Barn Burning Themes: Exploring Major Motifs and Symbolism

Barn Burning Themes: Exploring Major Motifs and Symbolism

In William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning,” the themes of repetition, alienation, and loyalty come to light through the character of Sarty Snopes. The story follows Sarty, the son of the short-tempered and irascible Abner Snopes, as he faces a moral dilemma and struggles with his loyalty to his family and his own values. Throughout the story, Faulkner carefully uses motifs and symbolism to describe the complex relationships and ethical dilemmas faced by the characters.

One of the major motifs in “Barn Burning” is the repetition of actions and events. Sarty’s father, Abner Snopes, is known for his barn burning, a destructive act that serves as a metaphor for his resentment and alienation from society. The burning of barns is mentioned multiple times in the story, reinforcing the evil and destructive nature of Abner’s character. This repetition also highlights the cyclical nature of the story, as Sarty’s loyalty and conflict with his father seem to be never-ending.

Another major theme in “Barn Burning” is the idea of alienation. Sarty, due to his father’s actions, is socially isolated and faces constant judgment from others. Faulkner describes the Snopes family as a “kind of hereditary obligation upon him that he had to fulfill” (Faulkner). This shows that Sarty is trapped in a situation he did not choose, and his loyalty to his family conflicts with his own desire to break free from his father’s cycle of violence.

Overall, the motifs and symbolism used in “Barn Burning” serve to describe the multiple themes of repetition, alienation, and loyalty. These themes are depicted through the characters’ relationships and ethical dilemmas. Faulkner’s careful weaving of motifs and symbolism throughout the story provides the reader with a clear view of the social and moral context in which the characters exist.

The Destructive Nature of Fire

In the context of the story, fire is portrayed as a ravenous force that burns everything in its path. It is used by Abner Snopes, the father of the protagonist Sarty, as a way to express his anger and rebel against a society that he feels alienation from. Abner Snopes is described as a “short-tempered” and “angry” character, and his repetitive use of fire as a means of destruction reinforces this view.

Through the author’s choice of words and images, fire is used to describe not only the physical act of burning, but also the burning of morals, values, and ethics. The fire symbolizes the destructive nature of Abner’s actions and the consequences they have on his family and those around him.

One of the most powerful and memorable quotes in the story is when Sarty describes his father as the “ravenous word fire.” This quote not only describes the physical act of burning, but also the destructive and consuming nature of Abner’s character.

The author carefully uses fire as a motif throughout the story to reinforce the theme of destruction. The repetition of the word “burning” and the image of fire graying or pecking at something or someone reinforces the destructive nature of Abner’s actions and the impact they have on those around him.

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By using fire as a symbol of destruction, Faulkner conveys a deeper message about the destructive power of anger, rebellion, and the consequences that come with it. Throughout the story, fire is used to depict the destructive nature of Abner Snopes and his actions, as well as the alienation and moral dilemmas faced by his son Sarty.

Conflicting Loyalties: Blood vs. Social Class

Sarty’s Loyalty and Values

Sarty, a young boy raised in a poverty-stricken family of sharecroppers, is torn between his loyalty to his father and his personal values. He is used to the violent and short-tempered nature of his father, Abner Snopes, but at the same time, he recognizes the immorality of his father’s actions. He describes his father as “a man who learned in time to live without hope and therefore without despair” (Faulkner, 1939). This depiction highlights the dark image of Abner’s personality and foreshadows the destructive path he will lead his family down.

The Influence of Social Class and Racism

The Snopes family, as poor white farmers, faces alienation and discrimination from socially higher classes. Faulkner mentions racism without explicitly using the word, creating a sense of prejudice and oppression that the family experiences. Sarty, being young and impressionable, is aware of these social dynamics. The repetitive burning of barns also symbolizes the destruction of these social hierarchies, as barns are often seen as symbols of wealth and stability in rural communities.

Motifs and SymbolismQuotes from the Story
The “shaggy graying old man”“You’re getting to be a man…. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (Faulkner, 1939).
Burning barns“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (Faulkner, 1939).
Family loyalty“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (Faulkner, 1939).

The above motifs and quotes highlight the conflicts between loyalty and morality that Sarty faces. His loyalty to his family, represented by his father’s words, clashes with his own growing sense of right and wrong. Sarty’s internal struggle is further compounded by the constant threat of his father’s violent nature.

Faulkner’s portrayal of the Snopes family and their social standing emphasizes the idea that loyalty to one’s bloodline does not automatically imply loyalty or support for their actions. By exploring these conflicting loyalties, Faulkner raises important questions about the impact of social class on morality and the choices individuals are forced to make.

The Cycle of Violence

The story begins with Sartoris’ father, Abner Snopes, who is a short-tempered and irascible character. Faulkner uses descriptive language to convey the anger and hostility that emanate from Abner, such as “the constant glare” in his eyes and the “haze of his relentless fury.” This repetition of violent and angry characteristics paints a vivid picture of the kind of person Abner is and sets the tone for the rest of the story.

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Sartoris, being the son of Abner, is directly affected by his father’s actions and attitude. He grows up in a world filled with violence and aggression, making it difficult for him to escape the cycle of violence. There are many instances throughout the story where Sartoris expresses his own anger, illustrating how he has internalized his father’s behavior.

The author’s use of repetition is noticeable in the story, with the word “barn” being used multiple times to describe the locations where the Snopes family finds temporary shelter. The repetition of this word reinforces the idea of the cycle, as each barn represents another temporary home before moving on to the next. These barns are symbolic of the Snopes family’s transient and unstable existence.

Furthermore, Faulkner also uses barns as a metaphor for society at large. The constant moving from one barn to another reflects the Snopes family’s alienation from society, as they are constantly on the fringes and never able to establish a permanent place within it.

