What’s Up With the Title?
Faulkner can be such as tease. He promises us barn burning, but doesn't quite deliver. We want raging flames; we want firefighters; we want Backdraft and, a young Drew Barrymore burning barns with her eyes. What do we get instead? The first barn has already burned before the story even starts. All we get to see is the court part. As for the second barn, the only thing we get for description is the word "glare" (107, 108).
Faulkner gives his readers credit for being able to imagine what a barn on fire looks like. Besides that, barn burning is more than just barns on fire. It's a concept, an idea, and it has different meanings for different characters and for different readers.
For example, for Abner barn burning seems like a sport, a game, and a source of power over those who have power over him. As we discuss in his "Character Analysis," Abner can be seen a rebel with cause. His barn burning can be considered an act of rebellion. After the night he burns the de Spain barn, it might become a vivid reminder of the night he lost his son, and the night his son betrayed him. Abner seems like the kind of guy who would consider Sarty's actions a betrayal.
For Sarty barn burning means "terror and fear," needless destruction, lying, and being on the outside of society (108). It also means the night he lost his father and, yes, betrayed him. Sarty seems aware that he must betray his father to avoid betraying himself. For Sarty barn burning is something to rebel against, instead of a tool for rebellion.
What does barn burning mean to de Spain? To the Justices of the Peace? To Lennie? To the brother? What does it mean to Abner and Sarty, either in addition to or even against what we've begun to discuss here?
Before you answer that, think about the grammatical aspect of the phrase barn burning. Anything with –ing on the end of it is describing a process. Words that end in –ing are in motion. The barn in the title is in a perpetual state of being on fire. It's always burning. Abner is always burning it. This brings to mind a famous quote from Faulkner character Gavin Stevens: "The past is never dead. It's never even past" (source).
For Sarty, the barns will be burning in his memory for a long time to come. In fact, nobody involved or in contact with Abner's barn burning will forget it easily.