January 17, 2008
Abner Snopes, a Flat but Complex Character
Abner Snopes in William Faulkners Barn Burning is a flat, yet amazingly complex and intense character (160). To speak of him as flat is to borrow E. M. Forsters term (Roberts and Jacobs 157) and also to note that, in this story, this character does not change or grow. Yet the force of the characterization, the potency and impact of it go beyond what one usually expects to find in a flat character. In fact, Faulkner could have gotten away with an even flatter Snopes since many critics see him as Faulkners version of the devil, a classic stereotype. He and his clan are abominated by Faulkner, according to one critic (Weisgerber 9). These are characters Faulkner loves to hate and wants us to hate.
Yet Snopes is an arresting and memorable creationunforgettable, even after the casual encounter of a first reading of Barn Burning, the short story he dominates. This phenomenon of characterization is produced by Faulkner through two types of description: first, Snopes actions and physical qualities and second, through the other characters perception of him.
Even before we see Abner Snopes, we learn that he is in trouble with the law and thatthough Sarty is fiercely loyal to himthe loyalty is causing his son despair and grief. Snopes is silent, giving Sarty no relief from the terrifying demands confronting himthat is, being called as a witness for the prosecution, something requiring the loyal boy to lie because what he is being asked to do is in conflict with his self-appointed role of defense witness in the presence of all the enemies of his father and therefore, also, of himself (Faulkner 161).
Snopes is accused of burning the barn of a decent man names Harris. Snopes hog got into his corn, he tells the Justice of the Peace, and he caught it and sent it back. The second time this happened, he sent enough wire to make a pen, but the hog got out again. When Harris went to investigate after the third intrusion, he found the wire unused, so he levied a one-dollar pound fee Snopes would have to pay in order to get his hog back. The outcome was a mysterious threat (wood and hay kin burn, Faulkner 161) and a burned barn.
Faulkner has already given us evidence (the smell of cheese, the hermetic meat Sartys intestines believed he smelled, 160-161) that the boy is hungry. The restless animal adds to an increasingly ominous suggestion that Snopes is neglectful, lazy, and cruel to his child and his animals.
Snopes deeds are increasingly horrifying. He responds coldly and roughly when his son fights a larger boy in his defense and is bloodied doing it. Snopes is even colder
to his weeping wife when she tries to get down from the wagon to wash Sartys bleeding cuts. To the gaunt mules, he deals two savage blows, but without heat, as if it were his normal procedure, however unwarranted (Faulkner 162).
Snopes keeps his youngest child, his wife, and her sister working, assigning tasks to his hulking daughters when they threaten to make a problem for him. The older son is exempt from the intimidation and punishment of work; he is his fathers lieutenant in barn burning and seems to have certain privileges associated with the position. By the
time Snopes tracks manure into the house of his next, unsuspecting sharecrop employer, we remember what was surely an ominous tone of warning in the words of that first Justice of the Peace: Take your wagon and get out of this country before dark (Faulkner 162). Perhaps the Justice was acting to prevent another crime. Being unable to find Snopes guilty and realizing that someone who has sustained a loss such as Harriss might be capable of taking matters into his own hands under the cover of darkness, he seems to have acted to prevent some kind of retribution on the part of Harris and others. The Justice perceives the guilt of Snopes though he cannot find against him because he will not force Sarty to testify against his father.
As Sarty witnesses the worst, Faulkner gives his reader the impression thatbesides using Sartys point of view to tell the storyhe is also showing how Snopes plans to put his son through an evil education, beginning early. The older son -already schooled in the family crime--looms constantly in the background, duplicating his fathers talk, mannerisms, and actions. The inevitable second barn burning is Snopes act of revenge when, as a result of de Spains law suit, the second Justice of the Peace requires more corn at harvest time in recompense for the ruined rug, and it fixes the impression of an unchanging Snopes, particularly as we begin to see that the deed sealing up Snopes in an evil identity is the very means of growth and escape for Sarty.
The details of fire, darkness, and cold surround Snopes self-revelatory and diabolic actions. His sinister silhouette (as though cut from tin) blocks out the stars on one occasion, and the glow of a barn burning in the distancesomething we see only at the end of the storytroubles the imagination. Even at ten, Sarty vaguely perceives that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his fathers being. Fire is the one thing Snopes has regarded with respect and used with discretion (Faulkner 163). Sartys mother also knows all the signs, and they terrify her. Faulkner gives no explanation when she cries out, watching her husband examine a bit of the local flint: Abner. Abner. Please dont. Please, Abner (Faulkner 166), but the meaning is clear. She is not fearful for nothing, and later the glare in the distance lets Sarty know that he has not warned the man on the horse soon enough to prevent his fathers evil intent from being realized (Faulkner 170). Fire consistently tells Snopes story.
Snopes seems paradoxically to be part of some cosmic darkness, as well, and the metallic similes and metaphors describing his physical appearance are well suited to the non-human qualities of his character and actions:
[Sarty] could see his father against the stars but without face or deptha shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin. (Faulkner 163)
The bizarre tin voice and the observation that its utterances are without heat become a sort of Snopes signature, increasing our sense of who he is. The actions he initiates often take place at night: striking his son, burning barns, loudly flinging down the rug he has ruined. Twice Snopes, like a figure in a nightmare, summons Sarty just as he is falling asleep. Darkness seems to be his preferred environment, as fire is his element.
Faulkner weaves a suggestion of death through his descriptions of Snopes stiff gait and stiff back, his cold eyes and voice. In fact, when Snopes picks up Sarty by the shirt, the boy seems to be most frightened by the face stooping over him in breathless and frozen ferocity, the cold, dead voice speaking over him (Faulkner 169). Snopes pebble-colored eyes (165) and preference for funereal black clothing (164) are details from a horror story, and create more than a suggestion of lifelessness about this character. In fact, Faulkner uses Snopes to convey the sense of death as a force.
Finally, Faulkner imposes Snopes indelibly upon our imaginationsnot by varying any of his words or actions, but by the increasingly terrifying effect he has on other characters. Taking these characters together and observing how they respond to Snopes, we catch a growing revelation of who he is and what he is capable of as the realization breaks upon the two Justices of the Peace, Snopes wife, the de Spains, their household, and finally even upon Sarty (160, 167, 169, 170, 171).
Snopes consistent character grows upon us, but he does not grow. Like his stiff back, his unswerving gait, and his flat, black shape blocking out the stars, he is flat and unchanging to the end, but very memorable.