Study Guide

William Styron

William Styron Essay - Styron, William (Vol. 5)

Styron, William (Vol. 5)

Styron, William 1925–

A Southern American novelist, Styron won the Pulitzer Prize for his controversial "meditation on history," The Confessions of Nat Turner. Ihab Hassan has written that, in his novels, Styron reveals "a brooding imagination, sometimes obsessive, and a dark gift of poetry." Lie Down in Darkness was considered one of the finest first novels of its generation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

It is now several years since the appearance of William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. But that novel, like Styron's earlier works, continues to generate critical interest primarily because Styron is absorbed in the central psychological subject of twentieth-century fiction, identity, and growth. For similar reasons much critical effort has been expended on his earlier novel Set This House on Fire, a novel which has a number of situations and themes parallel not only to The Confessions but to Styron's previous novels as well. (p. 1007)

[Set This House on Fire] basically remains a contest between two related attitudes. The first attitude is caricatured in the artist, Cass Kinsolving, who is the sum of all the flaws of men living in a romantic-puritan society (self-indulgence, self-pity, guilt-obsession) but who is marked as a rebel by his urgent discontent. Hyperbole in deed and word is his medium.

The second caricature is Mason Flagg, a monstrous extension of the hero and a personification of all the defects of an anti-human society. The contest takes place within a gothic nightmare of brutal violence and the result is a combination of satire and the tale of horror.

Set This House on Fire is in many respects an enlargement, thematically and structurally, of Styron's earlier work. As in Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, and The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron's third novel focuses on a violent episode which affects the lives of the major characters. Flashbacks, the confessional tone, the slow revelations of all the details which return the reader to the moral consequences of the central action give Set This House on Fire some of the mystery of Conrad. But where in Lie Down in Darkness the overwhelming sense of futility in the Loftises' lives dominates the book, in The Long March and Set This House on Fire the note of survival and acceptance of the possibilities and limitations of existence is preeminent. Even the titles of the latter two suggest a movement of physical and spiritual struggle rather than passivity. For Styron demonstrates in these novels as he does later in The Confessions of Nat Turner that acceptance and passivity are not synonymous for him. Acceptance, which means involvement in humanity to Styron, is arrived at paradoxically through the exorcism of rebellion. (p. 1008)

Set This House on Fire, which appeared in the same year as Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, fulfills Fiedler's prescription for the sort of gothic fiction which can best express an American nightmare: the super-real grotesque characters, even the exotic and gothic setting, the incidents of sexual and fatal violence joined with the moral struggle of Cass Kinsolving to free himself from his masochistic guilt. Fiedler reminds us that Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, and Faulkner each satisfied "the dimly perceived need of many Americans to have their national existence projected in terms of a pact with the devil…. There is scarcely a heroic ideal of our native life which is not, in one or another of these writers' gothic books, illuminated by a weird and lurid light. Such ideals are not … merely travestied and debunked … [but are] raised to a tragic power." My contention is that unlike those earlier writers Styron is not so much concerned with the tragic consequences of such a pact in Set This House on Fire as he is involved in Cass Kinsolving's struggle to exorcise those defects of the society in himself. In the process the values of contemporary society are satirized and vilified equally with the romantic puritanism which binds Cass. (pp. 1009-10)

In Styron's gothic world, like Nathanael West's, forms and shapes are grotesquely presented; and the sense of proportion and scale and order necessary to a classic Sophoclean tragic view are clearly lacking. In this respect Set This House on Fire is too hallucinatory and surreal in its violence and too ambiguous in its resolution to be tragic. (p. 1011)

Styron is using the trappings of tragedy, but his purpose is more satiric than tragic. (p. 1014)

One should not expect some profound philosophical truth in Set This House on Fire for Styron is much more of a psychological than a philosophical novelist. Basically, in Set This House on Fire, Styron presents us with psychological truths about American guilt and responsibility in a fiction which goes beyond the limits of the realistic novel because he is telling something about a false world from which one can be freed by a transforming miracle.

