The Power of Fire in “Barn Burning”

In William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” fire represents both Abner Snopes’ inherent powerlessness and his quest for power. Snopes asserts his defiance and his own view of justice through fire, by setting fire to the barns owned by those he feels have slighted him. 

Fire is a central symbol to “Barn Burning.” In the story, the Snopes family are poor tenant farmers. Because of their social class, the Snopes family lack power and influence. In result, Abner Snopes feels powerless. He does not have money or any other forms of power, so he feels the need to act out against authority figures and assert his own version of justice. 

After Snopes’ family was run out of town because he burned down a barn, Snopes steals a split rail from a fence and builds a small fire by the roadside. Described as a “small… shrewd fire,” the fire is barely functional (147). He builds one so small it’s practically useless and doesn’t provide warmth for his family. This shows that Snopes is ultimately in a position of powerlessness. While before he created a fire so large it burned down an entire barn, he cannot make one that is sufficient for his family. Snopes had committed a fiery crime in a desperate grasp for power, but now reveals how powerless he is to adequately caring for his family. 

Additionally, after Snopes’ employer and landlord De Spain’s rug is ruined, Snopes is forced to pay De Spain in crops. Again realizing his powerlessness, Snopes turns to arson again and plans on burning De Spain’s barn. 

For Snopes, fire is a means of maintaining his integrity and enacting vengeance on those who have slighted him. Powerless and poor, Snopes turns to fire to tilt the balance in his favor, even if it is only for one quick, fiery moment.

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” and Hospitality

One thing that struck me as I was reading “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” was the complete lack of hospitality towards the angel. Hospitality was an important value for many ancient civilizations. In a time when people lived further apart, being turned away into the wilderness could be a death sentence. As a result guests were not supposed to be turned away and there was an expectation that the guest would be treated well. The bible actually explicitly states “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” Hebrew 13:2.

This attitude was not unique to the Ancient Israelite’s. The Greeks also had similar expectations and potential rewards. The Ancient Greeks called hospitality Xenia. Xenia was a reciprocal relationship of mutual respect (perhaps even mutual recognition) between the host and guest. In many Greek myths Zeus, god of lightning and protector of travelers, would take the form of a traveler and depending on how he was treated would either punish or reward who did (or worse yet, didn’t) host him. The message was clear, you never knew which guest was Zeus so you better treat them right.

Image result for xenia greek

Masked or Unmasked?

After reading the short story “The Secret Woman,” two times through, I was left with a this question in my mind. Does a mask reveal your true identity? or does it cover it up?

The relationship between the husband and the wife at the beginning of the story makes you think that they are in a stable and honest relationship. As the story goes on you learn that they were both lying to each other and the instability of their relationship becomes apparent. When discussing Irene attending the ball, she responds to her husband with “As for me…Can you see me in a crowd, at the mercy of all those hands…” (328). Not questioning her response, the husband doesn’t seem to think twice about this. The woman has a version of herself that her husband knows and fulfills her role as a wife.

Later in the story when Irene attends the masked ball, she reveals a completely different side of herself while she is under the impression that her husband is not watching her. Her entire demeanor switches. In a rather natural way at that. While she is confined by her role as a wife with her husband around, with the mask on she is now free to act how she desires and appears to be in her natural state. Although the mask quite literally disguises Irene’s true self, by wearing it, it allows her to reveal her unleashed identity.

How “The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” Draws Parallels to Modern Media

In this story, when the angel is first discovered, it quickly becomes the center of the town’s attention. People come from all over to view this angel, marveling at its absurdity. However, the second people caught word of a girl with a spider-head, the angel became old news. While people forgot about him, he was very much still there. Suffering all the same in a broken shed.

Upon reading this, it feels oddly familiar. It seems today that any story or event in the media is quickly forgotten after its 15 seconds of fame. However, that almost never means that it disappeared. When a story first breaks, media outlets cover it nonstop, like the angel. Then, as if the original event never happened, the media moves on to the next thing.

Take for example a recent string of media stories. First, Epstein commits suicide in prison, then the Amazon is burning, then Greta Thunburg yells at the U.N, etc… While all these events, at some point, were the main talking point of the country. Now most of them have fallen into irrelevancy. While these events didn’t disappeared, they may as well have. While the angel never disappeared, he may as well have.

