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“The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron Review

The novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was written by an outstanding American writer William Styron. The most eloquent fact about this book is that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, but it would be just to state, that the response of the audience to the novel appeared to be very controversial. The book received equal amount of praise and reproach. However, this mixed reaction to the novel is not the evidence of its imperfection, on the contrary, the book, that provokes a whirl of emotions in response, is a masterpiece that, certainly, deserves attention.

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The significance of the novel may be proved, first of all, by the historical event it is based on, because it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the slave rebellion, which occurred in Southampton County, Virginia on August 22, 1831. The uniqueness of the rebellion was in the fact that it was the first and the only successful slave revolt in that region. It was organized by an “extraordinary 31-year-old man”, who managed to inspire about seventy slaves to start their struggle against slavery (Greenberg xi). Actually, the revolt was very short, it lasted little more than one day, during which the rebels managed to kill about sixty white people. However, the whole country, not only Southampton County, was devastated, infuriated, and scared by the violent and desperate action of the slaves. Though all the participants, including Nathaniel Turner, were caught and hung, their deed made an important influence on American society. William Styron chose this rebellion on order to continue Turner’s mission of making society face the essence of slavery and racism.

The book under consideration consists of the Introduction and four parts. In the Introduction the author presents an extract from “The Confession of Nat Turner”, a historical document, written by T.R. Gray after the capture of the rebellion’s leader. Gray presents Nat Turner as a “gloomy fanatic”, trying to convince the audience that the rebellion was the only incident, which would never occur again (xiv). This point of view was intentionally presented by Styron, who tried to refute it in the subsequent chapters. The chapters uncover the essence of the rebellion and gradually create the complex portrait of the protagonist. The zest of the plot of the novel is in the time-trick used by the author. In the first chapter, he describes the sad outcome of the rebellion, when Nat Turned is already caught and is waiting for his punishment in a solitary cell. Then the action starts to unwind backward, in the form of the protagonist’s recollections, and in the final chapter, the actual rebellion is described. Thus, the story is told in the first person and is presented in the form of reminiscences. Styron gives the right to Turner to speak for himself. We think that the author made the right choice of the manner of presentation, as this type of narration creates a realistic atmosphere as if the reader were able to hear the real story of the man. The narration initiates the reader into the historical situation and personal tragedy of the protagonist.

Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that the author was greatly criticized for the choice of the type of narration. The first reproach was that he had no right to speak on behalf of Nat Turner, because Styron himself was white, and, what is more, his relatives were slave-owners. Thus, Styron was accused of being unjust and hypocritical. However, it should be taken into account that the writer lived in the region, where the rebellion occurred, and he had great respect for Nat Turner. Besides, the critics accused the writer of inaccuracy in the depiction of historical situations and events. In fact, it should be taken into account, that Styron had no intention to write a history book, he created a work of fiction, and he wanted to concentrate his attention on the character of Nathaniel Turner. Probably, Styron was inspired by the following idea of Bernard Berenson: “History should not be so much an account of illusions, because men act according to their illusions, and myths, much more than on the guidance of facts” (12). The author himself said that he had intended to write “less a ‘historic novel’ in conventional terms than a meditation on history” (Styron ix). What is more, there are no genuine documents about Nathaniel Turner, this is why the author’s ideas cannot be treated as liberties, he did not distort the reality, he created a work of fiction.

The most impressive thing about the novel is the character of the protagonist. He may be treated as a lunatic or a prophet; it is up to the reader to decide because the author gives neither confirmation nor refutation of the nature of Turner’s “visions”. However, there is no denying the fact that the character of the rebellion’s leader is very complex. The author presents the development of his personality and explains the reasons for his hatred for the white because Turner had been deluded and betrayed. Nevertheless, the man constantly doubts the rightness of his actions, finally forming his concept of freedom. This concept of freedom is one of the merits of Styron’s novel. He presents freedom as the thing that is not desired by slaves, people who are deprived of it. For Styron, freedom is synonymic to knowledge. An intelligent and unique man, Nathaniel Turner was a real prophet of his time.

Drawing a conclusion, it should be stated that William Styron wrote a complex and controversial novel. He did his best to create an impressive and thought-provoking character of Nat Turner. There is no use trying to compare the real historical situation and the character of the novel, the reader should read between the lines and see the nature of slavery and injustice, the most awful things of that time.

Works Cited

Folks, Nancy Summers. The World is Our Home: Society and Culture in Contemporary Southern Writing. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

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Greenberg, Kenneth S. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. NY: Oxford University Press US, 2004.

Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, Inc., 1967.

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StudyCorgi. "“The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron Review." November 3, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-confessions-of-nat-turner-by-william-styron-review/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "“The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron Review." November 3, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-confessions-of-nat-turner-by-william-styron-review/.

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