This story begins in a store that's doubling as a Justice of the Peace court.
(The story is set around 1895 in two unnamed small towns somewhere in the Southern United States. A Justice of the Peace handles disputes among townspeople, holding court, often, as here, in a store, or other public place with enough indoor space for a crowd.)
The store smells like cheese, and is jammed with people.
A boy sits on barrel smelling the cheese, while "his stomach "read[s]" the cans he sees stacked up around him.
He can't read the words on the cans but he knows they have food in them (i.e., fish and meat).
The smells of food combine with the other smell in the room, itself a combination of "fear," "despair and grief" and "the old fierce pull of blood" (2).
(If you think "the old fierce pull of blood" has something to do with family – family members share the same blood, in terms of common ancestry – then you're right.)
Sarty's father, the Justice, and "his father's enemy" sit at a table, but the boy can't see them from where he is (1).
Frantically, he thinks that the man is also his enemy, and/or possibly that his father is his enemy too.
(The italicized passages in barn burning are the boy's thoughts, and they are often somewhat confusing and have a variety of possible meanings.)
His father hadn't talked yet, but the boy can hear the other two men.
He hears the Justice ask Mr. Harris about "proof" (2).
Harris says that a certain hog was getting into his corn. He took several steps to remedy the situation, including bringing wire to patch the hole from which the hog was escaping.
Finally, Harris kept the pig, saying he would give it back when its owner (presumably the boy's father) gave him a dollar.
One night, said owner sent a black man to pay the money and get back the hog, and to give Harris a message (3).
The message was "Wood and hay kin burn" (3).
That very night Harris' barn burn down. Luckily, he was able to get the animals out in time.
The Justice asks Harris if he's brought the black man as a witness (4).
(We decided not to include the racial slur used by both Harris and the Justice when they refer to the black man.)
Harris replies that the black man was a stranger to him, and that he doesn't know where to find him.
The Justice says that Harris' words aren't "proof" (6).
(The legal principle of "hearsay" applies here. If Harris himself heard the boys' father say "[w]ood and hay kin burn," the Justice would have accepted it as proof.
But Harris is testifying to what the black man said he heard the boy's father say. So, the Justice needs to talk to the man to find out if the pig owner indeed told him to threaten Harris.)
Harris tells the Judge to bring "the boy" to testify.
Both the Justice and the boy think Harris is talking about the boy's big brother.
Harris clarifies, saying he means "the little one" (7).
The boy is little and skinny, a miniature of his father in build.
His pants are all patched up, and too small. His hair isn't combed.
His eyes are "gray and wild as a storm scud" (7).
(A "storm scud" is a low-lying storm cloud that blown fast by the wind.)
Everything is blurry for the boy as he moves toward the table. He can't feel the ground under his feet.
His father "stiff in his black Sunday coat" doesn't turn to look at him (7).
He knows his father wants him to "lie" (7).
He knows he'll "have to do hit" (7).
(Faulkner often uses "hit" to mean "it" in his characters' dialogue, to capture the brand of Southern regional English in which they speak.)
The Justice asks the boy his name, which is Colonel Sartoris Snopes.
(The boy is named after Colonel Sartoris, a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. He, like other members of the Snopes family is another recurring character in Faulkner's fictional world. If you're interested in learning more about the Colonel, be sure to check out our "Character Analysis" of the Colonel in "A Rose for Emily." We'll call the boy in this story Sarty.)
The Justice is impressed with the name, and says that anybody named after the Colonel "can't help but tell the truth" (10).
Sarty doesn't talk, but he's thinking "Enemy! Enemy!" (10).
He doesn't notice that the Justice has a kind face, and that he's concerned.
Turning to Harris, the Justice asks if he's sure he wants Sarty to testify.
Angrily, Harris, yells that he doesn't want Sarty to testify.
Now the boy can see and hear "the world" again.
The Justice says the "case is closed" He tells Sarty's father, Mr. Snopes, that he can't find him guilty for burning down Harris' farm, but he can tell him to leave "the county" and never come back.
Finally, Mr. Snopes says something. He says he plans to leave. He says he wouldn't stay in a town where –. The narrator says that Mr. Snopes says "something unprintable and vile" (13).
(What do you think he says?)
Sarty follows his father, who walks with a limp he got when he was shot by a "Confederate provost" (a member of the military army) for stealing horses about thirty years before.
(This is how we know the story is set sometime around 1895 – thirty years after the Civil War ending in 1865.)
Sarty is also following his older brother, who joined the father.
The older brother is chewing tobacco.
As they walked down the steps of the store Sarty passes a kid about his size who calls him "Barn burner!" (16).