Alien Indoctrination

In Octavia Butler’s short story Bloodchild, the analogy between humans and their livestock and the Tlic and the Terrans is a crucial part of the story. Although the parasitic Tlic are using the Terrans as hosts for their children, the Terran’s are generally content with living with the Tlic and even consider the Tlic as part of their family. Even though T’Gatoi asserts that the Terrans “aren’t animals to [them],” the relationship between the Tlic and the Terrans is far closer to farmer and livestock than it is to family, and is a lot deeper than the fact that the Terrans are forced to wear armbands for identification.

The Tlic seem to live as part of a Terran family and are seen as “friends” by many of the Terrans including Xuan Hoa, but they are clearly in control of the preserve. Instead of oppressing the Terrans through force and violence, the Tlic choose to keep the Terrans docile through feeding them their sterilized eggs, which have a powerful narcotic effect in addition to prolonging life. The Terrans’ forced complacency is very similar to how people raise their livestock. Over thousands of years, people have domesticated animals by breeding the most submissive animals in order to get the desired docility. The Tlic have also spent “long years” to pacify the Terrans.

The indoctrination is pervasive. The Tlic have hidden the danger of egg implantation from the Terrans, as Gan seems unaware of the horrors of the implantation. Over the long years, resistance has dwindled and it seems that the Terrans are willing to continue submitting to the Tlic.

“The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” Shares a Message with Billy Eilish’s “All the Good Girls Go to Hell”

While reading the short story, “The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” I could not help thinking that I had seen the image of this story before. Then, I remembered just where I had seen this before, in the music video to Billie Eilish’s new song, “All the Good Girls Go to Hell”.

In this video, Eilish uses the graphics and concepts to make a statement about the environmental crisis we are in right now. She does this by playing an angel that falls from the sky and is immoderately harmed by the dangerous environmental conditions caused by humans. As she struggles to drag her wings on the ground after they are covered in black oil and set on fire, the intention of the video is abundantly clear.

While one of them is about the environment and the other has more spiritual roots, both the music video and the short story share a message about human greed. In the short story, the people of the village lock the sick angel in a chicken coup for their own entertainment and in the music video humans exhibit greed by spilling oil and other hazardous chemicals for corporate gain. Both of these works greatly emphasize the concept that it is human nature to prioritize personal gain over helping others.

The 5 W’s About The Girl in the Background in “A Conversation About Bread”

WHERE At the library, looking from another table.

WHO A white, blond, possible anthropologist lurking in the background.

WHEN On a school night while Eldwin and Brian are figuring out what to write about for a class.

WHAT The first thought that came to my mind as the author firsts mentioned the lady in the back was “what?” While reading the story, I thought this lady was kind of a random character. However, when I got to the last paragraph, the author suggests that she could possibly be an anthropologist, like Eldwin and Brian. The idea of her being an anthropologist did not even cross my mind until the author mentioned it. Why did the author end with a paragraph about the lady? Why did the author suggest an idea about her being an anthropologist?

WHY I believe the author had a purpose of writing in the white anthropologist. Though it is not clearly stated, it gives the reader perspective on how awkward Brian and Eldwin feel when someone is watching them; specifically a white person. The lady in the back is not harmful in anyway, she is just reading a book and eventually starts taking notes. The note taking leads me to believe she in an anthropologist listening to their conversation about bread. I think that she is intrigued by a different race and wants to listen to their stories. But, the deeper meaning of the lady in the background is to reveal that listening and telling stories is important. Story telling is a great way for people to learn about each other. The lady is getting to know a lot about the lives of these African American men by just listening to one story about them. An influential story can say a lot about people, and the lady in the back represents a good listener to those small, yet powerful stories.

Terrans and Women Face Similar Reproductive Pressures

When we know something is science fiction we are quick to write off any weird characters or unnatural worldly elements. We see them as something that would never happen in real life because it’s a work of fiction. However, when looking at the underlying themes of “Bloodchild” and analyzing the role reproduction plays in it, there are similarities to the world we live in today. The people who are in power are also the ones who can’t have children, thus they make reproduction the sole purpose of the ones who can.  Though that may be a little bit of an exaggeration (but not really), there are clear gender roles in Octavia Butler’s story, but the reverse of the ones we see today.  

Today, women are constantly fed this image of a glorified homemaker and are told that their place is in the home, caring for children. The paragon of a woman is conflated with the paragon of a mother. Women are expected to be the submissive one in a heterosexual relatioship and bear the children. After all the baby comes out of a female reproductive organ. Thus, women feel the pressures of having a baby all the time. 

