Styron was a master of modern literary style. He has been compared to Faulkner because, more than any of his contemporaries, Styron had a feeling for rhythms of language that seem to embody the speech of a whole region, a lush, romantic feeling for nature and for human relationships. Styron was a painstaking writer, often spending a day perfecting a single page. Yet his prose flows so gracefully that his enormous effort usually remains invisible. This is especially true of Lie Down in Darkness and The Confessions of Nat Turner, both of which appear to be seamless narratives, stories that unfold without a break or flaw in style.
If there is a fault in Styron’s style, some critics would say it is his perfectionism. He has been criticized for exercising too much control over his narratives, producing novels that are too meticulous, too polished. This kind of exquisite technique robs his work of a certain rough-edged life, an unruliness that should overtake the writer and ride him, so to speak. Styron’s sense of language, in other words, is too precious; it can actually get in the way of the life he is trying to portray.
This tendency is perhaps most evident in The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which Turner’s consciousness is transparently Styron’s—that is, Turner is endowed with Styron’s gift for language and much of Styron’s literary sensibility. Some critics, however, have argued that this is precisely Styron’s achievement: endowing characters such as Turner with an integrity and articulateness that is the equal of their author’s. From this point of view, Styron’s gorgeous vocabulary ennobles his characters and allows them to speak on a higher literary level that is the only way to reveal their full humanity and complexity. There is certainly ample precedent for Styron’s sophisticated technique in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), in which the interior monologues use a highly elevated and baroque language to register not merely what the characters are thinking but also what they are as human beings.
Styron was also an excellent observer of social manners. In both his fiction and nonfiction, he was a shrewd reporter, rendering not only the facts of life also but how those facts are received by the senses and turned into feelings. He was a great poet of consciousness who based his flights of rhetoric on a realistic notation of the data of life.
One of the great themes of Styron’s fiction is life in the American South. Lie Down in Darkness surveys the modern South by focusing on the life and death of Peyton Loftis, a young woman growing up in a region still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War—psychologically more than physically. The novel suggests that World War I and the lost generation—those young Americans whose lives were interrupted by war, some of whom stayed in Europe—proved to be a crisis for those who stayed home as well, such as Peyton’s father, Milton, whose lack of purpose and hollow life as a southern gentleman deprive Peyton of basic beliefs, a foundation for her future. She tells her father, in fact, that it is her generation that is lost.
The Confessions of Nat Turner, on the other hand, is Styron’s self-confessed attempt to imagine what it must have been like for a slave in Virginia to revolt against his masters. As a descendant of a slave-owning class and as the product of a segregated society, Styron wrote a novel that aimed not only to understand the past but also to effect a kind of reconciliation between the races in the present. His treatment of Nat Turner as a brilliant man, a kind of genius with a gift for language equal to Styron’s own, has been perceived by many critics, though by no means all, as a brilliant effort to bridge the gap between past and present. As the African American writer James Baldwin said of the novel, “He has begun the common history—ours.”
Sophie’s Choice represents a continuation of the themes of The Confessions of Nat Turner. The narrator, Stingo, is a white southerner trying to come to terms with Sophie, a survivor of the Holocaust. The novel contains passages on southern and European history, positing a historical identity that is not meant to minimize the differences between cultures but to reveal the overarching experiences, from slavery to the Holocaust, that have shaped the modern world.
Many of Styron’s stories were about survival and suicide. In writing a book about his own suicidal depression, Darkness Visible (1990), Styron admitted that he did not realize how much these themes formed a pattern in his work, or how drinking was often a part of this pattern, as it is in the behavior of Milton Loftis, a lawyer with a romantic, literary sensibility similar to Styron’s own. Drinking immobilizes Loftis. It eases the pain of his lack of action and the harsh criticisms of his puritanical wife, and it becomes a way to negotiate the boring routines of daily existence. Loftis sees flaws in himself and in his family, but he is fatally blind to what his own daughter needs, because of his adoring, even incestuous, longing for her. Drink becomes the only lubricant that keeps him going. Though Styron survived and became much more successful than his characters, there is a brooding, depressive sense of existence in his prose, a sense that seems related to his own titanic writer’s blocks and his inability to complete work. He began and abandoned several novels.
In This Quiet Dust, and Other Writings (1982) and in Darkness Visible, Styron proved himself a writer of superb nonfiction prose. In both the essay form and the memoir, his precise command of language and his candor make for compelling reading. Perhaps the best example of this is “This Quiet Dust,” an account of his trip to survey the site of Nat Turner’s rebellion. The essay provides a striking counterpoint to the novel, for the essay reveals not the mind of the slave but the mind of the writer approaching his material, wondering how he can recapture the past and do justice to a figure who has troubled and excited him for more than twenty years.
Lie Down in Darkness
First published: 1951
Type of work: Novel
A woman’s body is brought from New York City to her Virginia home after her suicide, and the story of her life and of her family is told in a series of flashbacks.
Lie Down in Darkness made Styron’s reputation as a novelist. It was a brilliant first novel that showcased a writer in full control of his language, which fit into a perfectly shaped story, beginning on the day Peyton Loftis’s body is being returned to her Virginia home. Styron describes the scene, the funeral cortege, and the characters—Peyton’s father, Milton, her mother, Helen, and Milton’s mistress, Dolly Bonner—who will dominate the story. It is a long day of mourning, yet Styron manages to break up the day with poignant flashbacks that gradually explain the events that led to Peyton’s suicide.
Milton is inconsolable over the loss of his daughter. His one hope is that his estranged wife, Helen, will come back to him and repair their relationship, which he now believes is all that he has left in life. Helen does not even want to attend the funeral, let alone readmit Milton into her life. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that Milton had always doted on his...
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