In Barn Burning,” Faulkner incorporates several instances of irony. He utilizes this literary tool to help develop his characters and express his ultimate message to readers. Examples of his use of irony include the unintentional yet inevitable ending of the Snopes family time after time, the similarities and differences between Sarty Snopes and his father, and the two distinct purposes for which Abner Snopes uses fire. Each contributes 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 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. 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 yields 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 them. 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 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.