Barn BurningIn “Barn Burning,” Faulkner incorporates several instances of irony. He utilizes this
literary tool in order to help the development of his characters and to express his ultimate
message to the readers. Some examples of his use of irony are the unintentional yet
inevitable ending of the Snopes family time after time, the similarities and differences
between Sarty Snopes and his father, and finally, the two distinct purposes for which
Abner Snopes uses fire. Separately, each is able to contribute to the development of the
two main characters in the short story. Collectively, they are also able to help Faulkner
convey his personal message that essentially, an individual’s sense of values comprises
who he/she is.
The most obvious instance of irony is the uncanny fashion in which each endeavor
of the Snopes family concludes every time. To the reader’s knowledge, it is neither
intended nor premeditated that each attempt of the family to make a new start results in
the same outcome. Each struggle is exactly that, yielding the invariable, undesired result
of a barn being engulfed in ravaging flames and the family being forced to search for a
new beginning. These trials help Sarty understand that in order to take control of his own
destiny, he must separate himself from his family and venture out on his own. If he ever
wishes to live a life other than that of a vagabond with no real chance for happiness or
stability, he must leave now.
Another case of the use of irony is the comparison between Sarty Snopes and his
father. While they physically resemble each other, their morals could not differ more.
Sarty is “small and wiry like his father (p267, paragraph 7).” However the similarities
are strictly limited to physical characteristics. The values and principles that the father
and son embrace reveal the true contrast between the two. Abner allows his emotions
and pride to get the better of him, controlling his actions and making him react in an
irrational manner. This tears young Sarty apart because although he wishes to obey and
honor his father, he cannot morally respect Abner and his deeds. Faulkner uses this
contrast in ideals to help Sarty realize that he is does not want to grow up like his father
nor is he obligated to follow in his footsteps. It helps him to see that he must escape if he
ever wants to change his way of life.
The final example of irony is perhaps the most important and effective. Abner
Snopes uses fire for two very distinct purposes which is the epitome of irony. He uses
the fire in a very destructive manner each time he burns down a barn. This immense
blaze serves no purpose but to keep intact his pride, “the element of fire spoke to some
deep mainspring of his father’s being,…as the one weapon for the preservation of
integrity (p 270, paragraph 1).” However, when it comes to keeping his family warm,
Abner sets only “a small fire, niggard almost, a shrewd fire (p 270, paragraph 1).” To
spare the warmth of a large fire for his family while setting grand ones for the
unnecessary purpose of demolishing a barn seems ridiculous. Abner Snopes clearly has
his priorities out of order. He is too caught up in his own egotism to realize that his
family is suffering right before him. Although literally, Abner’s habit is to burn barns,
perhaps what he is really burning is the very bridge his family needs to cross in order to
achieve contentment, success, and stability.
Faulkner’s message about the importance of individual values and ideals is
well-expressed through “Barn Burning.” It is clear that Abner lacks both and is therefore
unable to provide for his family and induces his own untimely death. Sarty represents
the hope that could have easily fallen into the footsteps of an overbearing father but
instead was wise enough to realize the fault in Abner’s ways and realign himself.