Stories and poems are enshrined in different environments, culture, place and time. Additionally, the character and relationship with others are closely linked to the setting to help the audience understand the atmosphere and the context of place and time. Specific actions and behaviour are likely to unfold in certain environments, which is essential for the theme and tone of a story or any other literary work.  Hence, character and setting go hand in hand in stories and other writings to provide a catalyst, consistency and conflict. The following paper explores how cultural and economic environments influence the behaviour and actions of characters in The Tempest by William Shakespeare and the Barn Burning by William Faulkner to develop the themes of gender norms and class respectively.

In Barn Burning, William Faulkner uses the environment as a critical literal element to help the audience understand the narrative. The author uses the socioeconomic setting, which reveals how the constraints of the surrounding shape, influence and affect how Abner expresses himself. A critical observation of the story reveals that Barn uses the environment from the beginning to the end, which influences the outcome of the story. Notably, Faulkner’s story is one of the narratives written in the 1930s to tell the experiences of the poor. Precisely, the story narrates the lives of the Snopes’s clan to illustrate the socioeconomic disparities between tenants and landowners.

The Snopes clan, in particular, are poor tenants who toil as sharecroppers in plantations owned by the whites to earn a living. In the 1930s, the Snopes and Sartoris clans are overlapping entities whose differences in social values spur the author’s imagination. The contrast between the Snopes tenant farmer shack and the de Spain mansion further highlights the divide. In the rendition of the agrarian society by the Sartoris, the story acknowledges the subservience of the black population, the divisiveness, and injustices in the community where the wealthy class like the de Spains and Sartoris wrought. The class distinction, economic inequality, and social inequality make Abner Snopes begin to burn the barns. Social-economic injustices are evident within the story in specific scenes where the concepts of the tenant farmer, poor white and sharecropper appear.

One instance of social injustice occurs during the encounter between the black house servant at the de Spain mansion with Abner and Sarty at the doorway. Young Colonel Sartoris Snopes (whose names reflect the aristocracy of landowners against the poor tenant farmers) (Faulkner 1) realizes the differences in class when he reacts to the size of the big house. The house, which is as big as the courthouse, guarantees peace, dignity and safety, unlike the unpainted two-room houses he lives. In the same scene, the old black servant orders father and son when he says “Wipe yo foots, white man, fo you come in here. Major ain’t home nohow.” (Faulkner 5). The command to wipe off the fresh horse droppings Abner deliberately leaves on his shoes clearly depicts how lowly the tenant farmers are regarded. Additionally, the encounter emphasizes the inferiority of the poor sharecropper against the position of the black house servant. While Sarty sees the house as a safe haven against constant violence from Abner, his father views the mansion as a beautiful house made at the disadvantage of black people. When he walks away, he stands momentarily and stares back at home saying, “Pretty and white, ain’t it?” he said. “That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it” (Faulkner 5). Unlike his son, Abner fully understands the ignorance, hardships that the Southern social systems exert on his like. The Abner’s defiant attitude is the knowledge that the wealthy man in the big house wants to start owning Abner’s soul and body for the next few months, which depicts the plight of tenant farmers (Faulkner 6). Such outrageous thoughts further fuel Abner’s defiance against the class structures where he begins to attack aristocracy by destroying the rugs twice and burning his boss’s property. Through Abner, Faulkner’s story illustrates how deprivation injustice and oppression during the great depression take a toll on the human spirit resulting in defiance by the lower class. Therefore, the historical facts provided by the socioeconomic setting of the story illustrate why Abner behaves like an abusive, violent, defiant and destructive man who courageously faces impossible odds.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare illustrates how gender norms and other cultural norms influence the character and settings in literature. The play was written during the Elizabethan period when women had little control over their lives since men made decisions for the females with little or no affirmation or consultation. Gender roles during this period were clearly defined where men went out to work and women expected to remain home and keep the hearth. Women were treated as nuptial economy or general property whose hopes lay in either joining a convent or settling in marriage. While the upper-class Elizabeth women had access to restricted education, other women lacked access to education, inheritance, theatre or politics.

A close analysis of the play unravels the sophisticated socio-cultural processes which develop and perpetuate certain myths and gender biases illustrated in different forms of representation. The patriarchal ideals are present throughout The Tempest with the Miranda as the only female character, and where women are presented as robotic and compliant beings. In Miranda, for instance, Shakespeare specifically creates and describes her as the perfect woman under patriarchial dominance and ideology, making her blind to herself.

Shakespeare’s presentation of Miranda’s feminine perfection and feminine beauty illustrates how the women’s bodies in the Elizabethan era were passive-to-be-looked at objects. The complex gender identity and subjectivity of Miranda’s body in the discourse of male supremacy reflect the role of women as objects of the male pleasure. Furthermore, the comparison of Miranda’s perfection with other women reveals subjective judgement by men based on the widespread standards of virtues, looks and voice. For example, Ferdinand justifies his views when he says that Miranda lacks the defects that other women have in Act 3 (3.1 37-48). Precisely, Ferdinand says that he has eyed many women, heard the harmony of their tongues and liked others for their virtues, but none compares to Miranda.

As the play demonstrates, the lives of Miranda and Prospero, her father revolves around family systems that are founded on traditional patriarchal settings, where a woman belongs either to the father or to the husband. Throughout the play, Miranda subordinates her father, who expects her to remain attentive to every command and speech. Like fathers, during the Elizabethan period, Prospero controls every aspect of Miranda’s life, including when she sleeps, her education and whom she marries. In act one, Prospero sees himself as her schoolmaster, which makes Miranda “more profit” than other princesses do (1.2. 173-175).

Furthermore, Sycorax Caliban’s mother is the only woman mentioned in the play but remains a threat to male masculinity because she poses magical powers. Consequently, she is exiled because she is a character that challenges patriarchy.

Although Shakespeare includes a subordinate female in the play to illuminate the place of women in the Elizabethan culture, he interestingly adds a character who challenges the male-dominated ideas in this era. The female character is Ariel, a shape-shifting creature acting as a servant to Prospero. Shakespeare refers to Ariel by male pronouns; the creature’s gender remains ambiguous. Mythologically, Ariel is a female deity who takes the form of a water nymph.

Moreover, Miranda refers to Ariel as female when she states, “Ferdinand is the “third man that e’er I saw…” which reinforces the perception that Ariel is a woman (1.2.440). Prospero refers to Ariel, as his bird, quaint and dainty (1.2.321, 4.1.178, 5.1.94) which is are words used to describe women in the Elizabethan era. Nevertheless, just like Miranda, Ariel remains enslaved by Prospero to keep her in a woman’s place in society. Therefore, Shakespeare shows how critical it is that gender norms in this era remain binary and that anyone who challenges that norm must be controlled and eliminated. 

In conclusion, the analysis of both literary works reveals how social, economic and cultural contexts shape the behaviour and actions of characters. In Barn Burning, decades of socioeconomic inequalities among the sharecroppers and poor tenant farmers turn Abner into a violent, vengeful and defiant individual. In the Tempest, women are made to conform to established gender and cultural norms in patriarchal societies. Women face penalties and serious consequence for challenging men in the Elizabeth era and thus watch as men make decisions for them without their affirmation or approval. Therefore, the conditions in which characters and speakers in literary work shape how the characters communicate and behave, thus influencing the plot and events of a story.

Works Cited

“Faulkner, William-Barn Burning.Pdf.” N. p., 2020. Web. 4 Apr. 2020.

Shakespeare, William. The tempest. Vol. 9. Classic Books Company, 2001.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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