April 24, 2005

William Faulkner: The Leap from a Mad Carousel

Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty) is a very fortunate little boy. This may not be immediately apparent in the initial reading of Barn Burning, but it is true nevertheless. The only other work of Faulkner's, long or short, which I have read is The Sound and the Fury and believe me, compared to all four of its main characters, Sarty is lucky.

Sarty is a ten-year old boy growing up on the move in Mississippi. He travels from home to home with his father, mother, aunt, older brother, and two "bovine" older sisters. The family never stays in one place long because the father, Abner Snopes (a Confederate soldier turned horse rustler during the Civil War), is a barn burner. He has a nasty temper, a terrible grudge against property owners, and his weapon ("the one weapon for the preservation of integrity") is fire. Snopes arrives at each new destination looking for someone who will give offense to him if properly provoked, and when he finds that person, he burns down their barn.

As I finished The Sound and the Fury I had the strong sense that, were I able to turn just one more page I would find the book beginning again with Benjy's perspective. The book was like the cursed carousel from Something Wicked This Way Comes. You climb on and it begins to spin like mad . . . color, flashing, blinding . . . lights, strobing, whirling, dancing . . . noise, half-music, crashing, deafening . . . and you can't get off. Around and around and around and around, and as you continue to go around, revisiting (reliving) the same little path over and over again, you get old, and then you die. And you've spent your whole life trapped in the craziness, living and reliving more times than you can count.

Life is like this for Sarty, too. As "Barn Burning" opens we find him in a small store where a local Justice of the Peace holds court. His father is on trial for having burned a man's barn, but there is not enough evidence and he is released with orders to leave the area.

They exit the store and we see that this outcome was expected. The rest of the family is already packed into the wagon with all of their belongings, and they have a new destination: the DeSpain house. As soon as they've arrived at the little two-room job where they'll be taking up residence, Abner takes Sarty to go "have a word" with Mr. DeSpain.

When Sarty sees the large, wealthy DeSpain house for the first time, he immediately feels a "surge of peace and joy" because here, at last, are people his father cannot harm. The house and the people who live there seem too important and stable and dignified to be touched by any mere flames. Abner, on the other hand, feels only "ravening and jealous rage." His foot comes down in a pile of horse manure and before long he is wiping it in a long, ugly streak on the expensive carpet in the DeSpain's front hall. With this action complete, he leaves.

Before long, the rug is delivered to the Snopeses for cleaning, and Abner makes the bovine sisters scrub the stains with homemade lye soap (which, of course, ruins the thing). He returns the rug to DeSpain, who shows up and claims twenty bushels of corn (about $10) out of Abner's forthcoming crop in payment for the ruined $100 rug. The matter goes to court and the judge finds in favor of DeSpain, but only fines Snopes $5 of corn.

That night, Abner, "dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence," prepares his equipment for a barn burning. Sarty resists these preparations, and there is talk of tying him up. Ultimately, though, his mother promises to hold him and Abner leaves with the older brother. No sooner are they gone than Sarty is struggling wildly to get out of his mother's grip . . . and he succeeds. There is no one to stop him as he dashes from the house and tears up the road to the DeSpain's house. Bursting inside he screams a quick warning and then he is gone again, running back up the road. DeSpain flashes by on his horse and soon two shots are heard.

Sarty finally collapses, exhausted, on the crest of a hill. He struggles there to come to terms with what has just taken place, then he gets up and moves forward with no more immediate destination than the dark woods ahead of him. He doesn't look back.

Like the Compsons, the Snopes have been in a vicious, ever-looping cycle. Sarty has had no control over his life. He was a trapped character. Sarty, however, is not handicapped with any of the Compson's flaws. The closest a Compson comes to escaping the cycle is suicide. Sarty, moved by his compassion, honesty, and sense of justice, is able, with a tremendous effort, to break free. I didn't expect Faulkner to allow that . . . but I'm certainly glad he did.

Posted by Jared at April 24, 2005 11:25 PM | TrackBack