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'Barn Burning' - a Communist Manifesto


Jeff Zod is an avid reader, writer and researcher. He enjoys exploring new and old concepts.

A story concentrated on the power struggle between the rich and poor, Faulkner introduces the negative effects of social and economic classes in society. The story is told through the protagonist Sarty about his struggle between doing what he believes is right or blindly following in his father’s steps as a revengeful arson against the capitalist class.

Sarty, who is torn between family loyalty and obedience to the law, is the lens through which Faulkner magnifies class struggle. The injustice, the blacks’ subservience, and the divisiveness that was within the community, which rich people like Major de Spain capitalized on, were the reason for class differences and economic inequality that Abner, Sarty’s father revolted against. Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”, advocates for the adoption of the communist system, through highlighting some of the limitations of capitalism.

Categorization of people into social classes leads to class struggle. According to Marxism, which is a communist school of thought, the capitalist society is divided into two main social classes, the rich and the poor (Douzinas, Slavoj, and Alex 158). The two classes tend to be in a conflict, which is the root of all societal problems. According to Marxism, this situation will be resolved ultimately through a social revolution.

In Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”, the society that is depicted can be said to mirror a capitalist society with Abner and Major de Spain symbolizing two classes, the rich and the poor respectively. While de Spain is extremely rich, Abner is poor and must plant his crops on other’s farmland in order to attain a small token of grain. The class struggle in the short story is vivid through Abner, who can be seen revolting against the hierarchy of social class, where one group ends up benefiting from the other.

When the reader is introduced to Abner, he is in the presence of a judge after being accused of burning his employer’s barn. Although there was no proof to punish him, his act of revolt continues when he finds a new employer, Major de Spain. He shows his contempt for the rich by intentionally stomping through fresh horse manure and tracking it all over the entry rug.

He uses satire when doing this by indicating that the house was not white enough for the owner, “That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it”. (Faulkner 202). After Major de Spain drops the rug off at Abner’s home to be cleaned, Abner rubs it in a manner that ruins it. The contempt for the ruling class continues when Abner burns Major de Spain’s barn for being unfairly fined. The use of imagery for fire when the barn is burned represents the social revolution by the proletariat class against their oppressors as well as Abner’s sole source of power in his situation.

Faulkner clearly points out that the class struggle that is involved has been brought about by contempt for the rich by the poor, and that only through a social revolution by the poor that the conflict will be resolved.

Faulkner champions for communism through condemning the economic inequality shown between the landowner and share-croppers.

One of the principles of communism is that the community distributes what it produces equally amongst its members (ER services 1). In “Barn Burning”, the distribution of community produce was unfair as the rich got more than the poor. For instance, despite Major de Spain being rich, Abner had to give him corn for planting in his land. What makes it worse was that after Abner had ruined the rug, he had to pay twenty bushels of corn on top of what he already had to pay.

The distribution of produce in this society is uneven as it encourages the rich to exploit the laws and continue getting richer at the expense of the poor “It cost a hundred dollars. But you never had a hundred dollars. You never will. So I’m going to charge you twenty bushels of corn against your crop.” (Faulkner 204). As a member of the ruling class Major de Spain can find a judgment against Abner for an act against him that would normally be up to the courts.

The fact that the court holds up a punishment against Abner for ruining the rug shows the influence people like the Major hold. The inequalities in the distribution of the produce can be solved by adopting a communist society.

Faulkner through highlighting the repressive nature of the legal system in “Barn Burning” advocates for the adoption of communism in society. One of the advantages of communism is that is built around strong social communities and equality.

A communist society is one that everyone is equal and one that the laws of the land apply for everyone (Douzinas, Slavoj, and Alex 1). In “Barn Burning”, the society can be said to be highly capitalist as the legal sovereignty that is exerted by the owners in this system is highly repressive on the tenants. The feudal privilege that is practiced makes it almost impossible for the tenants to get out under their own will.

The use of the terms “commissary” and “contract” shows that the landowners are given more privilege in this society. In the second court hearing that Abner is involved in, despite the fact that the punishment was reduced from giving out twenty bushels to ten, this judgment was still unfair considering the price of the rag, “I hold you in damages to Major De Spain to the amount of ten bushels of corn over and above your contract with him, to be paid to him out of your crop at gathering time. Court adjourned.” (Faulkner 205). The ruling made was highly one-sided.

The ruined rug in the story is a metaphor for the unjust legal system that is prevalent in their society. The legal system protected the rich at the expense of the poor. In a communist system, due to the absence of class, society experiences a neutral justice system that caters for everyone’s need.

Faulkner expresses the clear distinction in healthcare and education availability between the rich and poor as Abner suffers from long term injuries from the Civil War, while Sarty remains uneducated. One of the advantages of communism is the fact that everyone has access to education and medical attention (ER services 1). In this ideology, even those who are poor are able to attend school and are also given medical attention.

This is because after the Civil War, he did not likely get any mental health. On the other hand, Sarty is uneducated and illiterate, which is due to the uneven distribution of resources in the capitalist society. The naivety that he has when he sees Major de Spain’s mansion, and thinking that the house will protect those inside from his father, can be linked to his lack of education. With the lack of proper education and medical care for the proletariat class they are held at the mercy of their employers as they don’t know any better or have any other better options.

Faulkner criticizes capitalism for limiting individual’s opportunities, and thus advocates for the adoption of communism. In a communist system, every individual in the society has equal opportunity including chances of getting employment. The chances of an individual to climb the social and economic ladder in a communist society are far easier than in a capitalist one, since everyone is given equal chance (Marx 341). The Snopes family’s opportunities are limited.

The father, Abner, is the sole provider in the family and must rely on share-cropping to feed his family. The limited opportunity available for the poor is seen in Abner, as his father also used to plant crops for the poor “Likely his father had already arranged to make a crop on another farm before he…” (Faulkner 199). The chances of Sarty climbing up the social ladder are also limited just like that of his sisters and brothers, since he remains uneducated.

In addition to this, the two black people who have been mentioned in the story occupy a low hierarchy in the society as they serve as messengers or servants. In a successful communist government, they would not be condemned to work a life of labor like their parents before them, unlike a capitalist society that gives unfair advantage to those born into the right family.

Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” advocates for the adoption of a communist society, through highlighting some of the limitations of capitalism. Through Sarty, Faulkner navigates the benefits of a Communist society, where the rich and poor could have equal opportunity. Through the apparent disparities in legal treatment, limitations of opportunities to the poor, unfair distribution of resources, and class conflict; Faulkner advocates for the adoption of a communist society.

In a communist society, where there are no social classes, everyone is given equal opportunities and facilities by the society. Through the adoption of a communist system, there would have been harmony in “Barn Burning”.

Works cited

Douzinas, Costas, Slavoj Žižek, and Alex T.-G. Lee. The Idea of Communism. London: Verso, 2010. < https://selforganizedseminar.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/zizek_douzinas_idea_communism.pdf>

ER services. Reading: The Benefits of Communism. Web. 12th December 2018. <https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-internationalbusiness/chapter/reading-the-benefits-of-communism/>

Faulkner William. Barn Burning.1939. Pdf. < https://jerrywbrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Barn-Burning-by-William-Faulkner-1.pdf>

Marx, Karl. Marx and Engels collected works. Lawrence and Wishart Limited, 2000. < http://www.koorosh-modaresi.com/MarxEngels/V6.pdf>

© 2019 Jeff Zod


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 22, 2019:

Hello, Jeff, thanks for sharing. But this has hardly been realized in any communist country. Russia which is the biggest communist country, the poor are still poor.

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