"Barn Burning" by W. Faulkner and "The things They Carried" by T. O'Brien
Going against ones parents is always a traumatic and, sometimes, a rite of passage. As if the event itself turns a child into an adult simply by forcing them to make “adult” decisions. These two stories, Barn Burning by William Faulkner and The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, are excellent examples of this. They both show us how children, be it age or temperament, are faced with adult situations and decisions, forcing them to grow up sooner.
In Barn Burning the boy has to choose between the right decision (telling the truth about his father and trying to stop his father from burning any more barns) and the wrong decision (helping his father and lying to the Justice of the Peace). This is gripping and shows how tough choices arise no matter the age of the individual. I can sympathize with both the boy, for his having to make that final choice of going against his father and warn the landlord. And with the father because it seemed to me that he was outraged, jealous and maybe even sad that he, as a white man, was being treated as a common negro of that time.
Regardless of their ages, the actions of both the boy and his father ultimately proved that they were both men and they faced reality and its cold heart. The father was faced with the sad fact that he, a white man, was considered lowly and no more useful than a plow mule. That fact was unbearable, especially to a man with a temperament befitting a badger. He sees those that are of higher status than he as the enemy; that they all look down on him and treat him like nothing. To seek his own form of justice, he takes the one thing they need from him; his obedience. By burning the barns on the properties that he works on, he is essentially making a statement and making it to where the owners have to somehow give him something and repay him. It's a twist on being able to control their lives and speaking out against his landlords; using fire as his voice, he is saying that he is not as useless as they make him out to be, that he is not a negro. They are, the father and his oldest son are, white men.
The boy, on the other hand, was faced with having to either join his father in his destructive protests, or betray him and turn him in. This is a serious endeavor for any child, yet he rises and finally tells. He betrays his own father for the sake of right and wrong, even though he is filled with guilt over having to do it. He truly does want his father to change, to be something other than what he is, but he learns that this can never happen. I would expect that many children, high school and middle school students especially, would gain a lot of insight when reading stories such as this. It teaches you the many faces of humanity, how it doesn't matter how you were born or what you were born with, people use other people for their own greed and self indulgences. This would most likely teach younger generations how, even though it is a dream to be all equal, nothing is as factual and cold as the harsh reality of life. But, the important thing is the choices you will make along the way that will prove whether you are good or bad according to yourself.
Another example of how kids are forced to become adults and asked to make hard decisions is the story The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Students in high school and middle school would surely gain a newer view on reality from this story, I believe, because I did when I read it. I understood the meaning of the title The Things They Carried and the detailed descriptions of everything they carried, but man was it winded. Pounds, ounces, amounts, it's enough already! I get it. They carried a lot of stuff. Gotcha. The author, although trying to stress the fact that soldiers carried not only weapons, ammo and gear but also other objects such as toilet paper, letters, and lucky charms, seemed to stress the details far beyond what was required in my opinion. Personally, I have never enjoyed reading military subject or styled books. They never seem to strike any cords or peek any interest within me. They always seem to end up the same way; boys becoming men because they have to deal with the death around them, the soldiers feeling as if they were on another planet due to the chaos around them, or something along the lines of the weakest ones rising above the ranks and becoming what no one ever thought they could be. It's nice and symbolical, in theory, but when it comes to reality it doesn't really mean much. Boys go in, bigger boys come out. Just because they saw men being shot doesn't mean that they automatically became men. And just because they were shot at doesn't mean that they are men either. Being at war only shows a few shades of an individual's pallet, as this story proves with the passages of the narrator talking about his love back home and then ending with him vanquishing his love for the sake of leading his men into "war". He was one shade of one color then grew into a new shade of that same color. Does this mean he is a different person all together? I'd have to say yes and no.
Either way you look at it, both stories were equally insightful about life and the transgression between childhood and adulthood. I think younger students would gain some insight from them. And, we can only hope that the cold, harsh reality we have now can one day become a little less cold and harsh and more understanding, sympathetic, and less blind and deaf to what's going on around the world.
<If you'd like to go back to Response Journals main page, just click on the Home Response Journals link at the bottom of this page.>