I have to say that probably my favorite writer of the modern era is WilliamFaulkner. He is a masterful storyteller, possesses a deep understanding of human nature and psychology, is breathtakingly innovative in form and style, and captures the sounds and rhythms of American English, albeit in the southern style. I need to make a point to read at least a story or two every year from his Collected Stories. So I’m going to go through them like I do with Hemingway, starting now. Quotes are taken from the Collected Stories edition.
First up may be his finest of his short stories, “Barn Burning.” You can also read the story online if you wish too, at William Faulkner Books site, which happens to include “Barn Burning” in its entirety, here.
Several of Faulkner’s works center on groups of families in recurring works set in a fictional county in northern Mississippi which is a stand in for his home county. “Barn Burning” brings in the Snopes family, and as Wikipedia entry says, this short story is a prequel to the Snopes family trilogy of novels.
“Barn Burning” is a story about a young boy, Sarty, trying to understand his Civil War veteran and arsonist father, Abner Snopes, through the final events of Abner’s life, the events that led him to be shot and killed. Here is the great opening paragraph:
The store in which the Justice of the Peace's court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish-this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father's enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:
"But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?"
It is absolutely amazing how Faulkner can go from third person point of view and shift to first on a dime. There is so much packed in that little paragraph that I need to parse it almost sentence by sentence. Mr. Harris is in court before a judge accusing Abner of burning down his barn. We see the events through Sarty’s eyes. The boy smells cheese and fish, a sensation that will be integrated into his memory and become associated with despair and grief. That despair and grief is then called “the old fierce pull of blood,” and so through memory of family is memory of grief of which a blood bond enslaves the character. The story starts with in court confrontational setting, Mr. Harris becomes the enemy, not for anything he did to Sarty, but for being enemy of his father, dramatically characterized through the boys parenthetical thoughts, “our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!”
Let me provide the plot of the story briefly:
(1) In court over the Harris barn burning. The judge can’t find the evidence against Snopes but tells him to leave town.
(2) Snopes packs his family up, moves to a new shack as a tenant farmer under a rich landlord.
(3) On his way to the landlord’s mansion, Snopes steps in horse dung and deliberately wipes his foot on the landlord’s carpet.
(4) The carpet is brought to the Snopes shack to be cleaned, and out of spite Snopes ruins the carpet and tosses it into the mansion parlor.
(5) Snopes is back in court over the carpet and the judge rules he must pay for it.
(6) In retaliation, Snopes burns down the landlord’s barn.
(7) Snopes is killed at the scene of the barn burning.
What we get is a portrait of Abner Snopes in the course of three or four days events through the eyes of his son. So what is it we learn of Abner Snopes?
He was injured in the Civil War:
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, (p.5)
He has a tenacious nature, perhaps even beyond tenacious to a relentlessness that bordered on psychologically distorted mania:
There was something about his wolflike independence and even courage, when the advantage was at least neutral, which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his. (p. 7)
And then there is Abner’s fascination with fire:
The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, of a rail lifted from a nearby fence and cut into lengths-a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father's habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight?
Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion. (p. 7-8)
And when he’s fallen under a new landlord who owns an aristocratic looking mansion, we see Abner rebelling against the servitude. He says, “I reckon I'll have a word with the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months" (p. 9). “Owning me body and soul” is the language of slaveholding, and he is clearly resisting what he sees as a violation to his dignity. What we see is a nature who is in constantly combative due to the class consciousness of the southern culture. Abner is repeatedly belligerent because he forever senses injustices to his honor. It is no coincidence that two critical scenes in the story revolve around a justice’s decision. He may be above a slave, but now that slavery has been abolished he is not even above that.
Inside Abner is a combustible dysfunctionality. He is pricked by his sense of lower class status to the point of outrage, and fire is a perfect symbol for his outrage and belligerence. He retaliates through arson, as if that will reset the power struggle that has belittled him. His being an arsonist is an outward expression of his inner combustible dysfunctionality.
But if arson is his outward expression, you would never sense it from his demeanor, which is always on the surface in control. After the first court scene, after Sarty had been cross examined and everyone could sense that Sarty was going to contradict his father, Abner confronts his son at dinner besides the campfire:
He merely ate his supper beside it and was already half asleep over his iron plate when his father called him, and once more he followed the stiff back, the stiff and ruthless limp, up the slope and on to the starlit road where, turning, he could see his father against the stars but without face or depth-a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made lot him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin:
"You were fixing to tell them. You would have told him," He didn't answer. His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horse fly, his voice still without heat or anger: "You're getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don't you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?" Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, " If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again." But now he said nothing. He was not crying. He just stood there. "Answer me," his father said.
