Study Guide

Barn Burning Themes

  • Courage

    "Barn Burning" is the story of a brave ten-year-old, Sarty Snopes. His life is scary, mostly because his father is a domineering man who burns down wealthy landowners' barns in his spare time. Sarty is overworked, underfed, and underpaid. Plus he gets no respect. However, he has an intense sense of justice, and know the difference between right and wrong. When this sense of justice becomes stronger than the pull of his father, Sarty makes the courageous decision to act against his father. Throughout the story, Sarty must deal with the question of his father's bravery – or lack thereof. Even though he leaves his father he still wants to see him as a brave man. If you like stories of courage and adventure, or if you're wrestling with the idea of bravery, yourself, this classic won't fail to satisfy.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Is there anything brave about burning barns? Why or why not?
    2. Is Sarty brave? Was it brave for him to leave home? Would it have been more or less brave for him to stay and try to work things out?
    3. The narrator wonders if Sarty would still think Abner was brave if he knew Abner wasn't really a war hero. What do you think?
    4. Can someone be fearless, but not courageous? Or courageous, but afraid? Do any characters in the story fit these descriptions?
    5. Would Abner see Sarty's action in the final sections of the story as brave?

    Chew on This

    In William Faulkner's "Barn Burning" the cowardice of Abner Snopes inspires the courage of his son, Sarty.

    Abner Snopes is a coward because he terrorizes innocent people, but he is also brave because he chooses to live outside the society he thinks is corrupt.

  • Youth

    Since the hero of "Barn Burning" is Sarty Snopes, a ten-year-old boy, it's no surprise that youth is a major theme. The story gets lots of mileage out of the contrast between Sarty's youthful vision of the events and the disturbing adult life he is forced to lead. As a coming-of-age story, this one is rather unique. Though Sarty doesn't come of age in a literal sense (he doesn't turn eighteen), he willingly takes on a host of adult roles. This extends to a feeling of responsibility for his neighbors – and their barns. He can't sit back and watch needless destruction (i.e., barn burning) without trying to stop it. At times, Sarty seems so mature that it's easy to forget he's only a kid.

    Questions About Youth

    1. What kinds of obstacles might Sarty face as he goes into the world alone? What are some of the dangers and pitfalls he might come across?
    2. Sarty lives in the late 1800s. How might things be similar or different for a ten-year-old runaway today?
    3. Is Sarty a believable ten-year-old?
    4. The narrator says that Sarty feels "the terrible handicap of being young" (40). What does he mean? Have you ever felt handicapped by your age? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Sarty's seems to think poop on the rug is no big deal; this helps make him a believable ten-year-old.

    Sarty is the most mature character in "Barn Burning."

  • Family

    Unfortunately, the family situation in "Barn Burning" is atrocious. Think extreme poverty, a tyrannical barn-burning father, constant moving, and zero respect in the community. What's more, all the relationships between members of the Snopes family seems so shallow, dysfunctional, and lacking in tenderness. By focusing on a complicated and painful relationship between a father and son who have different belief systems, this story explores the tricky problem of what to do when the needs of the individual are at odds with the demands of the family.

    Questions About Family

    1. How might Sarty's decision to leave home impact his mother? Sisters? Aunt?
    2. What is Sarty's relationship with his mother like?
    3. What impression do you have of Sarty's sisters? How do you think Sarty feels about the sisters? What might the story look like from their perspective?
    4. If Sarty didn't run away from his family, would he have turned out like his older brother? Why or why not?
    5. How would you describe the Snopes's home life? How will this be different without Sarty?
    6. Do you think that Abner is right that the most important thing in life is to "stick to your own blood" (29)?
    7. Do you think Abner will miss Sarty?

    Chew on This

    Sarty's brother is important to the story because he shows what Sarty would have become if he hadn't take matters into his own hands.

    The fact that Sarty doesn't seem to have deep relationships with his mother and siblings contributes to his decision to leave home.

  • Choices

    Boiled down to its essence, "Barn Burning" is about choices, and the freedom and responsibility that comes with making them. This story also highlights how the choices people make affect others. In different ways, Sarty and his father both question authority and choose to act against the commonly accepted norms. Because Sarty's ideas of justice and honor are so different from his father's, and because his father uses him as a tool in his game, his father's choices often rob Sarty of the ability to choose for himself. His struggle to do what he thinks is right drives the plot to its conclusion.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Does Sarty act in his own best interest when he leaves home? Why or why not? What were his other options? How would these be better or worse for Sarty?
    2. Why did Sarty's father assume Sarty would choose to tell the truth to Harris and the Justice?
    3. Are any other options available for Lennie Snopes? Why might she choose to stay with Abner?
    4. Why does Abner choose to provoke de Spain immediately on his arrival at the farm?

    Chew on This

    Abner tries to deny the members of his family the power to make their own decisions.

    Sarty empowers himself by refusing to allow others to make decisions for him.

  • Society and Class

    We see several different economic classes in "Barn Burning." The extremely poor class of tenant farmers to which Sarty, our ten-year-old protagonist, and his family belong presents a stark contrast to the privileged class of their wealthy landlord, Major de Spain. While Sarty's father seems to be engaged in a personal class war against all those wealthier than he is, he also seems to be pushing his family further into poverty. As his father moves further away from society, Sarty is drawn closer to it. Sarty doesn't yet know that cruelty exists among all classes and that burning a barn is not the worst thing a man can do. But, he does know he wants to be of benefit to his community, and that he wants out of the mess of poverty. Since he's only ten, we only see the first steps he takes in obtaining these goals.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What is your impression of the society in which Sarty lives? What are some of the different economic classes visible in this society? What about social classes?
    2. Do Sarty and his family belong to an educated class of people? Do they belong to a criminal class? How would you characterize the family in terms of social class?
    3. Do you think Sarty still considers the de Spain mansion is a symbol of "peace and dignity" (41) by the end of the story?

    Chew on This

    Sarty both conforms to and rebels against the norms of his society.

    Sarty's plans to enter the woods at the end of the story shows that he wants to escape both his family and his society.

    When Sarty warns de Spain, he shows that he feels a responsibility to his community.

  • Justice and Judgment

    The fact that there are two courtroom scenes in this rather short story, quickly alerts us to its theme of justice and judgment. "Barn Burning" features a variety of perspectives on justice, and shows how the process of legal justice isn't always just. For Sarty Snopes, the ten-year-old star of this show, justice has to do with not lying and not hurting others. His father, on the other hand seems out to punish the whole world for the massive injustices it has practiced upon him. Like young Sarty, the reader is called on to judge father Snopes. Will we judge him to harshly? Not harshly enough? Some readers find this the most challenging part of reading "Barn Burning."

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Does Sarty have a responsibility to lie to protect his father? Why or why not?
    2. What do you think of the Justices of the Peace? Are they similar or different from one another? Are they fair, corrupt, or blind to justice? Why do you feel the way you do?
    3. Does the legal system of justice, as presented in the story, work for or against Abner?
    4. How do you judge Sarty's mother?

    Chew on This

    The first Justice of the Peace violates principles of law by ordering Abner to leave town even though he finds him not guilty.