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The Endless Circle in William Faulkner's Barn Burning
William Faulkner's short story “Barn Burning” is the tale of a southern
man forced into a role by society. “Barn Burning” takes place in the post Civil
War South where a mans place in society is derived by their actions during the
war. Ab Snopse, a man who served both the North and the South, is plagued with
his non-allegiance and failure to accept authority. When Ab comes into conflict
with his employer, he finds himself taking control from the authority figure,
and reverting back to his mercenary ways. Having no allegiance, Ab makes the
move from helping hand to the enemy by burning down barns.
Along with many of Faulkner's short stories, “Barn Burning” is set in
the imaginary Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha. During the restoration of
the South, the time period following the Civil War, the only thing that kept the
South alive and running where the memories of fallen heroes and the belief that
the South would someday regain the status that it had once held. Families like
the Sartorises and the de Spains were glorified and praised for honors that
their family members had achieved during battle. The honor that families like
these were granted placed them in public offices, and gave them opportunities to
prosper where others could only dream about. This same honor seemed to carry on
to those who shared the names of the great war heroes. “‘Hey', the Justice said.
‘Talk louder. Colonel Sartoris? I reckon anybody named for Colonel Sartoris in
this county can't help but tell the truth, can they?'” (Kennedy 163).
On the other hand, the Snopses are viewed as dishonorable. During the
war, Ab Snopse was considered a mercenary for serving both sides of the way. “
...nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue
and gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them)” (165).
Ab stole horses from the North and the South, to earn a living. He was even
shot by a confederate soldier, “His father turned, and he followed the stiff
black coat, the wiry figure walking a little stiffly from where a Confederate
provost's man's musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty
years ago...”(164). Actions like these caused the community to look down upon
the Snopses, which in turn caused Ab to invoke revenge upon his adversaries.
When Ab comes into conflict with an employer, he reverts to his old
Civil War ways of non allegiance to benefit himself.
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of intentionally destroying his rug. After Ab's attempts to fix the rug fail,
de Spain charges him twenty bushels of corn for the damages. Ab, feeling that
twenty bushels are too steep a price for the damages, takes de Spain to court
and sues him. The Justice of the Peace lowers the fine for the damages, but Ab
is still not satisfied. Feeling unjustly punished, Ab does the only thing that
he knows, he burns down de Spains barn, and is shot and killed in the process.
Ab has never held an allegiance to any man or thing. His life is one of
self-preservation. During the war he worked for both sides without allegiance,
bound only by who was paying. In life after the war he has not changed one bit.
He travels from farm to farm, sharecropping to provide for his family. When he
feels pressure from an authority he takes the power away from them by burning
what they own. His allegiance to an employer lasts only as long as he retains
the power. Once that is gone, he simply takes it back by force, and moves on.