For the purposes of this essay, I am going to cite and explain a thematic ambiguity that is present in two short stories written by William Faulkner: “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning.” Faulkner is known for writing about the American South. However, the themes present in his stories are not alike the themes that are conventional to that genre. The main characters in these two stories are both involved in a psychological struggle created by their histories of dependence on their fathers. However, after their fathers’ deaths, both characters are confronted by an independence and free will they had not known before. Although the two stories employ ambiguous psychological themes of mind as both dependant and free, they seem to show the latter triumphing over the former, suggesting that ideals are ultimately proactive.
William Faulkner was considered a modernist author. Modernists were writers, artists, and musicians who promoted a new way of life-a break from the past and its traditions. They believed that the ideals of the past were hindering movement into a new social, political, and cultural society. One aspect of modernism was its philosophy which based many of its ideas on existentialism. Both Faulkner’s modernist views and modernism’s existentialist principals become evident when examining the psychological thematic ambiguities in “Barn Burning” and “A Rose for Emily.”
Evidence of a psychological theme becomes apparent in the resolution of “A Rose for Emily” when Miss Emily Grierson’s death is announced to the townspeople. After her father’s death led her into an almost exclusively solitary existence, Emily’s death reveals that she had killed the only man she’d ever been in a relationship with and had been sleeping with his skeleton for many years. In addition to sleeping with Homer’s dead body, she also expresses a want to keep her father’s remains after his death. “Miss Emily met [the women of the neighborhood] at the front door, dressed as usual with no grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead.” One surface theme can be derived from Emily’s relationships with her father and her only lover, Homer Barron. Her inability to let go of both men, even after their deaths, invokes the first psychological theme – mind as dependent. However, Emily’s decision to kill Homer was an act that was committed solely through her own free will. Therefore the story presents another psychological theme – mind as free. Though a psychological theme is apparent, its meaning is ambiguous.
The struggle in “Barn Burning” that takes place primarily in the mind of Colonel Sartoris Snopes also presents an apparent psychological theme. After struggling with his dedication to both family and morality, Sarty decides to stop his father from committing another act of arson, causing his father to be shot by the man whose barn his father was intending to burn. Throughout the story, Sarty jumps back and forth between supporting his father’s ideals and condemning them. His support for his father presents a surface psychological theme of mind as dependent, but his support of morality presents a psychological theme of mind as free. The best example of the ambiguity between these two themes occurs on the night his father is shot. His father tells him to go get an oil canister; he knows what his father is planning, but he leaves to retrieve it anyway. While he is running toward the canister, he thinks to himself: “I could keep on… I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can’t. I can’t.”
Although both stories employ ambiguous psychological themes of mind as both dependant and free, they both end with a triumph of free will over dependence. “Barn Burning” ends with Sarty walking away from the place where his father was shot. He had cried for his father the night before and tried to make himself believe that his father had been courageous, but, in the end “[h]e did not look back.” Emily had seemed so dependent on her father and Homer, but she too, in the end, found her independence. She died alone, “[f]ell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering negro man to wait on her.” She had murdered her only lover and slept with him for years; she had ignored the assertions of her cousins and the townspeople who had urged her not to form a relationship with him to begin with. She had done all of this through her own free will. In the end, she was dependent on no one.
This triumph of free will over dependence suggests an inverted theme of ideals as proactive. This inverted theme, which is a premise of existentialism, brings Faulkner’s modernist views to light. Faulkner imbeds these themes into stories that would traditionally reject existentialist views. In this way, he was both a writer and philosopher. He attempted to enlighten people through his writing.
In “Barn Burning,” Sarty reflects back on a time when his father had hit him because he had considered telling a judge that his father had burned down the neighbor’s barn. His father insists that he must “stick to [his] own bloodÃ¢Â?Â¦.” This idea of holding family relations above all other aspects of life is one of the traditional ideals that Faulkner brought a modernist perspective to. The story’s narrator explained Sarty’s reaction to the moment in a reflection from the later years of his life: “Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, ‘If I had said they only wanted truth, justice, he would have hit me again.'”
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning” and “A Rose for Emily” from Reading Faulkner’s Best Short Stories by Hans H. Skei. Copyright Ã?Â© 1999 by University of South Carolina Press.