As “Barn Burning” opens, an adolescent boy named Sartoris Snopes is in court, hoping he will not have to testify in the arson case against his father — a charge of which Sarty knows Mr. Snopes is absolutely guilty. The judge, whom Sarty perceives as kindly, is nonetheless Sarty’s enemy because he is his father’s enemy, and Sarty has not yet separated himself from his father.
Sarty’s family are itinerant farmers, but they move around even more often than is typical because of his father’s habit of burning something down every time he gets angry. Sarty realizes that there is something deeply psychologically wrong with his father, but he underestimates his father’s danger. When they arrive at the beautiful plantation of Major de Spain, therefore, Sarty feels the de Spains are safe: “People whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity are behind his touch, he no more to them than a buzzing wasp: capable of stinging for a little moment but that’s all; the spell of this peace and dignity rendering even the barns and stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive.” Sarty does not know that his father can just as easily bring down a big plantation as a cow barn.
It would be easy to say that Sartoris, in the end, must make a choice between right and wrong, between the “peace and dignity” represented by the de Spains with the squalor and misery of the Snopes family, but it is more than that. At the story’s beginning, when Sarty was ready to testify that his father did not burn down that barn, he would have done it because a son’s job is to stick to his father. At the story’s end, he warns Major de Spain that his father is about to burn down his beautiful plantation, even though he knows that this will bring his family down once and for all, even though he knows that this means he will never be able to go home again. This is heavy knowledge for a boy — but Sarty is able to do it because he now sees that he is not his father, and the route he wants to travel in the world is nothing like his father’s path.