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Nat Turner

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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 community. This understanding of the dynamics of the society in which he lives, coupled with his mystic vision of his role in life, leads Nat to form an elaborate plan of “annihilation and escape” designed to free blacks from white domination. This plot results in a slave rebellion that ends in the deaths of fifty-five whites and approximately two hundred blacks. The insurrection fails because Nat’s “soldiers” are more intent on avenging themselves against the whites than on escaping their subservience. Nat evades the Virginia authorities for nearly two months but eventually is captured, tried, and hanged for his crimes. Nat’s confession reveals a highly complex character who attempts to live in both the black and white worlds and who undergoes a radical transformation from educated preacher to slave champion to murderer as a result of the irresolvable tension between those worlds.

T. R. Gray

T. R. Gray, the court-appointed lawyer who records Nat’s confession. In attempting to understand Nat’s motives, Gray asks the central question of the novel: How could the slave have been so cruel to those who were as kind to him as the system allowed? The attorney treats Nat in a condescending manner, especially when explaining the court system and expressing his opinion that Nat’s fellow insurrectionists have made him the scapegoat for their own crimes. Nevertheless, Gray does demonstrate concern for Nat, bringing him a Bible, having his chains loosened, and requesting warm clothing for the prisoner. In admitting to Nat that his trial is a sham, Gray interprets society’s final insult for Nat, that is, that other rebel slaves have been tried and released solely to protect rights of property. Gray thus becomes the chief spokesman for the society that confounds Nat Turner.

Mr. Trezevant

Mr. Trezevant, the commonwealth’s attorney who prosecutes Nat.

Judge Jeremiah Cobb

Judge Jeremiah Cobb, the man who passes the death sentence on Nat yet demonstrates an understanding of the cruelty of slavery. Nat had come to respect the judge during their conversation before Nat’s rebellion.

Lou Ann

Lou Ann, Nat’s mother, a slave in the Turner household who was reared in the Turner home and who in turn rears her son there. In her position as family cook, she enjoys a favored status accorded by both whites and blacks. She is convinced that her son is intended for greatness and...

(The entire section contains 1570 words.)

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Critical Essays