Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Lennie Snopes, a Closer Look

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Lennie Snopes, a Closer Look

Article excerpt

EVEN IN DISCUSSIONS LIMITED SPECIFICALLY TO THAT TINY CORNER OF THE Faulkner opus called "Barn Burning," few spend time on the mother of Sarty Snopes. (1) No one misses the hope of new life for the boy as he leaves his family and does not look back, but we dismiss Sarty's mother though she contributes significantly to the impact of the story. Her reactions mirror Sarty's crisis, and the "grief and despair" Faulkner attributes to Sarty are also hers. She functions as a sort of miners' canary whose cries break the silence at critical moments. Her outbursts provoke more questions than answers and cannot be labeled choric or interpretive, but if we give ear to Lennie's brief and anguished articulations, allowing her to emerge from a background she seems always to inhabit even in critical commentary, we will perceive with greater clarity the issues at stake for her son and gain access to the complexities of "Barn Burning" on new and deeper levels.

Lennie Snopes actually says little and has no noticeable influence on the actions and choices of her husband. Edmond L. Volpe discusses the family dynamic here, but mentions Lennie only in passing, interpreting her as a sort of foil for Abner, the character in "Barn Burning" no one can ignore: "The will-less, abject creature that is his wife symbolizes the power of his will. What Ab had done to his wife, he sets out to do to the emerging will of his son" (236). While accepting this view as far as it goes, we may also wonder whether Faulkner really means for us to take Abner's cue and reduce Lennie to insignificance.

In fact, the male characters should not be our only focus. If Lennie remains invisible in the twists and turns of the language, the close shaving of moral and psychological fine points; if we miss her scenes and remain deaf to her utterances, we lose much Faulkner provides to make gripping and credible a story that is hers as well as Abner's, Sarty's, and De Spain's. Lennie becomes the context of Sarty's surprising choice. Through her, we understand more clearly the inner struggle driving her child into his future alone. As if in answer to the easy objection, "No ten-year-old would do that!" Faulkner provides a mother who shares the boy's life and emotions, a person who occupies the center of his determining moments. What she does moves the plot toward Sarty's defining realization and prepares us for it. Lennie Snopes appears at important junctures, and her cries punctuate the instant, prodding the reader to attend.

There are other reasons to look closely at a character usually deemed too unimportant for comment. The weight Faulkner places on the whole Snopes ethos, for example, creates its own significance. Volpe identifies "the inhuman ego blindness" from which "the crimes people inflict upon their fellow men" are derived in Faulkner's writing (238). The ego blindness, according to Volpe, "achieves its apotheosis in the satanic Ab Snopes of 'Barn Burning'" (238). According to this view, Snopes and the story he dominates together represent a key to some of Faulkner's perennial themes. In fact, the Snopeses and "Snopesism" become a kind of shorthand designation for everything Faulkner opposes and invite a close study of this element in his fiction. Jean Weisgerber notes that these people are "abominated by Faulkner" (9). As a mere cipher in Abner's household, Lennie has a place in the circle of Snopeses though, of course, she is not a Snopes by blood. Faulkner will press the point, linking this mother with the son who is an exception in the Snopes breed. Despite the fact that "blood" is Abner's shorthand for what it means to be a Snopes, the "fierce pull of blood" seems to exert its force as a genetic inheritance Sarty has from his mother as well as from his Snopes father. Something is drawing Sarty out. The "pull of blood" may define his loyalty to Abner, but the boy has another bloodline, a powerful influence stirring his inner conflict and impacting his decisions. …

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