Study Guide

The Confessions of Nat Turner

by William Styron

The Confessions of Nat Turner Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)

The Confessions of Nat Turner Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.)

The Confessions of Nat Turner Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 death. Cobb was impressed with the slave’s intelligence while listening to him explain that Hark, a fellow slave, was disoriented because of the sale of his wife and children. After the conversation with Cobb, Turner decided that Cobb would “be among the few spared the sword.” Turner’s memory shifts to Cobb’s voice in the courtroom warning him to stay awake. Gray, agreeing with the prosecution’s call for “swift retribution,” states in court that a slave rebellion is not likely to happen again because of “the basic weakness and inferiority, the moral deficiency of the Negro character.” It is a rationalization of slavery that the public wants to hear. During the trial, Turner thinks of Margaret Whitehead. Although she is the only person he kills, she was also one of the whites that he was close to. He recalls the day when she read her poem to him and told him that he was the only person at home whom she could confide in.

Turner’s reverie is interrupted by Cobb’s voice sentencing him to death by hanging. Back in jail after the trial, Gray arrives and attacks Christianity, saying that it accomplished nothing but “misery and suffering for untold generations.” Pondering Gray’s words, Turner has doubts about being called by God for his “divine mission.” The condemned man recalls trying to escape from his dilemma by thinking about his youth at Turner’s Mill. Turner learned to read by smuggling a book out of the Turner library. When Samuel Turner discovered his slave’s ability to read, he was delighted. It validated his belief that “slaves were...

(The entire section is 1244 words.)

The Confessions of Nat Turner Chapter Summaries

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 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...

(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...

(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...

(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....

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear