Lorraine Balint---- Intro. to Literature--- Sept. 29, 2003
1.) Prepare an analysis of Skei's essay in which you evaluate how well he presents and argues his thesis, the quality of his supporting information, and the accessibility of his writing. Would you recommend this essay to students reading "Barn Burning" for the first time? Why or why not?
It is clear that Skei is very well-versed in all the works of Faulkner. It IS easier to form one's own judgment of a story itself than to analyze someone else's analysis of it. Still, the whole article is far richer in exploring many points of view about the story than the previous essays assigned (which it has in common with "Barn Burning" itself.)
There is also the advantage of having some real history of Faulkner's different decisions about "Barn Burning" as a separate entity from the book in which it was originally intended as a first chapter. Summing up the evidence in Skei's references, Faulkner was looking to open his latest Snopes novel more atmospherically than dramatically, describing the surroundings the Snopeses find themselves in, and highlighting other characters. Further, he wished to explore different aspects of Abner's personality and behavior, and gradually arrive at a conclusion about it, than to introduce him with a violent and extreme incident which would have been a "spoiler" that revealed the most negative aspects of his past behavior without subtlety.
In Skei's words, the barn-burning past was reduced to "hearsay, rumor, and vague statements about the little one" (Sarty) "who disappeared." In short, Abner AND his older son, Flem, have survived some crisis in their pasts. Sarty was absent from his family's continuing saga, the father initially seemed more gullible and greedy than sociopathic, and the older brother finally achieved a more proactive role. And, in the meantime, the excised story was published after a relatively small number or rejections, eventually earning acclaim as one of the best, if not the best, of Faulkner's short stories.
It is in the second section, wherein Skei analyzes the story itself, where the real "argument" begins. He begins by comparing the use of this particular child protagonist with others in Faulkner's stories, and its mingled themes of initiation and the conflict between two kinds of justice--- formalized and primitive. His main difference of opinion with earlier analysts who claim the story is wholly about the inner confict within Sarty Snopes over blood ties versus getting along in the larger society, and his epiphany/coming of age (in the moral sense) that results when he makes a choice to save an upper-class military veteran's barn from his almost mindlessly vengeful father, who has previously lied about his own Civil war "service." Skei argues that Abner is more central to the story than others, partisans of Sarty's major role, would admit.
There is little to disagree with there--- the "bad dad" is omnipresent from the beginning. Abner is not only omnipresent, but omniscient as the anonymous narrator who points up his true past. Sarty suspects, probably correctly, that his father makes arrangements for their next destination before he goes about setting fire at the previous location. In short, ANY landlord who hires Abner is almost foredoomed to lose his barn, and very possibly, some of his stock and/or produce stored therein.
Worse, Abner has a way of dragging others into his plans--- his oldest son, his acquiescent wife and sister-in-law, the black men he uses as messengers.... Even the J.P.'s at his trials, one of whom chooses not to question Abner's little son, and sets the father loose, and the other, who lets him off with half his fine, in defiance of probably the wealthiest farmer in the area, who is also a military man (perhaps a retired Civil War major? An extra triumph for Abner!) Faulkner inserts a grown-up insight into young Sarty's mind, though it is probably more what the grown Sartoris would have told himself: "a feeling that his (Abner's) ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his." Yet, Abner's actions are of advantage to NOBODY--- his family is forced to shift from place to place every few months, in spiralling increased poverty and privation, his children without education, and coerced into joining in illegal acts. "Bad Dad" sets into motion events that will fuel his often misplaced sense of outrage, and becomes "Psycho Dad" or, better yet "Pyro Dad."
Obviously, without this monstrous father standing in opposition to his bright youngest son, there would be no story. Without Abner's constant philosophizing over the importance of blood ties over the rest of the world ("enemies"), there would be no conflict to confound Sarty and drive him to make the greatest choice of his young life, and to turn away from what he thinks are the consequences--- "No good deed goes unpunished."
Skei discusses the concept of "sliding perceptions" and shows how it works in a synopsis of the novel's scenes--- Starting from the interior world of the child, hungry and despairing, confused by his all-powerful father, whom he outwardly resembles, and his anger at those who defy Abner. At this point, Sarty still wishes to emulate his father--- if only his father would behave more like some ideal the child has come to admire. Sarty, in his later ruminations, apparently believes there was a time when his father was not as he is now, and wishes he could revert--- to be more like Sarty, than vice-versa..
