Faulkner was interested in the clash created by the new “industrialism” in the South. While Abner sees himself as fighting against modernization, his son Sarty sees things differently. Are they representatives of the Old South and the New South, or are things not quite so “black and white”?
Choose one of the topics below and explain your response in detail. If there are topics below which have not been selected by the time you begin to write, please choose from among them. When you respond to your classmates, choose at least one post written in response to a topic different from your own. Your instructor has the right to tell students that a certain question has been answered by too many students and is now off-limits, so watch the announcements board for updates.
1. In “Everyday Use,” we discussed the symbol of the quilt and how it impacted the meaning of the story. What symbol or symbols do you see in Faulkner’s story that function the same way? Identify a symbol and explain its significance.
2. Faulkner’s use of narration isn’t consistent. We hear the story primarily from Sarty’s point of view, but some things readers are told are beyond Sarty’s knowledge or experience. What are these things and why does Faulkner include them?
3. What is so important about the marring of the deSpain’s rug?
4. Why is Abner Snopes setting fires? What are the social and economic circumstances of the 1930s that might help explain this?
5. What are the complex factors surrounding the following decisions made by Snopes? Choose one from the list below and go into detail
- His burning of Harris’ barn
- His “cleaning” the rug the way he does
- His suing de Spain
- His burning of de Spain’s barn
A Note About William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”
A message from the course custodian, Dr. Melanie Borrego:
William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” is a challenging story in many ways. Not least of those challenges is that this story uses the word “nigger,” a word rightly reviled in contemporary society.
I studied African American literature as my doctoral concentration in graduate school and as a research assistant under Dr. Bernard Bell, the author of The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, so the use of the story and its outdated and racist language (not only in Faulkner, but in the stories of Twain and many others) is something I’ve thought a lot about.
Scholars of African American literature and culture do not ignore or marginalize Faulkner’s work or the work of other authors like him, they engage with it, and that’s what I hope will happen with this discussion. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Faulkner wasn’t racist, as we are all products of our culture and historical place, but there is no doubt that he fought those teachings. He was more liberal than his friends and family, while not being as liberal as the civil rights advocates would have preferred. He tried to strike a compromise between the two and, as a result, lost most of his friends and family and was scorned by those working in civil rights. His very use of race in his novels was wildly criticized by those in his community, and the fact that he revealed race and racism as an essential component of southern culture made him a hated man.
There are few few places in the world (I can’t think of any) where the history and literature are untouched by some form of colonialism and/or racism. You can’t understand an oppressor and an oppressive system unless you engage that system–literature and all. If you want to understand Nazi Germany, then you have to study the cultural production of that system; in doing so, you cannot avoid the Holocaust. The Middle Passage is another prime example.
Faulkner explores the psyche of a racist south in a manner that allows our generation to make sense of corrosively racist system; class–another important discussion–is also involved in the mix. How did the south confront its own dissonance regarding racist practices? Faulkner’s story shows us a small picture of this time and place. Moreover, Faulkner’s work is not written in isolation from other writers. Hindsight allows readers the benefit of studying the dialogue between his work and that of writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, or Richard Wright.
This is an important part of what we do in academia. We study ideas and we study words, even negative, racist words–their impact and how they got that way. We try not to sanitize the past but discuss it, warts and all. Louis Brandeis said, in 1913, that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” and that’s what we try to do–shed light on our past and how it affects our present, determining why it’s important to remember these things. In “Barn Burning,” Faulkner uses the “N” word, but look at how he has used it. While it was in the common vernacular of the time, particularly in the South, it is used here in a negative way primarily by the vilest white character in the story, Abner. He is so vile that his own young son, who must decide between living life like his father and living life as an honorable man, chooses to betray his father and leave him to the consequences of his actions, which in this case may be death. That’s worth discussing.
These concepts are not easy to take sometimes, and I won’t pretend that they are–but getting a real education requires confronting such issues and being able to talk through them–certainly with passion, but without malice. Education, real education, often takes place outside our comfort zones, and that is where this story takes us. This week, really try to see what the story is teaching us and why the use of this word in an educational and limited way is actually important to maintain, to read, and to discuss.