Abner is a terrifying figure. He controls his family with physical and psychological violence, and makes them accomplices in his favorite pastime: burning barns. "Barn Burning" focuses on the impact Abner's behavior has on his ten-year-old son, Sarty. But Abner is a formidable character in his own right. Although Sarty isn't able to find a way to live with his dad, he has moments of empathy and admiration for the man that help transform Abner from a one-dimensional bad guy into a complex and mysterious character.
The information the narrator provides about Abner's past and potential motivation gives this character some depth. We know that Abner was a mercenary during the Civil War. A mercenary fights in an army for money, not out of patriotic duty. Apparently, Abner also stole horses during the war to sell to the highest bidder. At some point he was shot by a member of the Confederate (Southern) army's police force, and has an injured leg as a result. We know that he hid in the woods for four years during the war. Since the war lasted from 1861 to 1865, we can assume that Abner spent most of the war living in the woods. That was thirty years ago. We don't know how old Abner was during the war, but we do know that for at least thirty years Abner has been living on the fringes of society, living by no law but his own.
As we learn towards the end of "Barn Burning," Sarty considers his father "brave" (108). As evidence of his Abner's bravery he says, "He was in a war! He was in Colonel Sartoris' cav'ry [cavalry]!" (108). (Colonel Sartoris is the fictional character Sarty is named for.) The narrator wonders if Sarty would still think his father brave if he knew Abner was a mercenary. What do you think? Based on what you know about Sarty, is there any thing else his father has done that Sarty would think was brave?
Abner also seems to be fighting a class war. We suspect this to be the case when he deliberately tracks horse poop on the rug in the de Spain mansion. We are sure that this is the case when he says of the mansion:
"Pretty and white, ain't it? […] That's sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain't white enough to suit him yet. He wants to mix some white sweat with it." (46)
It should be noted that many of Faulkner's characters use derogatory terms to refer to black people, but not his third-person narrators. We don't have enough information to know Abner's views on race. In the passage above he is describing a class hierarchy, where black people are on the bottom and rich landowning whites are on the top. Abner is a tenant farmer. He uses another man's land to grow crops, and he gets to keep some of what he grows to sell. He has some of his own tools and animals. A sharecropper is even more at the mercy of his landlord because he doesn't even own his own tools and has to rent them from the landlord.
By tracking poop on the de Spain rug Abner is sending a powerful message to de Spain. Abner shows him just what he thinks of a man who gets rich on the sweat of the poor. There is something admirable about that Unfortunately, Abner's class war has devastating consequences on his family. They live in terror and fear of Abner's next strategic fight against power and privilege. Since Abner misuses his power to control others, is he any better (or worse) than those he fights against? We might also ask if Abner's activities are having any positive impact on the unfair class hierarchy. Is he stirring things up to open a space for change? Or is he making things worse?
If you want more Abner, check out our discussions on "Fire" and "Blood" in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."