Then, in the next pattern Skei examines the direct speech. There is argument between the accusers and Abner, who doesn't exactly manipulate them, but he gets what he wants anyway, the usual pattern of ALL his interactions with people. Then there's a long stretch of narrative without conversation, just where Sarty has experiences and makes observations, such as ruminating on why his father makes such small fires for practical purposes, but really lets himself go when setting barn fires. Faulkner's omniscient narrator interjects at this point that the ability to temper and direct this destructive impulse is Abner's weapon for integrity and respect.
Skei, whose essay is more sensitive to the harsh barriers of class and relative poverty in the story, leans a little more in sympathy to Abner's reactions to feeling oppressed by his landlords. In one of his footnotes, he refers to an earlier story which explains Abner's behavior as the result of being badly beaten (financially and/or literally, is not made clear) in his former occupation of horse trading, and this has made him poor, mean, surly and without a trace of kindness. However, even Skei admits that the behavior Abner exhibits in this story, meant to be the first chapter of an entire novel about him, goes WAY beyond holding tightly to an old grudge. Further, the narrator in "Barn Burning" explicitly states that Abner has never had much respect for others' property, and became a mercenary to steal booty--- and, along the way, horses. Plus, like many sociopaths, Abner seems capable of briefly hiding his true intent behind a facade of affability--- the better to deflect suspicion, one supposes. All in all, his use of fire is NOT simple response to economic injustice or class warfare.
Skei has used impressive references, including a volume of Faulkner's own correspondence, and other learned analysts throughout the years. It is pretty interesting just to read Skei's notes and bibliography, with his own commentary supplementing the mere facts. If there's a message to such copious references, it's that the hallmark of a great writer is the amount of deep analysis, discussion, and controversy over every detail that takes place, and then accumulates, while he or she is still alive.
Though lengthy and full of "lacunae" as Skei comments that "Barn
Burning" is, and complex in its style, this article is accessible in the sense
that it explores many facets of Faulkners' writing and intentions, which might invite
more research into his life and work. (The paragraphs could stand to be broken down
a bit, though.) The style in which it's written doesn't talk down to the reader,
nor does it enforce Skei's viewpoint with the same inflexibility that turned me off
from the earlier critiques that were assigned. Even Skei admits that there are inconsistencies
that unsettle his assessments, such as the origin assigned to Abner's attitude and
outrageous activities. I would recommend it to the reader of "Barn Burning",
but not without first reading the story thoroughly and forming one's own opinions
2.) In his essay, Hans Skei examines the narrative structure of the story, stating that Faulkner's "superb, almost unnoticed sliding perception prepares the reader for similarly abrupt changes in style, diction, and focus." Evaluate this use of "sliding perception" in Faulkner's narrative.
By "sliding perceptions", I take to mean the smooth transitions from the boy Sarty's emotional/mental ruminations, to objective descriptions of the action so far as it takes place in his presence, and back again. For example, as Skei outlines, the opening scene of the first "trial" of Abner Snopes (which is likely not the first such trial in Sarty's father's life) takes the reader from Sarty's mingled miserable thoughts of conflict of loyalties to his father and the law, with instinctive reactions of hunger in the presence of food, to his dazed, almost floating movement to the fore to testify about his father.
Then the perception shifts to the omniscient narrator, who reports what the storekeeper J.P. and the farmer Harris see: physically, a smaller version of the man they know burned the barn, yet bearing an exalted name that somehow forces them to consider the child differently from his father (though conventional wisdom held that Abner may have given him that name for just such a purpose), and whose manner makes the questioners feel uncomfortable about putting the helpless boy into a position where they surely know he might well lie to protect his father (in spite of the Justice's reassuring remarks.) The narrator also offers asides at different points when it is clear that young Sarty's knowledge of his father, based on what Abner (and possibly, mother Lennie) has told the boy, is far from accurate or truthful, especially about Abner's careers as a mercenary soldier and horse thief.
Furthermore, the narrator makes statements that this IS a reminiscence of an incident 20 years beforehand, projecting to the reader what Sarty is thinking from his adult viewpoint, and even making a prediction about the likely behavior of Abner's descendants, who would, eventually, mindlessly abuse their automobiles during ignition by racing the motor, as he had whipped the mules that pulled his wagon.
The sliding perception of time has the purpose of making it seem as though Sarty and his father are rolling down the river of Fate. Time slides by as Sarty watches his father "supervise" and then sabotage the cleaning of the rug he has already sullied; before long it is another night, when, as in the past, Abner forcefully summons his hapless last-born, this time, to deliver the rug in his inimitable contemptuous fashion. The week goes by in a blur, thanks to Sarty's work ethic, which, it appears, he learned from his mother, whom, Skei points out, might have formerly been in a class above her hard-bitten but non-industrious husband.