Styron's whole approach to the situation is that of a satirist who employs the gothic and grotesque to attack his subject, and the novel is as concerned with what is false in American life as it is with its central character. In fact, the two themes of social satire and personal tragicomedy are inextricably tied, and more successfully, I believe, than in Lie Down in Darkness, where family tragedy dominates the novel. (pp. 1018-19)

Like William Faulkner, John Hawkes, and Nathanael West, Styron gives us a comic-grotesque vision of the horror of the American Nightmare, and symbolically offers the means to the freedom of self-purgation. (p. 1020)

Marc L. Ratner, "Rebellion of Wrath and Laughter: Styron's 'Set This House on Fire'," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1971, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. VII, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 1007-20.

William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner has called forth a greater variety of approaches and evaluations than any other American novel of the past decade. Historians and sociologists continue to debate, often bitterly, whether the book is an accurate recreation of history, a plausible mythic interpretation of it, or a white liberal's attempt to emasculate black radicals. Religious commentators discuss Nat as a mystic, a messiah manqué, or a Christian pilgrim, and they disagree as to whether Styron has created a convincing or a contrived story of revelation and conversion. Psychologists are either interested in or amused by the pop-Freudian relations of sexual repression, violence and religious fanaticism. And more purely literary critics consider the prose style either masterful and fully orchestrated or bombastic, self-indulgent, and too literary. But there has been no full-scale attempt to comprehend the basic form of this omnibus work, to describe a literary structure that can accommodate so many approaches and cause so much controversy. (p. 19)

Seeing the Confessions as a melodramatic romance eliminates many of the objections to its stock characters, historical simplifications, and obtrusively rhetorical style; these techniques are staples of melodrama and to object to them entirely is to demand a thoroughgoing realism that Styron does not, and need not, attempt. Despite some convincing social sketches in his earlier work, Styron has never been primarily a realistic novelist, and this historical melodrama gives him an adequate form for the virtuosity that disrupted his other novels. But recognizing the proper genre does not solve all the problems of the book…. Although melodrama is an overly maligned genre that has been important in American fiction from Hawthorne to Mailer, it usually does seem too facile when it is not qualified by complementary techniques. And Styron does qualify it with an ironic structure that makes melodrama a major subject as well as the major genre of the book.

The irony works mainly through his use of the first-person narrative. Unfortunately, this confessional form has led to an endless, futile debate as to whether or not this Nat Turner thinks like, speaks like, feels like, and fantasizes like an honest-to-blackness revolutionary slave. These attempts to judge the stylized romance as an historical documentary have obscured an important function of the first-person narrative: to show how the character makes consoling melodramatic fictions out of his intolerable understanding of his condition. The prevailing melodramatic form of the book reflects Nat's perceptions, and Styron implicitly and ironically uses it to explore his character's point of view. This does not mean that the book is a study of a unique, neurotic aberration any more than it is a realistic documentary about slaves. Nat's condition is a heightened symbol of all men's condition, and he creates his melodramas from the stereotypes, popular myths, and obsessive images that our culture has used to avoid painful understanding. Styron's Nat Turner is an Everyman; Styron's melodrama is truly an American melodrama; and his "meditation on history," as he calls it, is an attempt to understand human causes of the racial myths he has wrongly been accused of perpetuating.

In brief, throughout the book Nat is haunted by what we often think of as a modern, or post-Romantic, tragic vision of life. With its lenses ground by Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche and polished by twentieth century existentialists, this vision … sees man as questioner, naked, unaccommodated, alone, facing mysterious, demonic forces in his own nature and outside, and the irreducible facts of suffering and death…. Nat repeatedly tries to replace that vision with neatly ordered and culturally conditioned stereotypes, to repress the terror of the irrational with the melodramatic assurances of the known and simplified. But because these defenses are so contrived, they are often destroyed by a complex, minutely particularized reality they can no longer contain. Then Nat reorders his perceptions, recasts his characters, and creates a new set of fictional defenses. Finally, in the last section of the book, he makes a leap of faith that transcends, rather than represses, terror, and that takes him beyond both tragedy and melodrama. (pp. 19-21)

