by William Faulkner
Analysis: What's Up With the Ending?
The ending of "Barn Burning" is intriguing. To keep things tidy, we'll focus on the last three paragraphs here. First we should briefly discuss the third to the last paragraph, where perfectly excellent readers get tangled up in Faulkner's massive sentence, the one that ends with "Father! My Father!" (107). The main points of that paragraph are:
- Sarty hears three gunshots.
- Sarty is running away, "looking backward over his shoulder at the glare."
- The barn is on fire.
Event though all we get is the word "glare" – we can be reasonably sure that Abner succeeded in burning down the de Spain barn. He has the last word, so to speak, at least from Sarty's point of view. In terms of Sarty's reality, it doesn't matter whether Abner is physically dead. For Sarty, his dad is dead. This rugged ten-year-old boy is leaving the whole mess behind him to try to find a better life.
Now that we've hashed that out, we can tell you that Abner doesn't die that night. He lives on to burn more barns and feature in more stories. (Check out The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, otherwise know as The Snopes Trilogy if you want to know more.)
Although Abner is dead to Sarty in every practical sense, he'll live in Sarty's memory for some time. A man like Abner Snopes is not easily forgotten. Though Sarty wanted to get away from his father during the four days at the de Spains, he also developed more sympathy and admiration for the man.
Sarty's exclamation of "He was brave!" suggests he sees his father as a hero (108). As we discuss in Abner's "Character Analysis," the narrator wonders if Sarty would still think so if he knew the truth about his father's activities during the war. For the time being, it's probably best Sarty thinks his dad is brave. Even the son of Abner Snopes wants to find something in his father to admire. Sarty is going into a tough world with a certain amount of toughness. As terrible as it sounds, Abner helped prepare him for that word. Of course, if Abner didn't act the way he did, Sarty wouldn't need to face the tough world alone at age ten. What do you think? Is Abner brave? If so, in what ways?
Interestingly, as the final paragraph reveals, Sarty is following in his father's footsteps, but by his own rules. Where did Abner hide for four years during the Civil War? The woods. Though Sarty doesn't know it, as he's also following in some literary footsteps. We must reproduce the final lines to show you what we mean:
He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasingly—the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back. (109)
The obscure word "quiring" is good to know. According to the OED, it means the same as "choiring," singing in a choir. The birds are both the choir for Abner's (literal or figurative) funeral and the "beating […] of the heart of the late spring night." Though Sarty can't know it, the ending draws on a movement in pre-Civil War American literature called Transcendentalism. You can read all about it here.
Greatly simplified, the Transcendental movement believed that time spent in solitary contemplation in nature was the key to human redemption and art. Famous Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote an important book called Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854). Now, we don't know for sure that Faulkner read the Transcendentalists or deliberately emulates them in the story. (There are plenty of other movements, literary and otherwise, that are interested in nature, from which Faulkner could be drawing.)
But our real point is that the ending, at least in our view, is hopeful. Sarty is sad, but he is in control. At least for now he can make his own choices, and make his own life, not that it will be easy.