Suddenly, the story slides into Saturday, the day that will change everything forever--- a new trial where Abner turns about and brings action against De Spain for fining him too much of the future harvest in order to pay for the ruined rug. Though his burden is lightened, it still festers in Abner's craw. Given his previous history, he no doubt starts planning his inevitable revenge right away. (Perhaps he would have done so, even if the trial's outcome let him off the hook completely.) But for the rest of the day, for the first time, Abner behaves in a a fatherly manner to his sons, like a civilized person to other farmers he meets, and even a just master to his mules, which, of course, causes more confusion, confoundment and heartbreak for Sarty when nightime comes and his father reverts to his old ways. During the day, Abner briefly becomes what his youngest son has always hoped for, reasonably law-abiding (so calm about his penalty, that the child offers to support the father's choice if Abner decides not to make the payment) and fairly good-natured; then, when darkness falls, the single-minded sinister sociopath he's always been.
Then, as the action literally "heats up", Sarty's perceptions are those one gets when looking out the window of a moving vehicle or a film in fast-forward--- images flash and run together as he escapes from his house, rushes to De Spain's, then escapes once more into the woods, with the vivid glare and roar of the burning of what must have been a HUGE barn***(which, ironically, the boy has never seen anyway), the shots in the dark, tripping over "something" that might have been his own father's or brother's body--- or, perhaps, De Spain's. The effect, if read quickly, is a great description of one headlong rush to the place far in the woods, where time, and perceptions, finally slow down, and Sarty is now forced to collect his thoughts, and live moment by moment in the present, as he slips away from his short past.
The use of sliding perception in this story gives it a three- or even four-dimensional
the fourth dimension, of course, being time, which is stretched to include Sarty's life beyond the present in the story, yet contracted tight as a rubber band, which springs when the climax when all sensations are at their most chaotic. Faulkner veers from Sarty's innermost thoughts to brief yet vivid descriptions of events, buildings, and impressions of people (Sarty's "hulking", lazy sisters, his brother chewing a never-ending wad of tobacco.) Sarty's perception of his father takes a couple of major spins on Saturday alone.
(***I have actually witnessed the burning of two old barns in my nieighborhood---
one was pretty large, about three storeys, and the other was one-storey, but due
to the dried old wood construction, hay, and pockets of space within, even without
accelerant, a small barn can fuel intense flames that shoot up pretty high.)
3.) Hans Skei states the "Barn Burning" establishes family relationships among a mother, father, two pairs of sisters, an older brother, and ten-year-old Sarty...... [and] establishes the absolute distinctions between classes, between those who own property and those who do not, and between races." Write an essay exploring these relationshiops, addressing the distinctions Skei identifies.
Though class distinctions do exist within the story, they don't appear to dominate it in the way Skei implies. The Snopes family has worked, it seems, for a variety of farms in different states of prosperity. At the trial that opens the tale, it is clear that Harris, Abner's most recent landlord, is a modestly educated, hands-on type of agriculturist, what one might call "middle-class." He actively cares for his crops and livestock, gives Abner practical equipment and advice to confine the Snopes's hog, and though a dollar was worth far more a century ago than it is now, he wasn't committing extortion when he asked compensation because his tennant failed to carry out a reasonable request. (Harris demanded a "dollar pound fee", that is, "impoundment", not a "dollar a pound" to return the animal.) For that, the obviously hard-working farmer lost his barn.
Granted, the other farmers would likely have sheltered his stock and helped raise another barn. But the seemingly trivial conflict over a stray hog likely cost Harris some serious cash, while the barn-burner himself, who deliberately and defiantly set the whole crisis in motion, was allowed, for lack of concrete proof, to leave town, to the next in a long series of such incidents. That Abner's next destination was the estate of a genuinely well-off farmer would, in real life, have just been a chance happenstance rather than the deliberate plot set-up by the writer. This was the common lot of the itinerant sharecropper.
Thousands of sharecroppers of both races were forced to pursue their livelihoods this way, and yet, despite the oppression they frequently suffered, seldom, if ever, took out their probable resentment, at least, not in the lavishly illegal manner Abner Snopes did. Plus, many rose out of that condition within a couple of generations, which, save for Abner's youngest and most sensitive child, didn't seem, at that point, the likely destiny of the other Snopeses.