Nat Turner is not only the physically and socially bound slave; he is also man, living under sentence of death in an arbitrary universe that destroys his freedom and dignity. Styron, in effect, suggested this when he explained that the narrative structure of his book came from his first reading of Camus' The Stranger in 1962. Like Meursault, Nat is condemned man whose awareness of his mortality is intensified by his imprisonment and impending execution, both of which press his submerged fears into consciousness. (p. 21)

One out of many instances should demonstrate Styron's technique of juxtaposing description and symbolism. As the lawyer Gray reads the confession of murder, Nat looks out of his prison window and sees black children gathering firewood on the other side of the river…. For the moment Nat does not see these unknowing black children as mindless flies living on offal. They seem to him like lively birds, quick and bright as they call out to each other things he cannot understand. But since he is also aware of their rags and their burdens, they soon become for him more examples of the doomed and hopeless. (p. 22)

Styron is not giving us sentimentalized pickaninnies, natural and happy in their slavery and much better off than a fanatical revolutionary would make them. The black children are clearly exploited and degraded, as the novel frequently shows in its descriptions of slave life, and Nat would lack all heroic proportions if he were not aware of that. His dilemma, however, grows out of that awareness: tormented by his horror at such bondage (both social and metaphysical), he obsessively reduces life to a symbolic drama, thereby losing touch with the very nature of life out of which his visions grew. His acute consciousness of man's frustrations has separated him from God, other men, and much of his own self, as his experiences of isolation and spiritual dryness show. This tragic irony is more worthy of Dostoevsky than of U. B. Phillips, the apologist for slavery with whom Styron has been linked by some of his black critics. (p. 23)

Styron's black critics have been most hostile about his portrayal of this military leader as losing control of his men, vomiting at the sight of the slaughter, and failing in his own attempts to kill. Where, they ask, is the virile and courageous figure of history? … Instead of the melodramatic hero whom Styron once describes as an "amalgamated black Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone," Styron has created a tragic hero who struggles through error toward a psychological and spiritual salvation that he glimpses only in his defeat. Like most tragic heroes, his greatness is inseparable from the causes of his errors and destruction: acute consciousness, a religious and symbolic imagination, and a passionate sense of social and metaphysical absurdities.

Also, like many modern heroes, Nat is a complex and ambiguous character who cannot easily quiet his conflicting feelings or ignore experiences that do not fit his dominant scheme of things. On the day of the insurrection he is nearly overcome by fear and despair, showing much more anxiety than any of his followers and wondering whether Biblical leaders felt so when they thought of the slaughter to come. Styron dwells on Nat's terror but not to emasculate the black commander or simply to give his character realistic emotions on the eve of battle. As the action nears its climax he is intensifying and sharpening the central clash between Nat's symbolic, messianic view of life and the literal nature of both his emotions and the people involved in his apocalyptic drama. (pp. 28-9)

In creating the hero of this religious parable Styron has deliberately worked against the legend of the black Napoleon, but his refusal to add to black militant propaganda does not mean that he is therefore reinforcing racist stereotypes or writing art-for-art's-sake arabesques. Instead, he is exploring the universal fears of death, powerlessness, and uncertainty that cause, and eventually bring to life, those melodramatic stereotypes of infinitely desirable white women, omniscient patriarchs, animalistic Negroes, and avenging black angels. Far from advocating such stereotypes, Styron shows that their creation, and the obscuring of the real humanity they mask, is a destructive attempt to hide from a surmountable tragic vision of life. And by taking his character through this compulsive symbol-making to some acceptance of man as he is and some intimation of man as he ought to be, Styron goes beyond the topical issues of the 1830s and 1960s to reach problems that underlie them all. (p. 32)

David Eggenschwiler, "Tragedy and Melodrama in 'The Confessions of Nat Turner'," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), January, 1974, pp. 19-33.

William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) aims to be the recreation of a man and an era as well as "a meditation on history." Quite apart from garbling some matters of fact about the slave revolt of 1831, the novel projects far too much of the bi-sexuality of a twentieth-century James Baldwin into its image of an early nineteenth-century messianic black preacher. This anachronistic attitude aborts the story's contribution to our historical understanding of the protagonist. (p. 19)

Cushing Strout, in Diacritics (copyright © Diacritics, Inc., 1975), Spring, 1975.