The Confessions

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The confessions of Nat Turner

The confessions of Nat Turner


William Styron, as Melvin J. Friedman has poignantly observed, became more than once "a victim of bad timing" in the publication of his novels. His Confessions of Nat Turner came out against a background of racial unrest and ghetto riots that had shaken the country to its roots. In spite of the author's protests that he had conceived the idea of writing the Confessions [The Confessions of Nat Turner] two decades before, the links between the past that Styron evoked and the turmoil's of the present seemed much too obvious. Under these circumstances, it was inevitable that Styron's portrait of Nat would be objected. Shortly after the initially favorable reviews the very topicality of Nat Turner's insurrection led to a heated and predominantly hostile discussion which quickly exceeded the limits of scholarly decorum.


Although Styron's conception of Nat Turner undoubtedly is at odds with Gray's portrait, it would be a grave error to assume that with the Confessions, we have come at last to the "true" Nat Turner and to an objective, factual, and certified reconstruction of his history. Gray's and Styron's interpretations of the same character are mutually exclusive. Though, Styron's version rejects the role that Gray imposes on Nat, both the myth that the Southern lawyer shapes from the original confessions and the novel by the Southern writer share one inherent quality: they are both fictions. Both are based on the same inadequate evidence. Styron advances nothing another about the ancient Nat Turner. What he has to say about the conditions of life in the Virginia Tidewater and slavery in general are indeed, in his own terms, "within the bounds of what meager enlightenment history has left us" ("Author's Note). Yet what Styron does is to take up precisely those questions that Gray shunned in his introduction, and it can be argued that it is because of this that Styron's Nat Turner emerges as the more complex and pleasing character (Melvin, 1970).

Comparison to other Historical Books

History and religion, the very frames of reference within which Gray declines to see and to accept Nat Turner, are deliberately re-instituted by Styron. Styron does not fall into the easy trap of a sociological reconstruction of a historical character. Unquestionably, his Nat Turner is the product and the victim of a slave-holding society and this society are evoked convincingly in all its complexity of social hierarchy, education, creeds, and attitudes. Even if Styron can be proved to have been mistaken in one detail or another, the novel will not stand or fall on these lapses (William, 1967).

Nat Turner's development from the pampered house-slave to the rebel cannot be seen only in terms of his relationship to the Turners and Moores of his world. Such a predominantly sociological reading of the novel would ignore both Styron's intention of writing a meditation on history and the re-collective structure that shapes the book. In Nat's description of the decline of the Turner estate and of ...
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