"Yes," he whispered. His father turned.
"Get on to bed. We'll be there tomorrow." (p. 8)
“Without heat” is a descriptor in many of the scenes for Abner’s actions. We can feel the intensity inside his breast, but he is outwardly in control, without showing the heat of anger. That Abner repeatedly explodes “without heat” reveals a psychopathic nature to his actions.
On the way to the new landlord’s mansion, the son observes his father’s stride and the apparently insignificant event that is at the root of his fate.
Watching him, the boy remarked the absolutely undeviating course which his father held and saw the stiff foot come squarely down in a pile of fresh droppings where a horse had stood in the drive and which his father could have avoided by a simple change of stride. But it ebbed only for a moment, though he could not have thought this into words either, walking on in the spell of the house, which he could ever want but without envy, without sorrow, certainly never with that ravening and jealous rage which unknown to him walked in the ironlike black coat before him; Maybe he will feel it too, Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe be couldn't help but be. (p. 10)
Abner has stepped in horse feces and is stuck beneath his shoe. Could he have avoided the dung? It’s rather ambiguous if he noticed it. I don’t think we know. Also recall that Abner was shot in the foot during the Civil War and since has “walked a little stiffly” (p.5). So his stride has been altered by the war, and, like many veterans of wars, his nature has been altered by the war. So what was the genesis of his fate? His altered nature? His society that has placed him as equal to slaves? The South’s loss in the Civil War that has lowered the dignity of southerners and pride in one’s culture? Faulkner weaves all the elements together.
At the landlord’s mansion, we don’t see an event that can be attributed to powers beyond his control; we see a deliberate act of defiance.
His father had not spoken again. He did not speak again. He did not even look at her. He just stood stiff in the center of the rug, in his hat, the shaggy iron-gray brows twitching slightly above the pebble-colored eyes as he appeared to examine the house with brief deliberation. Then with the same deliberation he turned; the boy watched him pivot on the good leg and saw the stiff foot drag round the arc of the turning, leaving a final long and fading smear. (p, 12)
It is that smear that leads to the court action forcing Abner to clean the carpet and Abner’s retaliation which leads to his death. Finally because it is so well written I want to conclude with the moment Abner moves out to burn the landlord’s barn. Father and two sons are in town where father decides they need to eat.
But not at home. Squatting beside his brother against the front wall, he watched his lather emerge from the store and produce from a paper sack a segment of cheese and divide it carefully and deliberately into three with his pocket knife and produce crackers from the same sack. They all three squatted on the gallery and ate, slowly, without talking; then in the store again, they drank from a tin dipper tepid water 'Melling of the cedar bucket an(.] of living beech trees. And still they did not go home. It was as a horse lot this time, a tall rail fence upon and along which men stood and sat and out of which one by one horses were led, to be walked and trotted and then cantered back and forth along the road while the slow swapping and buying went on and the sun began to slant westward, they-the three of them-watching and listening, the older brother with his Muddy eyes and his steady, inevitable tobacco, the father commenting now and then on certain of the animals, to no one in particular.
It was after sundown when they reached home. They ate supper by lamplight, then, sitting on the doorstep, the boy watched the night fully accomplish, listening to the whippoorwills and the frogs, when he heard his mother's voice: "Abner! No! No! 0h, God. 0h, God. Abner!" and he rose, whirled, and saw the altered light through the door where a candle stub now burned in a bottle neck on the table and his father, still in the hat and coat, at once formal and burlesque as though dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence, emptying the reservoir of the lamp back into the five-gallon kerosene can from which it had been filled, while the mother tugged at his arm until he shifted the lamp to the other hand and flung her back, not savagely or viciously, just hard, into the wall, her hands flung out against the wall for balance, her mouth open and in her face the same quality of hopeless despair as had been in her voice. Then his father saw him standing in the door. "Go to the barn and get that can of oil we were oiling the wagon with," he said. The boy did not move. Then he could speak.
"What . . ." he cried. "What are you
"Go get that oil," his father said. "Go," (p.20-21)
Notice how various motivic elements come back and coordinate: the cheese, the despair, the family bonds, the combustible intensity while outwardly deliberate, and the fire. This is truly one of the greatest short stories in the American short story cannon.