The knowledge a person has of his duty and loyalty to society can often become consuming and prevent him from attaining his own personal freedom. However, in the other extreme, if a person allows his awareness of personal freedom to take over completely, he may not find social responsibility to be a necessary aspect of his life. A balance should exist between one’s social responsibility and individual freedom. In an ideal case, one would allow self-knowledge to enhance his understanding of his obligations. The balance between these two forces is evident in “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner. In “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, social responsibility cripples the speaker’s desire for personal freedom. Both works demonstrate the relationship that exists between individual freedom and social responsibility by conveying the impact social responsibility has on freedom, and ignoring this freedom can prevent a person from making progress in their life.
In “Barn Burning,” Faulkner demonstrates that by having a clearer understanding of one’s freedom, the cognition of responsibility becomes stronger. Sarty is a young boy whose sharecropping father, Abner, burns barns instead of taking responsibility for doing something wrong. When the short story opens, Sarty’s father is being put through some sort of court trial for burning down a landowner’s barn. The Justice of Peace calls Sarty up to testify, and Sarty knows that his father does not want him to tell the truth. Sarty says, “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (497). When Sarty thinks about having to lie to The Justice of Peace, he is upset because he knows that he has a duty to tell the truth; however, he feels obligated to protect his father. In doing so, he sacrifices his own personal freedom by failing to uphold his social responsibility. Sarty tries to justify Abner’s actions by describing him as “a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own” (498). Sarty romanticizes Abner to make him a “brave” hero, although Abner was neither brave nor heroic: “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud by not loud, no more than a whisper…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…for booty-it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own (508).” After another incident, Abner prepares to burn the barn of the next man he works for, Major de Spain. When Sarty realizes this, he allows his conscience to take over and he warns de Spain. By being a good citizen and discovering where his obligations should lie, he is able to break away from his family and achieve personal freedom.
In “Mending Wall,” Frost conveys a different view of the relationship between responsibility and freedom. He demonstrates that social responsibility cripples personal freedom. The poem is about a wall that separates two properties, one belonging to the speaker, and the other belonging to his neighbor. The speaker sees no reason for having the wall, and even teases his neighbor for keeping it there. He says, “Where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines” (94). The neighbor’s response is an old adage that his father taught him: “Good fences make good neighbours” (94). This makes the neighbor appear to carry the burden of social responsibility and lack individual freedom, but it is the speaker who initiates the rebuilding process every spring. The speaker is actually the one who allows his social responsibility to take over because although he does not think the wall is a necessity, he returns to it every year to repair it. In the end, he still has not responded to his personal desire to tear it down.
Sarty does not achieve freedom until he rebels against his father’s ways and ostracizes himself from the family. If he had not ignored his need to be free, he could have started his life earlier, and may not have completely left the family. He is not afraid to go out into the world on his own, but he is sad that he is leaving his family. As he thinks of his father he feels “the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair” (508).
The speaker in “Mending Wall” is so wrapped up in his duties to rebuild the wall that he never breaks from his routine to do what he wants for himself. Instead, he goes back every spring to the wall and puts up what keeps getting destroyed, when he should really leave it alone.
Faulkner and Frost show different takes on the relationship between social responsibility and personal freedom. In Faulkner’s story, personal freedom depends on social responsibility whereas in Frost’s poem, social responsibility lowers personal freedom. Effectively, however, both works show that ignoring individual freedom prevents personal growth.