Nat Turner was a slave, the first slave to organize a rebellion in the United States. Whereas historical papers, written by white men, refer to Turner as a monster, William Styron attempts to understand Turner as a man living during the height of slavery in America.
The story begins while Turner is already imprisoned in Jerusalem (now called Courtland), Virginia, for his having roused a group of slaves to rebel. During the rebellion, over fifty whites and over a hundred black people were killed. Turner was caught, hiding in a cave near his master's home. As he sits in jail, he reflects on his life, what has recently happened, and what he will do with his remaining days. He is all but certain that he will be hanged.
Outside his cell, people have gathered. Once in a while, he hears someone call out his name. People are waiting to hear his story, watch the trial, or be witness to his hanging. According to his court-appointed lawyer, Mr. Gray, the whole country is curious about how Nat organized the slaves and why they were rebelling.
Mr. Gray has come to Nat's cell to urge Nat to answer these questions. Nat, aware of how much interest Mr. Gray has taken in obtaining his story, uses the lawyer to help get simple things that he needs. For instance, Nat has been put in shackles, which are connected to heavy chains and an iron ball. The shackles are attached to his ankles and wrists to ensure that he cannot escape. But the shackles also keep him from scratching his back, which has developed a terrible itch that is driving him mad. On the previous day, while being dragged through the crowds outside the jail, some women had stuck him with their hat pins. Now that those small wounds are healing, Nat's skin is irritated. So Nat promises to tell Mr. Gray his story if, in exchange, he will take off the shackles on his wrists. Nat is also very hungry and asks that a breakfast be brought to him. Though Mr. Gray promises to take care of these things, he leaves Nat's cell without bringing him food or relieving him from the wrist shackles.
Mr. Gray returns to Nat's cell about an hour later. Nat had asked for a break from the interview so as to have time to clear his thoughts. Gray had allowed this. This break also allowed Gray time to read over the confession that Nat had recited. Gray had written Nat's confession down and apologizes when he reads it back, telling Nat that sometimes he put Nat's confession in his own words for clarity.
As he reads Nat's confession back to him, Gray stops at certain passages for which he has questions. He will be reading Nat's confession in court during the trial and he wants to make sure that he has all the details. But there are things that Nat does not want to share with Gray. For instance, Gray wants to know why Nat only killed one person. Although Nat had tried to kill his master, Joseph Travis, he was unable to complete the act. He had struck Travis with an axe, but the weapon glanced off Travis' head. One of the other slaves, a man named Will, had to kill Travis for Nat. A similar incident happened a second time too, when Nat tried to kill a woman and failed. On that occasion, Will also had to complete the murder for Nat. Gray continues to ask why this happened, but Nat has no answer. Nat thinks that even if he told him, Gray would not understand.
Another question that Gray has concerns Nat's master. Why did Nat want Travis dead when all along Nat has admitted that his master was very kind to him. Travis never hurt Nat and treated him fairly. And yet, Travis was the first person to die in the rebellion. Again, Nat does not provide Gray with an answer.
In his conversations with Nat, Gray provides his philosophy about slavery and the law. This topic comes up when Nat wants Gray to provide him with details about the trials that have preceded his own. Did the other slaves really receive fair trials, Nat wants to know. Gray attempts to make the case that the law was protective of the slaves. Gray cannot understand why some Northern Abolitionists complain about how the courts in the South treat Negroes. Every one of the slaves had a fair trial, Gray states. Then he lists the names of the accused slaves and recites the verdicts in each of their cases. Several of the slaves were acquitted. Gray proceeds to explain why slaves were put on trial in the first place. The reason, Gray claims, was to protect the slaves' owners. Gray uses the example of a farmer who owns a wagon upon which a child is accidentally killed. The wagon is not responsible, Gray states. It is the person who owns the wagon who is blamed. Thus, since slaves are the property of the plantation owners, it is the plantation owners who are responsible. That is the real reason why each participant in the rebellion has been provided with a trial. The verdict the slaves have received is less a statement of what the slaves' guilt and more of whether or not the plantation owner is liable.
As Gray explains this and reads the confession back to him, Nat stares out the window of his cell. He sees a group of black children...