Barn Burning by William Faulkner, 1939
The magic trick:
The ambiguity as to which side of the argument the boy is on during the story’s first three paragraphs
Faulkner lays it all out for us in the first paragraph of this remarkable story. I’m hungry, I’m distracted, I’m hungry, I’m scared, I’m distracted, I’m hungry, I’m confused, I’m scared, OH GOD WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO? Boom. Welcome to adulthood, young Sarty Scopes. It’s right there in three sentences.
The real trick to these introductory passages is the way in which Faulkner withholds the boy’s loyalty in the argument. We meet the boy. We learn that he is attending a trial in which his father is being charged. We even learn the details of the argument that preceded the barn-burning charge. And yet Faulkner, by employing names we don’t recognize, using generic pronouns, and failing to attribute any of the quotations, keeps us in the dark. We don’t know if the boy’s father had his barn burned or was the one doing the barn burning. It’s only when we gain insight into the boy’s thoughts – “He aims for me to lie..” – that we can rightly suspect that the father is the accused and not the accuser.
It’s a neat trick for dramatic effect, sure, but Faulkner uses it to make a more important point. The confusion as to which side the boy is on turns out to be the central theme of the story. The reader learns on the second page that the father is the accused party in the trial, but it takes the remainder of the story to figure out where the boy’s loyalties lie. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.
They went back up the road. A week ago – or before last night, that is – he would have asked where they were going, but not now. His father had struck him before last night but never before had he paused afterward to explain why; it was as if the blow and the following calm, outrageous voice still rang, repercussed, divulging nothing to him save the terrible handicap of being young, the light weight of his few years, just heavy enough to prevent his soaring free of the world as it seemed to be ordered but not heavy enough to keep him footed solid in it, to resist it and try to change the course of its events.