begins, Sarty is given the chance to be free from his father’s rule; Sarty’s first true choice is to either tell the judge the truth which will get his father arrested for burning their neighbor’s barn, or to lie to the judge and keep his father’s secret. While walking up to talk to the judge, Sarty thought “he aims for me to lie [and] I will have to do hit,” with “he” referring to his father (Faulkner 250). In a situation like this, lying is really dangerous: a man’s barn was burned to the ground and someone could have been killed, but Sarty chose to do as his father says and lie about the illegal act. As if his mind were brainwashed, Sarty referred to the judge as “our enemy,” the enemy of him and his father, a thought burned into his mind like a soldier in war told what to think and how to feel (Faulkner 250). In this passage, Sarty made the choice to protect Abner like a soldier protects a comrade. Sarty hopes that his father will eventually change for the better and support the family by not setting fires, but this wish is ultimately useless by the story’s end.

Another instance of Sarty believing his father will better himself and change for his family is just before the story’s climax when the family moves to a new house – for the thirteenth time, according to Sarty – and visits the home of the man who Abner will be working for (Faulkner 253). Upon seeing the house, Sarty thinks that “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 stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive…” (Faulkner 253). In this line, Sarty believes that these people will barely be affected by Abner, and Abner will change “from what he couldn’t help but be,” as if Abner didn’t have a choice but to burn things down when he was upset (Faulkner 254). Sarty’s level of trust toward his father was increased; he believed that his father truly wouldn’t set another fire and that the people in this house could not be greatly affected by Abner’s “puny flames” (Faulkner 253). Sadly, Abner found a way to upset his new boss, leading him to attempt arson yet again. Abner wasn’t trying to start over and improve as the family’s leader. This broke the family’s unity and led Sarty to question his purpose in the family.

In “Barn Burning,” the father constantly clashes with authority and anyone who seems above him, believing everything should go his way or no way at all. In contrast, his son believes that there is a way his father can change and do things that will not upset people, things that will help the family stay in one home and be normal. At first, the son does as his father says, always believing that some incident would be the last time his father caused trouble for others. As the story continues, the son is in conflict with his father’s decisions, especially near the end, when Sarty is nearly killed trying to stop the father’s biggest arson. The element of trust in this story is especially difficult: a rift is created in Abner and Sarty’s relationship, causing the son to run away, to choose to live without his family. Sarty made his choice: to be better than his father and have a better life without his dangerous family.

Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Shorter 7th Ed. Peter Simon. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Incorporated, 2006. 249-262. Print.

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