Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
When The Confessions of Nat Turner first appeared, it was acclaimed as breakthrough both in fiction and in race relations. A white southerner, steeped in the history of his region, had boldly entered the mind of a black slave, according him the dignity of an articulate voice and making him into a modern hero. Certainly, Styron’s Turner is cruel in his taking of close to sixty lives, but he is nevertheless the poet of the aspirations of a people. Early reviews lauded the language and the sympathy with which Styron presented the story.
Soon, though, a group of African American writers attacked the book, accusing Styron of distorting history, of co-opting their hero, and of demeaning Turner by endowing him with love for one of his victims, a young white woman. These critics saw Styron as usurping their history, much as white people had usurped the labor and the very lives of their ancestors. They rejected the notion that a white southerner—or any white person, for that matter—could fathom the mind of a slave.
Styron defended himself admirably, for he had made a close reading of the historical record and knew exactly where he was taking liberties with history, and he was supported by several historians. Less defensible, or at least problematic, was his decision to endow Turner with a contemporary imagination. Turner does speak in the accents of nineteenth century Virginia; he thinks very much like Styron. Yet even this seeming...
(The entire section is 413 words.)
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Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner is a lengthy book organized into four chapters, three of which take biblical allusions for titles. In the opening chapter, “Judgment Day,” the attempted rebellion has already occurred, and Turner and his fellow slave friend (and second in command) Hark have been imprisoned and are awaiting trial and the inevitable hanging. Turner is tormented by his inability to pray or read the Bible, two matters that Thomas Gray, an atheist lawyer and magistrate, uses to coax Turner into making his “confessions.” Styron constructs an imagined dialogue between Turner and Gray, which turns into something of a personal debate between Christian belief and atheism. Turner is tormented, not knowing why the rebellion ultimately failed if God were indeed on his side; and Gray successfully transforms these doubts into proof that the black race is inferior and that, as he says several times in refrain, “[N]igger slavery is going to last a thousand years.”
The second chapter, “Old Times Past: Voices, Dreams, Recollections,” is essentially a fictional biography of Turner. Styron takes the bare facts of Turner’s life and embellishes them with relentless and bountiful license. This account of Turner’s life records the horrors of slavery in the context of his family history and his life under his four owners. Styron also gives readers imagined insight into Turner’s spiritual development, beginning with his...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Nat Turner joins with at least sixty other slaves and free blacks to kill fifty-seven whites in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Armed with guns, axes, and other weapons, Turner and his men aim to leave no whites alive. At least forty-six of the victims are women, children, or teenagers. After two days of violence, whites succeed in defeating Turner’s group in a battle. Turner initially evades capture but soon finds himself in the Southampton jail awaiting execution. A self-proclaimed preacher, Turner is unable to pray and feels abandoned by his God.
On November 1, 1831, an elderly white man by the name of Thomas Ruffin Gray enters Turner’s cell. Gray defended some of the insurgent slaves in court. He explains to Turner that Southampton whites simply cannot understand why their slaves revolted. Gray wants to publish a full confession by Turner that will tell the public the facts about the revolt. Gray’s concept of his job is to prove that Turner is not a typical slave but a fanatic whose revolt is an isolated event and therefore no threat to the institution of slavery. He tries to convince Turner that the major reason for his defeat is that most of the slaves defended their owners.
While Gray talks about the rebellion, Turner thinks back to his various owners, from Benjamin and Samuel Turner to Joseph Travis. The memory that dominates from the Travis years concerns Jeremiah Cobb, the man who eventually sentences Nat Turner to...
(The entire section is 1244 words.)
Section 1 Summary
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...
(The entire section is 2077 words.)
Section 2 Summary
In Part II, the character Nat Turner reviews some of his history. He remains in jail, awaiting his hanging. He is cold and feverish.
His first recounted memory is when he was twelve and was living at Turner's Mill. Because his mother is a house servant, Nat also works inside, as opposed to toiling in the fields. His chores include helping his mother in the kitchen and waiting on the family when they are at the table. One particular memory deals with a dinner served to a visiting guest, a traveling farm implement salesman from the North. Though Nat does not recall the salesman's name, he does remember how the man praised the spring season, especially as experienced in Virginia. The salesman states that Virginia has the finest spring in all of the Eastern states. The man knows because he has visited all of them. The northern states barely have a spring, the man says. The weather merely jumps from winter to summer. The southern states are so warm and humid that even in the winter, one barely notices spring.
While the family is eating, Samuel Turner, the owner, proudly shows off Nat's intelligence, asking the boy to spell. Nat is so nervous that he shouts out the letters, but he spells the word correctly. Samuel believes that if one educates the slaves, it makes them feel good about themselves and then their owners benefit from their improved nature. Nat's performance makes him feel warm with excitement, a feeling that lasts hours after the family has retired and the salesman has gone away.
