In William Faulkner’s stories “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning” (Faulkner), the protagonists both must deal with overbearing fathers. Emily’s father refuses to let her have boyfriends, and Sarty’s father Abner is an arsonist. We see how these authority figures dominate their lives indirectly, in “Emily”, and directly, in “Barn”. Faulkner creates a world in where no one is innocent, the need for control can be dangerous, and a break with authority can be necessary yet tragic.
Neither Emily nor Sarty are truly innocent, which traps them within an assumed innocence.
Emily is never allowed to experience romance until her father is dead, which makes her innocent of normal male-female relationships, but sadly experienced in a dominating, suppressive one. Her only other relationship is with her serving-man. It is very possible Emily views all men only as potential slave masters or slaves. There is no innocent first love, only a twisted one-sided relationship.
Sarty has also experienced hardship, due to his father’s pyrotechnics. Sarty is very aware of society’s laws and reactions to his father’s crimes. He has seen the destructive power of fire and his father shows this same destructiveness when he beats Sarty. Sarty tries to relate to his father, but cannot due to his experience of what arson really does.
In both stories, to be innocent is to be ignorant.
The townspeople are innocent enough to dismiss the smell at Emily’s as bad cooking or hygiene, and therefore miss the glaring evidence of murder. The pharmacist, while not completely naïve, does not have enough persuasiveness to stop Emily from buying arsenic because he has no experience with the situation.
Sarty’s siblings seem innocently ignorant as well. While we find it hard to believe they could be anymore innocent than Sarty, especially the accomplice older brother, they do not to seem to have the same grasp of their father’s actions. The sisters are lazy and unintelligent, and the brother follows Abner blindly.
In both stories, the need for control is dangerous and destructive.
Emily’s father controls her, and this leads to her wanting control over her lover, Homer Barron. Her desire is so strong she kills him, keeps his corpse and never leaves her house. Her home has become her own world in which she can control everything, even her lover. He will never tell her he’s not in the mood, that he doesn’t like the curtains, or that she shouldn’t go out tonight. More important for Emily, he will never leave her, at least physically or by his own volition. He can forever remain the ideal-no need to discover he’s a philanderer or an addict.
Abner exercises control over his family and over the element fire. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, as a way to bridge the gap between them. This is basically how Abner utilizes fire. No barn is fire proof, no matter how much money or pedigree has gone into it. His employers may abuse him all they want, all men
are equal in the face of fire-and all are subservient to the one who controls it. Fire also represents rage, as both can be destructive and lose control in an instant.
Faulkner shows the sometimes tragic necessity of breaking with authority.
When Sarty finally betrays his father’s actions openly, it is at least partly in the interest of his family. They cannot keep travelling an losing jobs. They cannot constantly be put in the position of being made to commit perjury or take responsibility for actions that aren’t theirs. Sarty cannot continually be physically and mentally abused. The struggle of family vs. ethics/law/etc. is unsustainable, particularly for a child. Yet when Sarty hears gunshots, he knows it is likely that his father and brother are dead. Sarty will then have to reconcile the feelings of responsibility he may have.
In contrast, Emily never breaks with authority until she breaks what is the most crucial law-murder. Perhaps it is inevitable that those who feel oppressed will revolt, and perhaps it would have been better for everyone if Emily had done so earlier in her life. “Barn Burning” shows this necessity much more explicitly than “A Rose for Emily” does. We don’t actually know to what extent her father controlled her; it may have been very slight. It may have been incredibly abusive. We don’t know if it directly influenced her murderous ways, but one can reasonably assume so. One cannot act according to another’s desires forever. These stories show us the same thing experience has-the longer an emotion stays under wraps, the hotter it will grow, and the more combustible the release will be.
It may have been better for Sarty to turn in his father in the beginning as well. If Abner went to prison, it would have saved two lives. Perhaps what Faulkner is trying to say is that we should not subject anyone-ourselves or others-to someone’s own desires. Faulkner mentioned that the human heart was oftentimes in conflict with itself (Robbins)-add someone else’s heart and life in nearly unsustainable.
Faulkner, William. Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Random House Inc., 1962.
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