Through the character Sartoris, the author explores the theme of morality and the struggle between good and evil. Sartoris is torn between loyalty to his family and what he knows deep down is right. At times, he is tempted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his inner voice and moral compass tell him otherwise.

Faulkner’s use of repetition and symbolism, such as the grayness that surrounds the Snopes family and the word choices that describe the characters, all contribute to creating a world where violence seems to be the norm. This bleak and desolate environment amplifies the reader’s understanding of the cycle of violence that Sartoris is trapped in.

The Loss of Innocence

The repetitive and multiple references to the burning of barns serve as a clear symbol of destruction and the loss of innocence. The image of a ravenous fire consuming a farmer’s barn is a powerful depiction of the evil and destructive nature of Abner’s actions. This motif is reinforced by the author’s choice of words and phrases when describing Abner, such as “short-tempered” and “graying” – all of which create a clear image of an angry and morally questionable character.

Abner says: (“Barn Burning”) Sartoris family quotes: (“Barn Burning”)
“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.”“Blood, honor and loyalty are everything.”“He aims for me to lie…”“He aims to wipe out my whole family.”

Through the character of Sarty, Faulkner explores the theme of the loss of innocence and the moral dilemma faced by a young person torn between loyalty to family and personal ethics. Sarty’s internal struggle is evident when he describes his father’s actions as “just doing what he has to do” and when he realizes the truth behind his father’s destructive behavior.

The motif of the loss of innocence is reinforced throughout the story, particularly in the interaction between Sarty and Colonel Sartoris Snopes, who represents a different path and a possible escape from the cycle of violence and destruction. The contrast between the two father figures highlights the importance of individual choice and the potential for personal growth and redemption, even in the face of challenging circumstances.

Ultimately, Faulkner’s use of the loss of innocence motif in “Barn Burning” serves to explore themes of loyalty, racism, and personal ethics. It challenges the reader to consider the consequences of blindly following family or societal expectations, and reinforces the idea that true loyalty lies in doing what is morally right, even if it means breaking away from one’s own blood.

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The Search for Identity

The author uses words such as “loneliness” and “irritable” to describe Sarty’s state of mind, emphasizing his longing for stability and connection. Throughout the story, Sarty’s identity is closely tied to his father, Abner Snopes, a white farmer with a reputation for burning barns. Faulkner carefully chooses words and phrases to depict Abner as an irascible and short-tempered man, whose actions and values Sarty struggles to reconcile with his own.

The burning of barns becomes a repetitive motif that symbolizes the conflict between Sarty’s loyalty to his family and his growing sense of morality. When Sarty’s father is accused of burning a barn, Sarty is torn between his desire to protect his family and his recognition of the farmer’s wrongdoing. The author mentions the “ravenous” and “feisty” nature of the fire, which reinforces the destructive and evil connotations associated with the burning of barns.

Through the character of Sarty, Faulkner explores the impact of racism and the role it plays in shaping identity. Sarty’s father, Abner, is often described as a “shaggy” and “short-tempered” man, reflecting his disruptive and socially marginalized existence. The author’s choice of words and imagery suggest that Abner’s actions are motivated by a deep-seated resentment towards those who have more power and status than he does.

Sarty’s struggle to establish his own identity is further reinforced by his encounters with other characters in the story. When Sarty visits a library, the author’s mention of the “white, far-off shapeless voice” highlights the alienation and disconnection Sarty feels from society. Sarty’s interactions with the wealthy landowner, Major de Spain, and Mr. Harris, the Justice of the Peace, expose him to a different set of values and morals, causing him to question his father’s actions.

Throughout the story, Sarty’s search for identity is a central theme that resonates with readers of all backgrounds and cultures. Faulkner’s careful use of motifs, symbols, and descriptive language captures the universal experience of longing for a sense of belonging and the struggle to define oneself amidst conflicting values. By the end of the story, Sarty’s choices reflect his growing understanding of morality and his desire to break free from the cycle of violence and resentment that has defined his family.


What are the major motifs and symbolism in “Barn Burning”?

In “Barn Burning,” some major motifs and symbolism include fire, the importance of blood ties, and the contrast between loyalty and justice.

How does the theme of resentment unfold in “Barn Burning”?

In “Barn Burning,” the theme of resentment is explored through the character of Abner Snopes, who harbors deep resentment towards the upper class and seeks revenge through his destructive acts.

What role does racism play in “Barn Burning”?

Racism plays a significant role in “Barn Burning” as it highlights the social hierarchy and discrimination faced by African Americans in the South during that time period. The story depicts the racial tension between Abner Snopes and the wealthy landowner, which ultimately leads to the burning of barns.

How does the symbolism of fire contribute to the theme of justice in “Barn Burning”?

In “Barn Burning,” fire is a recurring symbol that represents both destruction and cleansing. It symbolizes the destructive acts committed by Abner Snopes but also serves as a means for justice, as it allows the protagonist, Sarty, to break free from his father’s cycle of violence.

What is the significance of blood ties in “Barn Burning”?

In “Barn Burning,” blood ties hold great importance as they determine the loyalty and sense of duty felt by the characters. The loyalty towards family, specifically towards Abner Snopes, creates conflicts within Sarty as he grapples with his own sense of justice and morality.

What are the major themes explored in “Barn Burning”?

In “Barn Burning,” the major themes explored are loyalty, justice, class conflict, and the abuse of power.

Alex Koliada, PhD

By Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for studying aging, genetics, and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics. His scientific research has been published in the most reputable international magazines. Alex holds a BA in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Southern California, and a TEFL certification from The Boston Language Institute.