In another recollection, Nat thinks about his grandmother, whom he never knew. He was acquainted with her only through the stories he had heard. When his grandmother was thirteen, she was kidnapped from the Coromantee tribe, probably located somewhere along the Gold Coast of Africa. On the boat trip across the Atlantic, she was impregnated. By the time she reached Virginia, she was due to delivery her baby. Upon being sold, she was so fearful of all the strange people and their language she did not understand that she died shortly after giving birth to Nat's mother.
Because she was motherless, Nat's mother was taken in by Alpheus Turner (Samuel Turner's father) and raised by the black servants of the house. As she grew up, she was taught the tasks that were required in the household, which included cooking, a skill at which she was very adept.
Nat was born at the Turner's place (and thus was given his...
(The entire section is 2217 words.)
Section 3 Summary
Nat's new owner, Moore, is a poor farmer who never beat Nat again except for a strike with the bull whip while driving home after his purchase. Moore's hatred for Nat was obvious, but he restrained from ever hitting him.
Life for Nat had changed dramatically from the days at Master Samuel Turner's plantation. Here at Moore's farm, Nat lived much like all field Negroes lived at the time. He worked hard, ate poorly, and lived in a ramshackle shack. The only blessings from those ten years, Nat says, was that he had a few hours each day to read the Bible and meditate on the Bible's teachings. Even Moore became fascinated with Nat's knowledge and understanding of the Bible and would often insist that his visitor's listen to Nat reciting, from memory, any passage from the book that they requested.
Nat was the only slave that Moore owned, so his duties, though never stimulating, were varied. He cut down trees, grew crops, and worked in the kitchen. Moore had very little money, so Nat's skills in carpentry were seldom required.
It was during this time that Nat met Hark. Joseph Travis (who would later become Nat's master) had bought Hark from a Virginia plantation owner who, like many others in the area, had lost most of his fortune when the nutrients in his land were used up after generations of growing tobacco. Hark had been born and raised on that plantation and had been devoted to his mother and sisters. When the plantation owner left for the fertile soil of Mississippi, he took only his female slaves, since women were in short supply in that state. This was the first time Hark had been separated from his family, and his misery was obvious to Nat.
Hark came to a point where he could not longer stand his depressed feelings. If he could not be with his family, he had to at least do something to change his life. A man had once told Hark that if he could make it to Maryland, he would find a group of Quakers who would help him. This man had told Hark the names of the towns he would pass as he made his way up north. So one night, Hark left Travis' farm with a packed bundle of food and supplies he had stolen from his master and started walking north.
For six weeks, Hark traveled through the woods, sometimes along the skirts of the towns he had been told to look for. He made it all the way to Baltimore without getting caught. There, when he asked a fellow black slave where he might find the Quakers,...
(The entire section is 2285 words.)
Section 4 Summary
It is the day of the hanging. Nat and Hark are still in their adjoining cells. It is early in the morning, and both men are asleep. Nat is having one of his reoccurring dreams. He is in a small boat, floating down a river toward the ocean. Surrounding the river is a forest wilderness that looks untouched by man. He hears the sound of ocean waves crashing on the distant shore. Though the sound is loud and somewhat menacing, Nat is relaxed. Nothing disturbs him. He has found peace.
As he nears the mouth of the river, he sees a white building up ahead. He has no idea what the building represents, why it is there, or what activities might be taking place inside. He senses that it is not a temple or other type of monument. Though it might be a relic from all times past and future. He senses that the building is a mystery that no one can solve. The building has no doors or windows, so there is no way to penetrate it. Nat reflects that neither windows nor doors would help him understand the building anyway. Inside, he thinks, he would only discover more complex mysteries. Instead of thinking about the building any further, Nat turns his head and his thoughts toward the ocean.
When Nat awakens from this dream, he taps on the wall between his and Hark's cell. He knocks until Hark stirs. When Hark responds, Nat tells him that they will be going soon. Hark replies that he is aware of this and only wishes they would hurry up and get it over with. Hark's wounds have not been properly cared for. He is stiff and in pain. Like Nat, Hark is heavily bound in chains. He cannot stand up on his own. Hark tells Nat that Mr. Gray has told him that they will have to hang him while he is strapped in a chair. As usual, Hark's good sense of humor comes into play. He finds it amusing that he will be sitting in a chair when they hang him.
Nat hears heavy footsteps in the hallway. He listens as the men unbolt Hark's jail door. When they are rough with Hark, pushing and shoving him into position on the chair, Hark moans in pain. Nat bangs on the wall and yells, cursing the men for hurting Hark. He tells them that they have hurt Hark all his life. Surely they could show some respect in his last minutes before death. The men do not respond.
Nat watches the men carry Hark past his cell door. Hark calls out to him, telling Nat not to be afraid. Everything will be alright, Hark says. Then Hark and Nat say good-bye to one another....
(The entire section is 531 words.)