Faulkner’s Flames Light the Way


Since Texas is burning, and our friends and neighbors are evacuating and losing their homes, this morning I was drawn to William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning.” As you may know or imagine, the story is not so much about a barn burning as it is about relationships, power, conflict, identity and “the terrible handicap of being young.” Nevertheless, I feel drawn to the element of fire in the story. Faulkner was too. It’s a stunning tale, not of heated passion, but the blazing effects of cold methodical rage.

I recommend the story for it’s rich detailed rendering of a life of despair, not only due to economic and class oppression, but due to the particular suffering one ruined person inflicts on everyone else, all the time, without end. For my narrower purposes of learning to write from one of the greats, I want to mention one small device Faulkner used that helps me solve a problem in the writing of one of my stories.

I notice Faulkner jumped forward in time in a couple of instances by letting the narrator tell us early on how the young boy main character would have responded to certain abuses if he were older. This allows the reader to have a spark of hope the boy can’t possibly have in real time as the story unfolds. The narrator may be omniscient, but the story stays with the boy’s point of view, keeping it intimate, immediate, and terrible. Faulkner’s use of the narrator’s wider scope is small and measured, like the father’s campfires and his spirit. The few tiny sparks from the future indicating the boy’s adult self are brief but significant expansions of awareness needed to keep readers buoyant, even as they feel the despair of the characters.

The takeway for me:  in my story “Heat Wave,” I need my main character to move forward in time and come back to the present, not just in a flight of fancy, or a wish or hope for the future, but as a premonition, a state of being brought on by great exertion during the heat. One member of my writers group pointed out one instance of a premonition in my piece that was distracting, seemingly plunked there from another story. She was right. At first I thought it wasn’t working because it was a premonition. I wondered if it was too new-agey and didn’t fit the story. But I’m trying to blend magical moments with normal experience; that’s what my story is about. In truth it didn’t work, because I hadn’t written it well. There are two other premonitions in the same piece that do work. Keep the premonition, but observe Faulkner:  cut the part that announces it’s a premonition, and simply let the narrator state what is true in the future of the character’s life.

The talk of writing feels like dry tinder near the circle of heat such a story as “Barn Burning” radiates. I hope I catch some of Faulkner’s flames, even as I hope the wild fires around us soon burn out.

What’s your favorite Faulkner story, novel, or screenplay/movie? Or better, yet, what stories catch you on fire?

8 thoughts on “Faulkner’s Flames Light the Way

  1. Luscious! Luscious post. I’m going to reread Barn Burning tonight. I like the kindof permission Faulkner has given in his demonstration of this great tool of forward-looking narrator. And, I see all around me in the stories I’m reading and LOVING (“A Visit From the Goon Squad), this sort of magical premonition of a character or by a narrator–sometimes, I read it as mere awareness and only the courage to know and say what’ll come of it. In the story I’m working on, whose title has changed from “Super Star” to “Vanishing Point,” I’m struggling with how setting or “place in fiction” is altered by flashbacks and flashforwards, and omniscient-narrator proclamations of what is and what will be. I’m struggling to deliver strong PLACE, that which Faulkner delivered right to the doorstep of ones heart, complete with heat, drawal, dust and the particular way the sun in the South shone through dirty windowpanes. Moving forward and back, and still delivering the root of place, that is my problem to solve. I’m just trying to read the masters, too. I LOVE this post. Some really beautiful sentences in it. Again, I gotta say, I hope you read, “Light in August;” it’s magical the way real life is, the way stories are when our emotional lives’ integration with our external ones are seamlessly WRITTEN in fiction. Oh, William. You stoke the fires.

    1. Wow! Thanks again, Donna, for an awesome reply. I never thought about the issue of how to render place changing over time (and back and forth with narrative time jumping). What a fascinating and inspiring literary task. Makes me want to try it. I love both working titles for your story. Feeling thankful for the magic that real life is.

  2. Beautiful post. I am reading Absalom! Absalom! right now thinking of hot, dry, still, dead, hot, still Septembers in Texas. What lessons there are in Faulkner. Yes indeed. Thanks for reminding me to look even deeper for them.

  3. Here’s some water for all the fire: In David Wagoner’s poem, “The Other House”, a boy leaves the silence of his parents’ home for the oft-flooded basement of a nearby abandoned house where “Frogs came back to life and sang each spring.” Not only does he find the nutritive sound he seeks, but he experiences silence in a new, even magical way: “When I made a sound they stopped, and listened to me sing nothing, singing nothing.” The reader senses the boy’s triumph over the silence of his family home even more intensely when she remembers that the speaker is a grown man looking back and telling the tale. These thoughts seemed related to your post and Donna’s reply because of the elements, some magical moment, and the effect of time on place and experience. I love all your posts!

    1. Thank you, Debra! I’ll have to find this poem. This entire discussion makes me want to look at all my work in progress with an eye to using the later adult point of view at the end or sparingly throughout.

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