Conflicting Principles of Life in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”

William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” presents the conflict between two forms of justice: (1) justice based on kinship and (2) justice based on human dignity. The conflict between these two forms of justice was presented within the text through Sarty’s perspective of Ab’s actions who sought to achieve ‘freedom’ from his previous agreements by defiling the rights of other individuals. Set after the period of the Civil War, the text presents Sarty’s conflicts as he tried to understand his father’s motivations for the actions that have led his family to further hardships in life.

It is important to note that Ab, Sarty’s father, has a led a life geared towards self-fulfillment as his actions throughout his life have been motivated by his desire to attain material wealth. Note for example that even if Ab was considered as a ‘soldier’ in the ‘fine, old, European sense,’ of the term, his motivations for choosing to join in the battle was neither to save the South from the Northern invasion nor to protect his region’s views regarding slavery (Faulkner 1743). This is apparent if one considers that as Ab and Sarty reached the De Spain mansion, Ab ironically tells his son, “Pretty and white, ain’t it….

That’s Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it” (Faulkner 1737). This statement was neither motivated by Ab’s disgust for slavery nor by his disgust in the African American’s position in life. His statement was motivated by his sense of outrage against the wealth and power symbolized by the plantation. His outrage statement was thereby meant to be a bitter view against the wealth and power that he could not achieve in life.

The conflict, within the text, thereby arises as a result of Sarty’s inability to understand his father’s motivations and reasons for his actions. As was mentioned above, his father chose to defile another individual’s rights in order to free himself from his obligations. This is apparent as his father burned the barn of the man who has slighted him. Sarty recognizes the harm that was inflicted upon his father however he does not consider this a sufficient reason to defile the right of another individual.

As a result of this, he was placed in a position where he will either amend the harm inflicted on the other individual in order to protect his father and thereby maintain his loyalty to his family or he will refuse knowledge of his father’s actions thereby allowing his father’s misdeed but enabling justice for the other individual. The conflict is thereby defined by the necessity to choose, on Sarty’s part, what he considers to be ‘the right’ decision within the text.

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