The story begins in the court room of the Justice of the Peace, which is located in a store that smells like cheese. Sarty Snopes is watching the proceedings of Mr. Harris vs. his father, Abner Snopes; Mr. Harris accuses Abner Snopes of burning down his barn. We learn the story of what happened from Mr. Harris's testimony: the Snopes family had been living on his land, and Abner refused to pen in his hog. Mr. Harris sent down wire to mend the pen, but he never used it, so Mr. Harris took the hog. Then Abner sent a messenger to tell Mr. Harris, "Wood and hay kin burn," and that night the barn burned down. Mr. Harris asks that Sarty testify, and they get as far as the Justice of the Peace asking him his name; he answers, "Colonel Startoris Snopes." Mr. Harris decides, upon being asked again, that he does not actually want Sarty to testify. The Justice of the Peace finds in Abner Snopes's favor, but tells him to leave before dark and to not return.
Sarty follows his older brother and Abner out of the store/court room, and a passerby yells, "Barn Burner!" Sarty is filled with a defensive rage and attacks the speaker until his father pulls him back. They get in the wagon, where his mother, aunt Lizzie, and sisters are waiting with all the family's belongings. Sarty's mother tries to treat the wound he has acquired in the scuffle, but he tells her to leave him alone.
That night the family camps out, apparently on the way to another tenant farm, though they don't know where. His father makes "a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father's habit and custom always, even in freezing weather." The narrator remarks that if Sarty were older, he might have wondered why his father, who had such a penchant for burning barns, did not just burn everything in sight. "And older still," Sarty might have decided that "the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being... as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion."
Abner takes Sarty aside and accuses him of being about to tell the Justice of the Peace that Abner did, in fact, burn down the barn. He strikes him and tells him, "You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you." Sarty is taken aback not by the beating, but by the explanation that follows.
The next day they arrive at the new house, and Sarty's sisters complain as they unload the wagon. Abner tells Sarty to come with him, and they walk up the road to the house of the man who owns the land, Major de Spain. Sarty has never seen a house that big, and is filled with a "surge of peace and joy," hoping that maybe "people whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity are beyond his touch..." He observes his father as he steps in a pile of horse droppings and continues on; they walk across the portico, and Abner knocks on the door. It is immediately opened by a nameless Negro who tells Aber to wipe off his feet before entering; Abner pushes him aside, ignoring him. Lula de Spain enters and stares at the track of droppings being left on the carpet by Abner's bum foot in horror. She asks him to please go away, but he does not speak or even look at her. He examines the house quickly, then "the boy watched him pivot on the good leg and saw the stiff foot drag round the arc of the turning, leaving a final long and fading smear." After they leave, Abner wipes his foot off on the steps.
Sarty and Abner return home. Major de Spain rides by on a sorrel mare, and the young Negro following him drops off the damaged carpet in front of Abner Snopes. The narrator describes this scene as Sarty experiences it, so the reader is unaware of what actually happens in the exchange between the two men. Abner instructs Sarty's sisters to pick up the rug and drag it inside. They use homemade lye to try to clean it, with Abner overseeing their progress. Lennie Snopes, Sarty's mother, begs her husband, "Abner. Abner. Please don't. Please, Abner." It is as if she realizes that he is purposefully destroying the rug. The foot tracks are gone, and have been replaced by "long, water-cloudy scoriations resembling the sporadic course of a Lilliputian mowing machine."
Most of the family goes to bed, but Abner tells Sarty to get on the mule and come with him to Major de Spain's house. His father takes the rug from off the mule; it "struck the angle of wall and floor with a sound unbelievably loud, thunderous." Sarty sees the lights come on in the de Spain house, and wants to rush away, but his father insists they keep the mule at a walk.
The next day, Wednesday, "in the first red rays of the sun," Major de Spain returns to the Snopes house. He accuses Abner of ruining the rug on purpose, and tells him, "It cost a hundred dollars. But you never had a hundred dollars. You never will." He charges Abner twenty bushels of corn, then leaves. Sarty approaches his father and tries to prove that he is on the side of blood, saying, "You done the best you could!" Abner tells him to get back to work.
For the rest of the week, the Snopes family works the farm and Sarty hopes to himself that his father will now "stop forever and always from being what he used to be." Sarty's thoughts address the main theme of the story, which is the conflict between duty to family and conscience. Sarty describes it as "being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses."
On Saturday, Sarty goes with his father and older brother to another store/court room. He is immediately filled with defensiveness, and says to the Justice of the Peace, "He ain't done it! He ain't burnt..." without knowing that Abner is actually suing Major de Spain for charging him twenty bushels of corn for the damage to the rug. Sarty observes the proceedings, in which the judge finds against Abner, but does reduce the charge from twenty bushels to ten bushels of corn. Sarty still deliberately sides with his father, whispering, "He won't git no ten bushels neither. He won't git one." Abner reacts passively, saying, "You think so? Well, we'll wait till October anyway."
