Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Central to Nat Turner’s mission is the question of how one can distinguish between the will of God and the will of the self. Turner becomes first a self-appointed minister of God and then a self-ordained prophet of God—that is, the God of the Old Testament. It is only logical and natural that the slaves of the American Old South would identify forcefully with the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, but Turner seldom reflects on this comparison. Rather, he focuses on the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah and broods on references to the Babylonian Captivity and the Apocalypse. In so doing he chooses destruction and damnation rather than progress and salvation.
Turner is left at the end in a totally ambiguous dilemma: Can he be redeemed and forgiven of his sins (the responsibility for the deaths of some two hundred persons, white and black alike) or is he eternally damned for them? He is unable to make peace with this question, because to receive forgiveness from God presumably he would have to admit that he was acting of his own will and volition in carrying out the atrocities and that God had never directed him to take these actions. The lawyer Gray repeatedly points out that if God had given his blessings to the insurrection, it would surely have succeeded. Whereas, its failure is manifest proof that God was not involved. Hence, Turner is left in a fixed state, like limbo, of denial paired with an attempt at belief. He is unable to pray and read...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
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An overarching theme in Styron's fiction has always been that of the individual person confronting social forms of systematic domination — racial, cultural, and historical — whether it be in the form of military organization, suburban life-styles, black slavery, or Nazi tyranny. He has always pitted the individual self against the unmediated chaos of history and life itself, and in Nat Turner he found the perfect victim and rebel, a character from his own racist past. How the self grapples with historical circumstance and tries to transcend it has long fascinated Styron.
Styron depicts the ways in which a slave system can demean and degrade the individual. He is careful to note that such a system degrades everyone who comes in contact with it whether they be white or black, master or slave, man or woman, preacher or slave-owner. Everything is tainted by such a system, whether it be religion, sexuality, personal psychology, language, or individual perspective. At times it is difficult in the novel to distinguish between "genuine" racist epithets and those remarks burdened by the system's deformation of character, an issue which several black and white readers have reacted to differently.
(The entire section is 191 words.)