I saw this as my sister recently got engaged and after 6 years of dating the constant question from family members changed from “when’s the ring coming” to “when’s the baby coming.” Similar pressures are existent in this story as Gan has no agency over his body. He is brainwashed into having T’Gatoi’s baby because that is what he sees as normal in society, specifically his own family. 

Gan’s mother was one of the few people in her family who never hosted eggs before. After Gan eat his eggs, T’Gatoi convinces his mom to take the rest of his so she can enjoy the anti-aging benefits. Butler writes, “Unwillingly obedient, my mother took it from me and put it to her mouth. There were only a few drops left in the now-shrunken, elastic shell, but she squeezed them out, swallowed them, and after a few moments some of the lines of tension began to smooth from her face”(65). Here, the mother is pressured by T’gatoi to take the rest of Gan’s egg even though she never really wanted to in the first place. After taking it, Gan recounts that his “mother cried out- probably in surprise”(66). This is just a glimpse of the pain that the Terrans experience while taking the eggs. They were also described as “convulsing” and “bloody” since all births are via painful  c-sections. The pain that they endure while giving birth is similar to what a lot of women go through today, especially given the fact that about 30% of births are via c-section. 

Gan also sees the standard of hosting eggs many times within his family. Gan’s “father, who had never refused one [egg] in his life, had lived more than twice as long as he should have”(65). Similar to today, there is a standard of having more than one child as women are expected to go through the process of giving birth 2, 3, 4 times. Here, the father had gone through the process multiple times, another reason Gan normalized the process of hosting eggs.

Is “Bloodchild” A Love Story?

Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” tells of the powerful Tlic, who protect Earthly Terrans in exchange for the use of Terran’s as host animals for their parasitic young. Butler describes her short story as “a love story between two very different beings” — I would call it provocative and disturbing. Gan, a Terran, is supposed to be impregnated with the eggs of T’Gatoi, a powerful Tlic. After seeing a bloody Tlic birth gone wrong, Gan is repulsed. Although he doesn’t want to, he still chooses to let T’Gatoi implant her Tlic eggs into him.

Butler claims that “Bloodchild” is “a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love—choosing pregnancy in spite of as well as because of surrounding difficulties.” But those surrounding difficulties include a system in which Tlic are entitled to the use of Terran bodies. If Gan chose not to be implanted, it would mean that T’Gatoi would use his sister instead.

Gan had little real choice. His decision to be implanted was of reluctant acceptance to a system that stripped him of his bodily autonomy and personal agency, making him a tool for the Tlic.

I believe that loving relationships are healthy and consensual — I’m not sure that I would classify “Bloodchild” as a love story.

Narrative Focus in “Cariboo Cafe” and “The Elephant Vanishes”

In ‘The Elephant Vanishes’, the reader encounters a narrator obsessed with a problem he can’t solve. An elephant has disappeared, along with its keeper. However, the keeper quickly fades from the forefront of the story and the elephant seems to be the only one missing. In ‘Cariboo Cafe’, the last narrator essentially kidnaps Macky and Sonya, but Macky is her only focus. Sonya is so far removed from the situation that she’s only referred to as “the young girl”.

  1. Sonya is to Macky what the Keeper is to the Elephant.
  2. Both narrators are kidnappers.

Let’s start with the latter. In ‘The Elephant Vanishes’, the narrator treats the disappearance as something only he cares about. The story has permeated every aspect of his life. This obsessive nature blinds him to reality. However, we as the reader barely know the reality. The narrator tells us that the disappearance is his and only his problem. To some extent, he has “kidnapped” the elephant and its keeper, denying the response of the officials and presenting his own theories. In ‘Cariboo Cafe’ the opposite structure creates a similar issue. We have multiple narrators/perspectives on the story at hand, yet there’s much still implied. At the end, the final woman has the same obsessive blinders on.

The boy she found must be her son. The elephant must have shrunk down.

Returning to my comparison, Sonya is the keeper because she is not the focus of the narrator, but is crucial to the matter at hand. The keeper looks different in comparison to the elephant, so the elephant must have shrunk. Sonya was there with Macky, her brother, yet she is not the narrator’s daughter. Macky is the elephant because he is a mystery to many. To the cafe owner, he is reminded of his own son, just as the woman from ‘Elephant’ shared a sort of excitement about the mystery.

As a reader, we should be vigilant to the narrator’s priorities as it can often tell us a lot about the characters.