Sarty jumps at the boy and doesn't feel anything as the boy knocks him down.
He got up and doesn't feel it when the boy hits him again.
When the boy takes off, Sarty moves to chase him, but his father grabs him and tells him to "Get in the wagon" (16).
Sarty's sisters, who the narrator describes as "hulking" (big) are in the wagon in Sunday clothes, and his mother and aunt are waiting in the wagon.
All the family's "battered" and "broken" possessions are in the wagon.
Sarty remembers at least twelve moves.
Sarty's mother is crying, and when she sees Sarty she moves to him, but his father tells her to stop.
She tries to tell him she wants to clean Sarty's wounds.
His father tells her to get back in.
He gets in and gives "the gaunt [thin] mules two savage blows" (21).
The narrator says the blows are "without heat" (21).
(The quoted phrase appears frequently, so watch for it. We discuss it further in Abner Snopes's "Character Analysis.")
Sarty's mother asks him if he's in pain. He says he isn't and asks her to leave him alone.
She wants him to wipe off the blood before it hardens.
He's says he'll do it himself later.
None asked where they were going.
The father always had some place lined up for them, another farm to work on. The father often "impressed" strangers when they met him (26).
They made camp that night, and the father built a small, "niggard" fire (27).
("Niggard" means "stingy.")
If the boy was older he might have wondered why his father built small fires, instead of big ones.
He might have wondered why he didn't burn everything he saw.
If he was even older he might have decided that it has something to do with "four years in the woods hiding from all men; blue or gray" with the horses he had stolen.
(In the Civil War, the Confederate Army wore gray, and the Union army wore blue.)
The narrator thinks the oldest version of Sarty would have concluded that his father built small fires because fire was his "weapon for preservation of integrity" (28).
Fire was something to "respect and use with discretion" (28).
Sarty eats and fell asleep, but his father wakes him up.
He follows his father up a hill and to a road.
The stars are bright.
Sarty's father claims that Sarty was about to testify against him at court, then he hits him on the side of his head, "hard but without heat," the same as with the mules.
He tells Sarty that he has to learn to stand up for his family or he will lose it.
Sarty's father asks him if he understands that the people in the court just "wanted" to show him up, because he had outsmarted them (29).
In "twenty years" Sarty would imagine that if he had replied that they "wanted only truth, justice," he would have gotten another hit (29).
Sarty doesn't cry. His father asks for an answer.
Sarty says, "Yes" (30).
His father tells him to get some sleep. Tomorrow they are to arrive at the new locale.
They get to an unpainted, two-room house, which is like all the others Sarty has lived in during the ten years he's been alive.
(Here we learn that Sarty is ten years old. How old did you think he was before you got this info?)
As per usual, Sarty's mother and Aunt immediately got out to unload.
The sisters, the brother, and the father stay in the wagon.
(The narrator doesn't say what Sarty is doing.)
One of the sisters complains about the place.
The father tells her she'll enjoy it and to help her mother.
The sisters get out of the wagon in a "bovine" (cow-like) fashion (35).
Sarty's dad gets out, giving control of the mules to the older brother. He tells Sarty to follow him.
Sarty thinks he's talking to the older brother until his father makes it clear he means Sarty.
Sarty's mother says, "Abner" (38).
(Now we know the father's name is Abner, and we can stop calling him "the father.")
Abner looks at her and says he's going to meet the man who will be "owning [him] body and soul for the next eight months" (39).
(Abner is a tenant farmer, meaning he raises crops on another man's farm for a share (a very small share) of the profit.
Because he has his own mules and farming equipment he's a tenant farmer, as apposed to a sharecropper, who has no equipment and is at the mercy of the farmer whose land they work.
(Since Faulkner is from Mississippi, and this story is probably set in or near Mississippi. If you want to learn more about Mississippi sharecropping, click here.)
But back to the story:
Sarty normally would have asked his father their destination. But since last night, he seems different. His father had hit him before, but never explained why before.
It makes him feel like he's "just heavy enough" to stay grounded in the world, but "not heavy enough" to "resist" or "try to change" the way things are going (40).
Soon they come to a place with lots of trees and flowers.
Now Sarty sees the house.
The sight of it makes him forget all his troubles. He's never seen a house like this before. It makes him feel happy and peaceful. He thinks the people in the house are safe from Abner.
Abner doesn't look small next to the house. He never looks small anywhere.
Sarty watches Abner walk determinedly toward the house.
Abner steps in a pile of horse poop, not by accident, it seems.
Admiring the house, desiring it, but "without envy, without sorrow," Abner doesn't know the anger his father feels toward it (41).
