Cultural Modernism and the Snopes Family: The White American Family in the midst of social change in 20th century America in "Barn Burning" by William Faulkner
Published in the year 1939, William Faulkner's short story, "Barn Burning," illustrates the changing times that American society undergoes as it passes through a period of depression and eventually, social and material progress as a result of the prevalence of the industrial revolution and modernization. Using the character of the Snopes family, Faulkner illustrates in his story how a rigidly conservative family is affected by the social changes that is happening to them. More specifically, this paper talks about the emergence of cultural modernism, wherein the social structures that make up society are deconstructed and destabilized, leading to changes that either adversely or inadversely affects society (specifically, American society).
In discussing the issue of cultural modernism as the context in which "Barn Burning" operates, this paper cites two dominant themes that illustrate the emergence and pervasiveness of cultural change in the lives of Americans during the period. The first theme looks into the disintegration of the family institution and desecration of parental authority. This is relevantly demonstrated through the interaction of Abner Snopes with his son, Sartoris, as well as the depiction of the Snopes family all throughout the story. The second theme talks about the deconstruction of society's social class and race stratifications, wherein the influence of cultural modernism led to the development of an egalitarian society. The development of an almost egalitarian society is a state where individuals from all social classes and races are given a chance to become socio-economically mobile in the society. In the texts that follow, these two dominant themes are discussed and analyzed, with references to the short story, "Barn Burning."
The first theme of the story, which illustrates of the disintegration of the family and displacement of parental authority, is parallel with Faulkner's central focus on family relations in "Barn Burning." In the story, the Snopes family is illustrated as being dysfunctional, primarily because of the dominant and abusive behavior of Abner Snopes, father to Sartoris or Sarty, whose point-of-view Faulkner has adopted in narrating the events of that occurred in the story.
The abusive nature of father-son relationship between Abner and Sarty is evident at the beginning of the story, wherein there is already an illustration of Sarty's internal conflict on whether to obey his father despite his guilt in barn burning or not. In the story, Sarty shares his thoughts, stating that "He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit" (Rogers & Jacobs, 1995:171). The use of the words "grief" and "despair" illustrates Sarty's feelings of internal conflict: he feels grief because of the unjust situation he is put in, being forced to lie for the sake of his guilty father; however, he also feels despair, for he feels that he has a moral obligation to side with his father, whether he is guilty or not.
Citing this instance in the story is crucial, for this event is the first step towards Sarty's liberation from his father. The blatant expression of Sarty's feelings in the story (through Faulkner's narrative) illustrates how the principle of cultural modernism is operationalized. Sarty, a young man, is given voice to express his opinion and feelings not only about his internal conflict, but also imply the nature of the relationship with his father. Inevitably, Sarty's grief and despair towards his father has resulted to the development of his personality as potentially abusive and detached towards other people close to him, especially his mother. Shortly after the trial of Abner, Sarty expresses hostility towards his mother when asked whether he was hurt by the individual who allegedly called out on his father as a barn burner. His mother's expression of concern is responded to coldly by Sarty, who answered, "Hit don't hurt. Lemme be...Lemme be, I tell you" (172). Here, readers witness that abusive behavior affects not only the victim but the victim's family as well. The history of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse within the Snopes family is a social issue that is slowly being contemplated through the story, and this is once again a manifestation of the gradual liberation of the characters from Abner and his abusive ways, within the context of cultural modernism.
From these instances in the story, disintegration of the family is evident. Abner's abuse of his wife and children and Sarty's cold treatment of his mother are examples of family disintegration as the family copes with poverty and the reality that society is slowly changing to adopt to social changes in society, such as the increased social mobility of previously marginalized sectors such as the poor, black Americans, and women. The stress of trying to cope up and eventually failing to rise from poverty results to the deterioration of family relations within the Snopes family.
As a result of this family deterioration, Sarty eventually breaks down, unable to bear the weight of guilt from protecting and, in effect, tolerating his father's barn burning. "Filial betrayal" is committed by Sarty when he decided to warn De Spain about his father's plan to burn down his barn reflects the displacement of Abner's parental authority over his son (Horton, 2000). His betrayal of his father and running away from home resulted to feelings of guilt, where Sarty questioned the morality of his actions. This confusion is reflected in the last part of the story, wherein Sarty tries to hold on to the image of his father as a brave and self-righteous, although readers are aware that this is not the case. The story ends with melancholy and irresolution as Faulkner states, "He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods...the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back" (182). "Darkness" marks his path towards unguided and lonely pursuit for self-realization, and this is a resolution that Sarty attempts to bear, a complicated situation wherein he will grow up to be a man bearing the guilt of his betrayal not only against his father, but his family as well.
Barn Burning" reflects an important message that Faulkner expresses through his characterization of Sarty. That is, despite Sartys' courage to escape from an abusive father, Faulkner maintains a certain level of conservatism by illustrating his protagonist as unable to cope with his realities and social environment, being a poor, young man without family relations to help him survive everyday life. In effect, the theme of family disintegration and displacement of parental authority is the Snopes' family's and Sarty's response to the changing social environment that they live in. Krevling (1998) clearly explains this point in his analysis of Faulkner's literary works, wherein the 'yielding' "to the mere process of disintegration has become an irresistible temptation...because everything outside...has begun to appear lifeless, bloodless, meaningless, and unreal" (146). The poverty of the Snopes family restricted their choices in life, and Abner responded to this helplessness by barn burning, and Sarty, by running away from his family and betraying his father.
Cultural modernism in "Barn Burning" is highlighted through the characters' feelings "...of alienation, of isolation, of homelessness even among one's own people" (Rubin, 1985:339). Indeed, the Snopes family fit all these characteristics of the society in the midst of cultural modernism. The Snopes family is alienated and isolated from their community because of Abner's barn burning, threatening the solid structure that defines the poor class from the wealthy class. Their constant traveling and migration from one town to another is a reality that they have to bear as a consequence of Abner's offense, leaving his family homeless. In both instances (of alienation and isolation and homelessness), the Snopes family illustrates their inability to conform and confront the changing realities in their lives. Abner is eventually caught and found guilty from his barn burning, while Sarty receives condemnation by further alienating and isolating himself as a homeless, poor, young man.
Apart from the theme of disintegration of the family and displacement of parental authority, "Barn Burning" also brings into focus the conflict that emerges in society as individuals learn to cope with the emergence of social mobility. In social mobility, people from all classes and/or races are given the chance to improve his/her life, and limitations and prejudice against their socio-economic class and race are eliminated. Thus, with social mobility, an individual is given the opportunity to aspire to live a life of material progress in spite of his/her race and socio-economic standing.
In the story, the Snopes family, particularly Abner, seemed to detest the emergence of social mobility in his society. His barn burning and abusive behavior is motivated by his anger, realizing that they have ceased to progress themselves materially while black Americans have improved their conditions in life. What results is Abner's resentment towards the wealthy class, which served as the catalyst…