Universal Themes and Family in Faulkners "Barn Burning" and "The Diary of Anne Frank"

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  • Author Paul Thomson
  • Published April 13, 2010
  • Word count 755

Despite being only some one hundred paragraphs long, William Faulkner’s 1938 short story "Barn Burning" pals around in quite the variety of literary circles. Since its protagonist, Sarty, is a ten-year-old boy who breaks away from his family to forge his own identity, it is probably best defined as a coming-of-age tale. Then again, the story’s depiction of small-town Southern life, morally-ambiguous characters, suspense, injustice, and insanity have all the characteristics of the Southern Gothic genre. Faulkner’s tendency to pop in and out of his main character’s thoughts unannounced qualifies the story as modernist, while the fact that the protagonist’s father is a psychopathic arsonist also scores it pretty high on the "psychological thriller" scale.

Though the story is capable of filling many literary niches, its strange and somewhat demented plot seems to fall short on what you might call real-world relevance. After all, how often do we find ourselves being chased out of town in a two-mule wagon because a certain family member likes to watch his neighbors’ buildings burn? While "Barn Burning" might not be the book that comes to mind as you go about your daily life, the underlying themes are actually pretty straightforward and incredibly pertinent. To prove that you don’t need to be a impoverished twentieth-century Southern tenant farmer to be able to relate to Sarty’s situation, let’s compare it to, say, the story of Anne Frank, a 15-year old German Jew who hid behind a bookshelf for two years to escape religious persecution during World War II.

At the most basic level, both Barn Burning and The Diary of Anne Frank are about family – and the reality of being stuck with them. Okay, so the forced closeness of being constantly driven from town to town together or sharing a tiny annex nonstop for 760 days is pretty extreme, but this only accelerates the process that some of us spend a lifetime addressing: how to identify yourself not as your father’s son or your mother’s daughter – or the one who slept with the light on until seventh grade, but as your own, independently developing entity.

Taking a stand against the "pull of blood," Sarty honors his inner good guy by alerting people as to his father’s latest pyromaniacal target. In the process, he also goes against his entire family, who attempts to stop him from implicating his dad for arson (and probably isn’t ready to pack up and move just yet). Anne’s struggle, on the other hand, is far less radical, as it largely takes place internally between what she calls the "two Annes": her cheerful, flippant, flirtatious half, which her family doesn’t particularly respect, and her more secret, serious, noble half, which they aren’t well acquainted with. Because she does not have the liberty of making a grand gesture in a criminal-type situation (let alone LEAVING afterward), she uses the diary itself to build her character and speak her personal truth.

This battle for identity is fought not only within the family, but within the community. Sarty discovers that his communal identity is inseparable from his father’s actions when, despite having nothing to do with the various fires, he is singled out and personally accused of being a "barn burner." In addition to turning his father in and turning his back on his family, Sarty finishes the ordeal by heading "toward the dark woods," thus symbolically exiting the civilized world to define himself in the absence of others’ desires, demands, or opinions.

Likewise, Anne is acutely aware of the injustice of her persecution, lamenting that while "What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does reflects on all Jews." However, because she doesn’t quite have the freedom to embark on a personal vision quest, she cannot separate herself from the relationships that (mis-)define her – or the annoyances that provoke her to live down to their standards. Frustrated, Anne instead finds herself wishing that "there were no other people in the world."

While "Barn Burning" and "The Diary of Anne Frank" bear almost no resemblance to each other in terms of plot, setting, character, narration, or those other major literary identifiers, they actually have a lot of common ground in how they apply to us as readers. This is the beauty of stories: when we take a moment to stop thinking of them as literature and start thinking of them as storytelling, the gap between the words and the world closes.

Shmoop is an online study guide for Literature, novels like the Diary of Anne Frank, Barn Burning written during World War II. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels.

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