Sarty’s Reliability as Narrator in “Barn Burning”
The question of whether or not Sarty Snopes is a reliable narrator is sure to raise debate among various literary critics. Although the story is told from Sarty’s perspective twenty years later, Faulkner also leads the reader to believe the events taking place are happening in real time. The essence of the story is actually more about how Abner’s obsession with fire and disregard for authority and conformity affect the grown up Sarty rather than the trials he endures with his father when he is ten years old.
Since Abner’s actions have an enormous influence on the man Sarty becomes it is difficult to place complete trust in the accuracy of Sarty’s account.
“Barn Burning” is essentially Sarty’s reflection on the events of his childhood that molded him into the man he is in the present. By interjecting the mature Sarty’s thoughts into the story while at the same time allowing the reader to see how the ten year old boy reacts, Faulkner reiterates his idea that the thirty year old man is driven by emotion when recounting his story.
The reader should notice that emotions run high throughout the entire story. Sarty observes the men in the courtroom with a sort of blind loyalty to his father:
He could not see the table where the Justice sat before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! Mine and his 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 […].
In this passage, Faulkner illustrates Sarty’s youthful desire to believe his father’s actions are justified. Sarty’s childlike instinct to protect his father demonstrates the emotional power Abner has over his young son. This type of power effects Sarty even in his adult years. He is naturally biased in his portrayal of Abner as a cold and domineering figure because he still holds him accountable for his indiscretions.
As Ford points out in her essay “Narrative Legerdemain: Evoking Sarty’s Future in ‘Barn Burning’, in a later work Faulkner uses the character of V.K. Ratliff to describe Abner in a more favorable light (5). This reverse portrayal of Abner Snopes is indicative of Faulkner’s allusion to Sarty’s unreliability as narrator. Sarty is still too influenced by the memory of his father’s domineering and occasionally frightening presence to give any kind of credible account of Abner’s character.
Thirty year old Sarty is primarily concerned with justifying his response as a 10 year old boy. Faulkner paints the young Sarty as submissive and frightened by his father. As a grown man, Sarty focuses on his inability to take a stand against his father’s coolness. This is evident by the narrator’s inclusion of his own thoughts while simultaneously retelling past:
‘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 (Faulkner 180).
In this excerpt, Faulkner emphasizes Sarty’s growth as a moral character. He has grown into the man he couldn’t be twenty years ago. Now, twenty years later, he is able to vocalize his thoughts and beliefs without fear of his father’s wrath. Faulkner illustrates Sarty’s growth over the years and credits his future character with his freedom from Abner.
The narrator spends little time describing the other members of the Snopes family. This is indicative of the idea that they have contributed very little to the emotional development of the protagonist. He describes his sisters and mother as submissive and hardly even mentions his brother. This lack of description shows the reader what an insignificant effect the rest of the family plays in Sarty’s character development. This overwhelming focus on Abner proves his importance in Sarty’s life. With such a strong focus on his father, the narrator is virtually incapable of telling an unbiased story if his past.
Young Sarty’s feelings and actions are always described with gentle words. Such terms as “gentle”, “whisper”, and “quietly” are often used to describe the 10 year old’s thoughts. Faulkner uses language to illustrate Sarty’s character. The narrator ponders his past with the maturity of a grown man and uses increasing strong language to describe possible reactions to his father through the years, from silence, to wonder, to rational explanation. This progression of intensity in his words allows the reader to follow Sarty’s maturity over the years and growth as a man.
Sarty’s emotional evolution is central to the story’s development. The story progresses as his character grows. Although his maturity is not seen until the very end, the reader feels Sarty’s continuing development throughout the narrative. The idea that an escape from his father’s oppression is possible gives a sense of hope for Sarty’s future.
Faulkner intends for Sarty’s unreliability as narrator to play off the emotional undertones in the story. Mature Sarty is a man driven by regret and reflection; a man unable, or unwilling, to let go of his father’s coldness. Although Sarty’s vision of the past is tainted by the memories of the emotional power held over him by Abner, it is his emotional attachment to these events that allows him to develop his character over the twenty years since his escape from his father.