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.

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