Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Nat Turner, the narrator and protagonist, a black slave and preacher who is slightly more than thirty years old at the time of narration. Born a slave to the somewhat socially enlightened Turner family, the precocious Nat is educated by the Turners after they discover his attempt to read a book that he stole from the family’s library. This and other acts of benevolence during his youth raise Nat’s expectations without altering his prospects, thus creating a bind from which Nat never escapes. After his dreams of the freedom promised him by the Turners fail to materialize, Nat endures a series of degrading hardships at the hands of the various white people to whom he is sold. These experiences bond Nat with his own race, although he consistently expresses contempt for their subservient actions and mannerisms. The educated slave becomes a pariah, a lonely man belonging neither to the blacks nor to the whites. Bolstered by the early assurances of his mother and by a later mystic vision that he has been preordained to accomplish great things, Nat becomes a preacher, a comforter of those—black and white—who suffer the oppression of the closed Southern society. His observations of and personal experiences with the slave system lead him to understand the depth of the blacks’ hatred of the whites. Nat also intuits that despite white people’s power over black people, fear of the slaves pervades even the strongest bastions of the white...
(The entire section is 1246 words.)
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What Styron has attempted to do in The Confessions of Nat Turner is to re-enact the growth of Nat Turner's mind and heart in an historical context. Turner grows up in the benevolent household of his white owner, Samuel Turner, who not only allows him to learn to read and write but promises him freedom at the age of twenty-one. However Turner is forced to sell him, and Nat, betrayed, turns to hate and vengeance. He slowly plans his rebellion, but it fails, and he is summarily jailed and executed.
Turner is constantly plagued with doubt and uncertainty about his actions. He feels neither white nor black, encapsulated in a kind of racist "no-man's land" in between. In his cell he turns from Old Testament vengeance to New Testament mercy and goes to his death redeemed in his own mind. Styron presents this "conversion" all too quickly, and many critics have had difficulty with Turner's renouncing the very rebellion which his enslaved blackness had made all the more necessary. His sexual attraction to and his willingness to kill the white woman, Margaret Whitehead, the only victim of his own vengeance, raises several issues about race and sexuality in the United States.
Other characters embody various perspectives in the racist society of 1831 Virginia. Hark, a spiritually soulful but physically powerful black slave, mourns the breakup of his family as a result of the slave system and becomes a killer. Will, another black slave, cannot wait...
(The entire section is 324 words.)