He hopes that seeing the house will make his father feel good too. "Maybe it will even change him," Sarty thinks.
They walk up the steps and Abner knocks.
The door opens and a black man tells him to wipe his feet, and calls him "white man" (42). He tells him that "Major" isn't home (42).
Abner orders the man out of his way.
Sarty watches as his father tracks poop on a white rug.
The black man is calling for a woman named Lula.
Lula, emerges. Sarty is impressed by her ladylike appearance. Upset, she tells Abner that Major de Spain isn't in, and asks him to leave.
Abner doesn't look at her, or say anything. He rubs a little more poop in the rug as he turns, and then walks out.
Sarty is watching, and he notices that Abner doesn't look down at the rug.
A woman moans loudly as the door closes behind them.
Abner stops to clean his boot on the steps.
When they get to the gate Abner tells Sarty that the house is white with the sweat of black people, and that the owner wants to make it even whiter with the sweat of some white people.
A couple of hours later, Sarty is chopping wood.
His mother and aunt are making dinner.
Sarty can hear his sisters' voices, and he knows they aren't helping.
A rich and angry looking man (Major de Spain) arrives on horse back. A black boy follows on another horse – with the rug.
Abner calls for the sisters and they come, telling Sarty to get some water ready.
The mother looks worried, as Abner tells the girls to carry the rug. She asks Abner to let her take care of it. He tells her to go back to cooking.
Under their father's supervision the sister scrub the rug using "harsh homemade lye."
(Lye is made from wood ash. Mixed with lard (pig fat) it makes an all-purpose soap that isn't gentle on fabrics, or skin.)
Sarty continues chopping wood.
At twilight he's done with the wood, and the girls are done with the rug, which was spread out on some chairs in front of the fireplace to dry.
The footprints are gone, replaced by water trenches ("scoriations") (53).
When they go to bed, the rug is there.
We learn a bit about the family's sleeping arrangements. The mother is in one bed (that she shares with the father). Sarty's big brother sleeps by himself in another bed. Sarty, his aunt, and the sisters sleep on the "pallets" (layers of cloth and other material) on the floor.
Abner isn't in bed yet. Sarty sees him examining the rug when he closes his eyes.
When he opens them again Abner is standing over him, poking him awake with his foot.
He tells him to get the mule ready.
Sarty returns with the mule and sees Abner standing with the rug.
It looks like Sarty's going to ride the mule. He remembers that they had a saddle for the mule at some distant point in the past.
Abner puts the rug on the mule in front of Sarty.
On foot, Abner leads the mule to the de Spain house.
When they arrive, Sarty offers to help Abner carry the rug.
It's dark but Sarty can hear his father hit the outer wall of the house, and the floor of the porch with the rug.
Sarty sees "a light [come] on in the house" (59).
Abner is walking back, in no particular hurry.
When Abner gets to Sarty, Sarty gently encourages him to get on the house.
Abner gets on, and they ride away, Abner first pushed the mule to run, but then pulls it back, and it walks.
The "red" sun is coming up now and Abner and Sarty are getting the mules ready to work.
De Spain is in the yard (61).
Sarty hears his voice shaking. He's telling Abner that he's "ruined" the rug (62).
The rug apparently cost one hundred dollars.
De Spain tells Abner he'll never have that much money.
He wants Abner to give him twenty bushels of corn, on top of the other corn Abner already has to pay him. (A bushel of corn is 56 pounds. 56 x 20 = 1,120. That's a backbreaking amount of corn.)
De Spain says his wife will still be upset, but he hopes he's teaching Sarty's dad a lesson about proper behavior.
Abner is business-as-usual when de Spain leaves.
Sarty runs to Abner and says "You done the best you could!" (64).
He tells his father that de Spain won't get any extra corn out of them.
Abner suggests he get back to work.
(We learn that the previous action all occurred on a Wednesday.)
Sarty works incredibly hard this week. He gets his drive from his mother. He enjoys some of his chores, including chopping wood with the axe he got from his mother and aunt for Christmas.
He thinks that everything will be OK now.
Now it's Saturday.
Sarty, his father, and his brother take the wagon into to town.
When they get to the store in town, Sarty knows this is a Justice of the Peace court.
De Spain is there, and Sarty gives him a look of "defiance" (70).
Sarty didn't know that the look on de Spain's face was "amazed disbelief" because Abner was suing him.
(We get the idea that the men are here for a mediation.)
Sarty yells to the Judge that his father didn't do, didn't "burn" – (70.)
Abner cuts him off and sends his son back to the wagon.
Instead, Sarty goes to the back to listen.
