Cultures in Conflict & Change
William Faulkner leaves us in suspense at the end of a turbulent sequence of events titled "Barn Burning." Who killed whom? We could speculate from other books perhaps but those words are outside this story. Given that strict constraint, we don't really know. Sarty watches De Spain and his horse vanish in the distance and hears three shots, which he assumes kill his father at least, and perhaps older brother. This is the widest possible assumption but a fuller analysis would have to explore other possibilities. The result for Sarty is the same: He runs away from father, brother and the women's culture regardless who pulled which trigger(s) at the De Spain barn. Abner Snopes will appear here as 'AS,' De Spain as 'DS' and 'Sarty' as 'CSS' for brevity, but also abstraction, because Faulkner ('WF') sets up abstractions, through symbolic equations that permeate the entire allegory. These equations reveal the larger conflict WF presents, between cultures represented by each and every character.
Sarty's point-of-view is the primary lens through which the limited-onmiscient, third-person narrative unflolds (Sarty is the 'last man standing,' and also outlives all the other characters to reflect on these events "twenty years later" (4)). Sarty identifies with his father from the opening vignette, as wanting him to lie, which CSS is willing to do but only out of fear. He knows his father is wrong and guilty, although he finds that unpleasant to admit. This is the first we learn of any of these characters, but the conflict becomes thematic by the end. The father uses force to compel the son's loyalty to family rather than wider abstractions of justice and fairness because he knows the son already questions his moral inheritance (4). The father has no such scruples and is trying to train them out of the boy.
Is this assertion true, and important if so? The father is an outlaw 'barn burner' but yet he uses the legal system to sue De Spain. The family works for their keep now, but Sarty is never allowed to forget the bullet in AS's foot, which he earned stealing horses from the very army an officer of which he named the youngest son after. WF tells us directly that the fires AS sets are the "one weapon for the preservation of integrity" against "all men, blue or gray" (4), which he has harbored all Sarty's life, only unleashing as a last resort but with "voracious prodigality" (4) to catastrophic effect. Hence is set up the conflict Sarty then symbolizes: the unification of his own inherent youthful truthfullness, recognized by Justice [the Justice of the Peace, p. 2], against his father's "ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions" (4), which transcend universal institutions when they conflict with (tribal) self-interest. CSS is both Colonel Sartoris, and a Snopes at the same time. He is part officer of a locally-recognized, landed, agricultural aristocracy which rebelled against but was defeated by larger, generalized democratic institutions, and the individual who constitutes, uses, attacks and is expelled by the same institution as pragmatic self-interest dictates. Sarty is aristocrat and sharecropper, feudal serf and colonialist at the same time. AS uses violence, i.e. power, to impose an artificial division CSS does not naturally accept. We see this by the symbols AS chooses to attack.
WF has Snopes tell us directly he attacks Justice by forcing CSS to identify with his "own blood" instead of the collective / "any man there this morning," all of whom are out to "get at" him because he is better than them (4). What does his other target De Spain symbolize? DS owns AS "body and soul" (5), for a time, at least. This is tantamount to slavery (7), to which AS must voluntarily submit now that he has a family, although this was not the case before that circumstance. To AS, the DeSpain mansion represents the extension of slavery and thus aristocracy over the poor white, which is an affront his ruthless individualism finds impossible to accept, escape or overcome. This seems fairly straightforward but we will see there is more to it.
The DS plantation is rooted amongst "oaks and cedars" (5) rather than the "locust and mulberry" (3) from which Sarty's vagabond family wandered like locusts across the small holdings other tribes had been able to stake out (5) until the moment Sarty views the magic DeSpain palace. Sarty identifies the DS palace with Justice ("a courthouse," 5), and thus justice...
He wishes this could change his father but the father's sense of injury runs too deep. AS tries to teach Sarty the ropes and implicate him in attacking the slaver (sending him to get the arson oil on p. 12), and it almost works: Sarty himself lashes out against his own dream of peace, defending his blood against DeSpain directly (9, 11) and through the intermediary Justice of the Peace (10) in spite of himself. But finally his deeper nature gets the upper hand and leads him to choose justice and thus escape from the unresolvable conflict, effectively by murdering his father (and brother, perhaps) through betrayal to DeSpain. The Colonel sends the Major to finish a war no boy could win on his own.
This is all fairly overt but there is a deeper level. AS's affront at being enslaved (7) is mirrored in his treatment of women. The Snopes patriarch is no stranger to blacks, employing them for communications and commerce he disdains (2) or simply pushing them aside if they bar his way (6). But what papa Snopes doesn't seem to understand is that his own exploitation of his family places him in the same position he attacks in the person of DeSpain. We find the rug and in fact the whole house are Mrs. DeSpain's (9) at least symbolically; AS makes the younger women clean up the mess he has made for them all. He equates the family women with hogs (5) and sabotages the toxic labor he creates for them and then drives them to complete against their and their mother's protest (7). CSS sees the younger ones throughout like cows, and DeSpain takes this arrangement for granted (9) which generalizes it to a social system. If this is not deliberate, then the misogyny is Faulkner's, which does not undermine an assertion that AS is a slaver. While the elder women are industrious (5), they have no real authority, and the younger generation openly balks at this arrangement.
In fact WF provides no evidence the senior Snopes does any physical labor at all, beside the oversight and administration that make him basically a plantation operator, or perhaps the field overseer, and an inept one at that. He is expert at sauntering around town, teaching his sons the ropes of the men's culture, which the older son seems to have already internalized as the perfect, docile slave (he abets his father in attacking DeSpain; spearheads the field labor without apparent complaint; chews tobacco, etc.). Sarty is able to work beside his sisters rather than attempt to dominate them like we would expect if AS's training had taken full hold. But if the sisters rebel against AS, Mrs. DeSpain commits a dual crime by failing to accept being walked on, and by enjoying the fruits of the aristocracy Snopes refuses to subordinate himself before. AS doesn't see himself as slave, but as master, so he destroys her rug -- ever the opportunist -- to even the score. The end result is that although Sarty finally breaks from his father's pattern of retributive 'justice,' once the patriarchal threat is removed, Sarty mythologizes the father he killed, but the women are simply abandoned altogether without an apparent second thought by anyone. They simply cease to exist.
"Roselily" on the other hand is not being abandoned but taken up, up the river, to a city she has never seen. Alice Walker breaks the familiar marriage vows into their component pieces and sets them against an image of black folks standing beneath the sky to join together what no man may break asunder, a woman and a man from two cultures in conflict. What Walker has done is to separate the lines of the marriage vows so we understand them differently than when they are read in the traditional sequence. This structure provides pacing so we can see how jumpy Roselily's thinking is before her fateful vow, which is not important enough for us to hear.
Likewise we can analyze this very short story by breaking it down into its component pieces. Roselily is looking forward, to a new life she fears, and back at one she knows but wants to leave. Separating the vows even farther reveals the way Walker achieves these effects.
His peace. Roselily stands behind a man who is different from the celebrants on the lawn:…
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