After writing the first portion of Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron realized that he was too heavily under the influence of his guiding lights, William Faulkner and James Joyce. He decided to put his work aside temporarily, hoping to find his own distinct voice. Indeed, his instincts appear to have been accurate, as critics have written voluminously on particular scenes that are derivative of other works. The plot is likely to be familiar to readers of southern fiction: It tells of a deeply flawed, dysfunctional family of four in mid-twentieth century Virginia. It is despairing and nihilistic, devoid of hope. The novel starts in deep despair and goes deeper into the abyss. It begins at the end, as the hearse awaits Peyton’s body. Peyton’s story unfolds during the long journey from train station to grave site. There are many complications along the way. The hearse breaks down, it gets stuck in a rutted dirt path, and participants in a religious revival flood the roads, further delaying the procession.
Despite its potentially derivative nature, Lie Down in Darkness is distinctly different from the works of earlier writers. For example, Styron tries an innovative approach to narration and to plot development. With the funeral cortege as a constant backdrop, he is able to hand the narrative to assorted people and to employ shifts in time and place without losing continuity or cohesiveness. At each gap in the progression, he has a...
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