Apparently Abner is suing de Spain for overcharging him on the rug. He says twenty bushels is too much.
The Justice says that because the rug wasn't returned it its original condition, he's holding Abner liable for it.
But, taking into account Abner's poverty, he reduces the amount to ten bushels.
After court, Abner walks across the street to a blacksmith's shop and Sarty and his brother follow. Sarty tell his father that de Spain won't get a single bushel of corn.
His father's voice is "almost pleasant, almost gentle" when he tells Sarty they'll wait for October and then see.
(Since he said they'd be there for eight months, we now know it's February or March.)
After some repairs to the wagon Abner tells Sarty to hitch the mules to the wagon, and park it in the shade.
Abner, the blacksmith and some other men talk.
Sarty listens as his father tells a long story about his past, before the older brother was born.
After a time the three of them eat cheese and crackers outside the store.
Then they go to a "horse lot" (place where horses are raised and sold) and watch the horses (84).
By the time they get home the sun had set, and Sarty is watching the night.
All the sudden he hears his mother say, "Abner! No! No! Oh, God! Oh, God. Abner!" (85).
He looks and Abner is dressed for "some shabby and ceremonial violence" and is pouring kerosene from the lamp back into the kerosene can.
The mother pulls on Abner, and he throws her off hard, "not savagely, not viciously" (85).
She hits the wall.
Abner sees Sarty watching and tells him to get some oil out of the barn.
Sarty asks what he's planning. Abner repeats his wish for oil from the barn.
As he's going for the oil, Sarty feels powerless again and thinks of running away, to get away from his father. The he thinks, "Only I can't. I can't" (89).
He brings the oil and hears his mother crying.
Sarty is hysterical, and he suggests that his father send a black man, like before (presumably to warn de Spain).
Abner grabs him.
The older brother is chewing tobacco.
Abner tells him to go on ahead.
The older brother suggests they "tie [Sarty] to the bedpost" (93).
Instead, Abner takes Sarty to his mother and tells her to keep Sarty from leaving the house.
(We learn that the mother's name is Lennie.)
Abner leaves the house and Sarty threatens to hit his mother if she doesn't release him
The aunt, Lizzie, says she should let Sarty go. She also threatens to go up to the de Spain's place.
He gets out of Lennie's grasp.
The mother, the aunt and the two sisters are trying to capture him.
In the parenthesis we learn that the sisters are twins, and that they look huge as they chase him.
(One of them is called Net, but that's as much as we get in the way of names.)
Then Sarty finally escapes and runs to the de Spain's house and enters.
"Barn!" he says, several times (101).
He runs and de Spain's black servant grabs his shirt, but the old sleeve tears off and Sarty is free again.
He can't see the road or hear anything, because he hears the sound of his blood roaring in his ears.
(What follows now is one of Faulkner's famous super-long sentences, running about fifteen lines in our edition. We'll break it down for you here, but the best thing is to just read it carefully yourself. The head to "Writing Style" for this discussion.)
De Spain follows on horseback as Sarty runs toward his father, even though he knows it's "too late" (108).
Sarty doesn't hear de Spain's horse until it's right behind him, about to run him down.
Full of "wild grief and need" he waits until the last possible moment before he throws himself into the ditch by the side of the road, watching de Spain riding (107).
(Check out a similar scene in Faulkner's "Dry September" for an interesting comparison.)
Now Sarty is running again, hard on the road, blind and stumbling.
He hears three gunshots.
Running still, he trips and "looking backward over his shoulder" at the flames in the distance. He gets up and keeps running, crying, "Father! Father!" (107).
It's midnight now and Sarty, who doesn't know it's midnight, is sitting on top of a hill.
He has idea how "far" he's traveled (108).
His back is to the place "he had called home for four days."
(So now we know that everything happened over six or seven days.)
He's facing the woods.
When he can get a grip on himself he'll go into the woods. It's cold and he's shaking in his thin shirt.
He no longer feels "terror and fear" (108). Now it's "just grief and despair" (108).
He's thinking about his father.
He says "aloud but not loud" that his father was a "brave" man who had been to war.
What Sarty doesn't know is that his father was a paid soldier for any army. He went to war for money and money alone. (Abner was what is know as a "mercenary.")
It will soon be morning, and the sun will rise, and so too the hunger pangs.
For now, he will walk to get warm.
He can breathe now, and since it's so close to morning now, he falls asleep.
Sarty knows it's morning because he can hear the "whippoorwills" (a kind of bird) singing all around him, filling the air with their music (109).
Sarty rises, walks down, moves nearer the woods, and the birds singing inside them.