Add to that, Abner Snopes, a man who had once made a living as a mercenary soldier and horse thief, wasn't an efficient farmer in any case; he did the minimum required to survive--- if that much--- apparently on purpose, despite the efforts of his own family to keep up the pace. Even when building his neat little fires to keep his family warm, he pulled apart another man's fence. He was, probably his entire life, a driven, uncaring, and single-minded man without a shred of empathy, who deliberately created crises where he could feel victimized, and thus, justified in taking drastic action. In short, Abner's problem wasn't one rooted in sociology, but in his own sociopathology.
The race issue doesn't come into major play in the story either, despite Abner's remarks that the De Spain mansion was built of "nigger sweat.... maybe he (De Spain) want to mix some white sweat with it." Perhaps the Snopes women and children will sweat, but not careless farmer Abner, whose racial tolerance extends to convincing (either by bullying or paying) anonymous blacks to carry his arcane threats to his intended victims, and to insulting and assaulting the De Spains' loyal valet, who tries to stop the new sharecropper from invading and sullying the house.
It seems misogyny is more of an issue--- Abner abuses his wife and bullies his sister-in-law, especially when they beg him not to pursue his destructive intentions, bosses his ungainly and simple-minded daughters; he adds injury to insult, his impudent vandalism of the De Spain's rug escalating when he sees Lula De Spain's reaction to the damage already done. This seems to be an echo of his treatment of his wife, Lennie.
It's interesting to note that, despite the fact that the De Spains are well-to-do compared to farmer Harris, Lula has been interrupted in the act of doing her own baking, evidence that, while her family still owns a lovely home and large farm, they have come down a bit in the world in the years since the Civil war. They might be able to own a $100 rug, but at the cost of some petty economies, including a minimum of hired help to protect the estate, the womenfolk, and the barn, from the likes of an Abner Snopes .
Lennie Snopes's possession of a once-fine clock indicates that she and her sister might have come from a higher class than her husband, though they have become used to doing their own homemaking chores, as Lula De Spain currently does. (There is that about Lennie's relations with Abner, and her sister Lizzie, slightly reminiscent of the well-born Dubois sisters with low-class, abusive Stanley in "Streetcar Named Desire"--- perhaps this story was one of many influences upon William's play?) Unlike Lula, however, Lennie can't depend on her husband to support her in a crisis, or to even listen to her pleas to act reasonably. It makes one wonder how she met him and why she married him, and submitted to him long enough to bear him at least four children over a period of some years. It also leaves open the question of why her sister Lizzie ended up accompanying them.
This leads to another mystery--- how the Snopeses ended up as sharecroppers.
Did Abner, in a weak moment of overwhelming desire to win Lennie as his wife (hard
to imagine given his current attitude) agree to give up his former life of shady
deals for her sake? At one time, it seems, the family owned more than broken-down
sticks of furniture--- Sarty vaguely remembers when they actually owned a saddle!
The contempt and resentment Abner shows his wife is certainly indicative of something
lacking in his character, but is it also revenge for whatever Lennie's responsibility
was, in their fall from a degree of social status?
(This line of thinking contradicts Faulkner's own exposition of the cause of Abner's attitudes and behavior, that it was the result of his misfortunes in the horse trade--- see Question 1 essay above--- but as Skei and others have commented, his problem is much more extensive and complicated than one such incident could explain.)
Of Abner's and Lennie's twin daughters, only one is named--- Net, whose mother demands that she try to block Sarty's escape. (Nobody in the story is named unless mentioned or addressed directly in Sarty's hearing.) Of course, given both girls' inertia, and defiance of their father grounded in that inertia, the boy gets away--- as, perhaps, his mother secretly hoped he would.
The twins themselves are mysterious oddities in this impoverished family. While the father and Sarty are not large, the older brother is merely "thicker", and the mother and aunt, it is later implied, are of average size, the girls each "encompass as much meat and volume as any other two in the family." They have either been born with some glandular imbalance, and/or they have somehow gotten more to eat than the others. Moreover, though slow in motion and possibly mentality, they have some "uppity" notions: one girl complains that their latest abode isn't "fitten for hawgs," and they, unlike the other women, seem to have access to some kind of fashion: Sunday dresses and other clothing decorated with cheap ribbons.
It is not stated in the story whether the father ever abused or bullied them as much as he did their mother and aunt, yet he seems to be the only one to be able to get them to MOVE. Indeed, the "profoundly lethargic" girls seem to have some of his attitude, ordering Sarty around, and commenting that "if I thought enough of a rug to git hit all the way from France, I wouldn't keep hit where folks coming in would have to tromp on hit." Ironically, it almost seems these nearly-useless "hulking" daughters were, relatively speaking, the irascible, inscrutable Abner's pets.
