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William Faulkner’s "Barn Burning" – Honoring Family Or Honoring Self
William Faulkner is remembered for his many fictional short stories and essays. One of his best known, and most beloved, is an account entitled “Barn Burning,” a coming of age narrative set in the aftermath of the war torn South. Here a young protagonist, named Colonel Sartoris Snopes, is pitted against his antagonist father, Abner. Named for a fictional Civil War hero, Colonel Snopes, or Sarty as he called, is a ten-year-old little boy born into a poor sharecropper family headed by a ruthless, vindictive, and angry man. Faulkner describes Sarty physically as a young boy, small for his age, wiry, wearing patched and faded jeans too small for him, with no shoes on his feet. He has brown, uncombed hair, grey eyes, and is “wild as a storm scud” (179). Emotionally Sarty is a despairing, grief-stricken, and fearful young man who learns how to overcome these limitations to make the biggest decision of his life and, in the process, becomes a man.
Faulkner does a masterful job of giving the reader an undeniable sense of Sarty’s despair. At the Harris trial, while waiting to be called as a witness, Faulkner states that the boy is filled with a mixture of emotion but “mostly of despair” (178). The cause of this despondency is two fold; he is expected to lie, and to adopt his father’s enemies as his own. The pressure to lie is exerted by his father. Sarty thinks to himself: “he aims for me to lie… with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (179). It is quite evident that Sarty was no stranger to his father’s demand for unity, and yet it is equally evident that he feels a great degree of despair bullying The enemies are a different matter. This is self imposed despondency. In his adolescent mind he can reach no other conclusion than that his father’s enemies must be his own. He sees his father’s “enemy” and muses “in that despair” that they are “ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father” (179). The despair comes from his sensation that he must hate those his father hates.
This hopelessness gives way to yet another emotion still more bitter, that of grief. While the words despair and grief have similar connotations it appears evident that Faulkner viewed them as distinctly separate characteristics of this young man. Faulkner repeatedly states that Sarty is filled with “grief and despair”(179) both. Despair refers to the hopelessness Sarty feels, while grief is referring to the intense sorry over the choice that he must make. Sarty understands the morality of issues. Though hampered by his surroundings, he nonetheless has an internal principle of moral decency. A war in his mind rages between his loyalty to blood and that of his civic responsibility. It is said to be like “being pulled two ways… between two teams of horses” (186). This pulling shakes him at his core and demands a response. Sarty knows his father is wrong, but he also feels intense sorrow over the inevitable choice that he must make; this is the source of his grief.
Such a young boy, faced with such a difficult situation can not help but feel a sense fear. In fact, Sarty is described as being full of “fear” (178) and “terror” (182). Faulkner tells us that Sarty’s youthfulness, coupled with his fathers brutality, creates a longing to be “free” (182) while simultaneously generating “enough weight to keep him rooted in his place”(182). “Fear,” the Bible asserts “hath torment” and Sarty is without a doubt a tormented soul. That is, until they come to Major De Spain’s and Sarty sees his home: “at that instant he forgot his father and the terror and despair both” (182). And this sets the stage for our hero to shine.
In this visit Sarty comes to understand that it is possible to break free from his father’s influence. To him, the house looks like a “Courthouse” (182) which is a symbol of civic justice and is no doubt the impression given to the young man because of his inner desire to have his father brought to account for his deeds. He knows his father’s crimes can’t go on. This visit marks the turning point in his mentality, the point where the ten-year-old child decides to become a man.
It seems that Faulkner wants us to see through the child’s eyes the fact that each of us must choose our own path, that life is a series of decisions that start early in our childhood and define who we will be later in life. We control our course, not the blood of ancestry, not familial relation, and we can change our direction if we will stay true to our convictions and choose to do good as apposed to doing evil.
Sarty makes his choice; he will be true to himself. As he races down the dirt road leading to the De Spain’s house, Sarty can feel his blood racing and his heart throbbing yet his blood is not holding him back as he had supposed, but rather it is urging him on; overcoming the despair, bypassing his fear, and ignoring his grief; he is now, for all intents and purposes, a man. His childhood is just as dead as his father appears to be; his future just as dark and uncertain as the night sky and dark forest that he walks into, just as uncertain as adult life really is. The story ends with the dawning of a new day; symbolically representing the new lease on life this young protagonist has gained. The old familiar feelings of “despair” and “grief” (191) are still present but the “terror and fear” (191) are now gone. No future decision in life can ever be so hard; no other night can ever be as dark, because he is now the master of his own destiny.
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