When Abner announces, "It's time to eat," he and his sons don't go home, but eat cheese and crackers from the store. When they return home, it's after sundown, and Sarty hears his mother, Lennie, once again begging her husband not to leave to burn down the barn. Abner instructs Sarty to go to the barn and get a can of oil. Sarty runs to the barn and retrieves the oil, the whole time battling within himself whether he should help his father. He is tempted to run away and not come back, but realizes that he can't. The older brother suggests tying him up, so that he will be sure not to run and warn Major de Spain. But Abner decides that it is sufficient to instruct his mother to hold onto him.
But Sarty struggles away from his mother, and runs out of the house, up the road that is described metaphorically as a "pale ribbon unspooling with terrific slowness under his running feet." He enters Major de Spain's house and yells only, "Barn! Barn!" The Negro grasps at his sleeve but it tears away, and Sarty runs back down the road. Soon he is overtaken by Major de Spain, and he jumps out of the way into the roadside ditch. Faulkner uses long, run-on sentences to convey the panic and blurring together of time as Sarty experiences it. He hears gunshots, and knows that Major de Spain has killed his father.
Sarty keeps running until "at midnight, he was sitting on the crest of a hill." He whispers aloud, "He was brave! He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris' cav'ry!" Sarty decides to get up and continue, as "the slow constellations wheeled on" and the whippoorwills sing everywhere. "He did not look back."
The narrator is omniscient, but is closely tied to Sarty's perspective. Though the story is not in the first-person voice, the use of synecdoche lends a childlike tone to the narration. Sarty understands things as symbols, and these symbols are often represented through synecdoche. For example, in the store/court room where the story begins, Mr. Harris asks for Sarty's testimony. The crowd between the table and Sarty becomes "a lane of grim faces."
Another way in which the narrator gives the impression of somehow being inside Sarty's mind is by using metaphors that are appropriate to a child's perspective. In the first scene, after the Justice of the Peace asks Mr. Harris to confirm that he really wants Sarty to testify, the silence and following noise is described as:
...it was as if he had swung outward at the end of a grape vine, over a ravine, and at the top of the swing had been caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless in time.
"No!" Harris said violently, explosively. "Damnation! Send him out of here!" Now time, the fluid world, rushed beneath him again...
In this way, while using advanced vocabulary that Sarty would not use, the narrator creates the impression that the reader is seeing the world through Sarty's point of view.
However, the use of dramatic irony makes it obvious that the narrator is omniscient and not, in fact, Sarty. This technique is used when the family is camping outside, as the narrator muses that if Sarty were older, he might question why his father creates only meager fires to keep the family warm, while he seems to revel in huge, destructive blazes at other times. The other obvious use of dramatic irony is at the very end of the story, when Sarty has run away and cries aloud that his father was in the war, "not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty - it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own." But Sarty does not know this, and it is in part the lack of this knowledge that allows him to harbor respect for his father. He also doesn't understand the "ravening and jealous rage which unknown to him walked in the ironlike black coat before him."
Synecdoche is used almost consistently in reference to Abner Snopes through his son Sarty's eyes. Faulkner uses this technique self-consciously in describing Sarty's view of his father as they camp outdoors:
... once more he followed the stiff back, the stiff and ruthless limp, up the slope and on to the starlit road where, turning, he could see his father against the stars but without face or depth, a 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.
In this description of Abner as almost a not-living thing, the continued use of synecdoche makes sense: Sarty sees parts of his father as symbols representing the whole, but the whole is a mystery. When Sarty follows his father to Major de Spain's house for the first time, he observes his father as:
the flat, wide, black hat, the formal coat of broadcloth which had once been black but which had now that friction-glazed greenish cast of the bodies of old house flies, the lifted sleeve which was too large, the lifted hand like a curled claw.
"Barn Burning" is a prequel to the "Snopes" trilogy, made up of the novels The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959). In The Hamlet, Abner and his wife settle in Frenchman's bend with only one daughter and one son, Flem (who is Sarty's unnamed older brother in "Barn Burning"). In The Town, Flem begins to try to take over the town of Jefferson, and seeks revenge on Manfred de Spain, with whom his wife has been having a long affair. In The Mansion, Flem is killed by a relative, Mink. Abner is also a character in The Unvanquished.
The story was immediately popular after its publication. The praise largely stems from its dealing with the theme of Sarty's struggle between loyalty to his family and what he knows is right. His initiation into manhood is symbolized by morning's approach at the end of the story. Although Abner and Sarty's older brother are main characters in other works, Sarty never again appears.