The only other family member who is never named is the oldest brother (though, in books Faulkner later wrote about the Snopes family, he is named "Flem"--- appropriate for his taciturn, "phlegmatic" character in this story.) Though apparently the first-born, and while he does the chores competently enough, and accompanies his father on his final errand of arson, he is not close to Abner in the same way Sarty seems to be. Sarty is more like his father in appearance, and perhaps, has a more direct relationship with Abner's personality by virtue of being at the polar opposite. The older son, placidly chewing tobacco constantly, merely seems to go along with whatever is demanded; futhermore, the brother, despite his seniority and fairly substantial size, doesn't defend his younger brother, either from the boy who beat him up after the first trial, nor from their father. There's no indication that Abner has had to spend any time explaining and justifying himself to the young man, as he did with Sarty. This is a form of mental rather than physical inertia, though it's akin to the twin sisters'. The difference is, this amoral inertia might well end with the older brother being drawn headlong into a situation that could end in his death.
Faulkner states that Sarty did have more in common with his mother in some respects, with his attention to his chores, his yearning after a more stable and moral life, and the possibility of eventually gaining some honest prosperity, while being painfully attached to the parent who understands him least, yet whose love and approval the boy obviously craves. Lennie's hard-to-understand attachment to Abner has similar elements of desperation. She and her sister Lizzie have been united in defying Abner in small ways, such as gifting Sarty with a small axe, to encourage him at his chores, and have even helped him to build pens for the animals (along with one of the sisters!)
Lennie's devotion to Sarty may also relate to the mystery of how he was named "Colonel Sartoris Snopes" in the first place. It was customary in the post-Civil War South, for a man to name his son for his commanding officer in the Confederate army, yet the narrator reveals that Abner never actually served under Sartoris, though he may have stolen a horse from his cavalry (which got him shot in the foot.) Somebody told the child that heroic tale and gave him that name. As I mentioned earlier, perhaps Abner gave him the name for ironic or conniving reasons--- it gave the J.P. and Farmer Harris pause when they would have made Sarty testify against his father. He might even have spun yarns about his time under Sartoris's command. Abner DID talk to Sarty frequently, but it's hard to picture him cozily reminiscing about his war years. Perhaps it was LENNIE who passed on those heroic romances, because that's what Abner originally told her while courting. Perhaps Lennie insisted on giving her last-born son that name. Perhaps Lennie was a Sartoris, or related to them, herself.
Lennie, having been made to witness her husband and eldest child go to what could be their undoing, possibly to be incarcerated, even executed, if not killed outright, is faced with a terrible choice when, with what is left her own faltering, abused, under-nourished strength, she has to somehow keep her youngest child from betraying them. There is, no doubt, real concern for Sarty's own safety; he could get killed in the fire itself; Abner or the older brother, in a fit of rage, might injure or even kill the child, or Sarty might inadvertantly be killed by the people he intended to warn. She is unsupported even by her own sister, who has endured enough of her brother-in-law's brutality and lawless behavior, or her stolid, immobile daughters who, like everyone else in the family, are tired of their father's activities forcing them to move constantly into homes "not fitten for hawgs" and to clean up after Abner's messes. The unity between the older set of sisters wavers, while the one between the younger women remains solid.
It was Lennie's final choice not to let her husband bind Sarty, though she meekly submitted to continue holding him. To top off her sense of helplessness, Sarty's final words to his own mother are a threat to hit her if she didn't let him go--- echoes of Abner, whom the child does resemble. Her physical inadequacy decides the matter. Still, with her fears for him, her husband, and the other son, there was no other opportunity for the younger son to somehow get away from his environment. So, even though she fell to her knees in her efforts to catch Sarty, and the aunt made a half-hearted attempt, it might be that they didn't mind failing--- even if Abner survived and came back to punish them, even if Sarty was still only a child, he HAD to be released to seek a better future.
Skei also suggested that, perhaps, Sarty's escape was also Abner's secret intent. He really COULD have forced the issue and tied the boy up, after all, and his wife and sister-in-law probably would have put up with it. Though, why didn't he?--- Because he wanted to force his son to make a choice? Because the father finally realized he and the older son were into something way too deep, and wanted to be stopped? Because Abner realized that Sarty would never value his "blood" enough to be like him and join in the savage joy of pyromania and arson? Because he knew the child would run away, and maybe make something better of himself than the other Snopeses? Except for the first, most of the rest of the possibilities don't seem to jibe with what is understood of Abner's mind in this particular Snopes story.