The Confessions of Nat Turner Additional Summary

William Styron


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Nat Turner joins with at least sixty other slaves and free blacks to kill fifty-seven whites in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Armed with guns, axes, and other weapons, Turner and his men aim to leave no whites alive. At least forty-six of the victims are women, children, or teenagers. After two days of violence, whites succeed in defeating Turner’s group in a battle. Turner initially evades capture but soon finds himself in the Southampton jail awaiting execution. A self-proclaimed preacher, Turner is unable to pray and feels abandoned by his God.

On November 1, 1831, an elderly white man by the name of Thomas Ruffin Gray enters Turner’s cell. Gray defended some of the insurgent slaves in court. He explains to Turner that Southampton whites simply cannot understand why their slaves revolted. Gray wants to publish a full confession by Turner that will tell the public the facts about the revolt. Gray’s concept of his job is to prove that Turner is not a typical slave but a fanatic whose revolt is an isolated event and therefore no threat to the institution of slavery. He tries to convince Turner that the major reason for his defeat is that most of the slaves defended their owners.

While Gray talks about the rebellion, Turner thinks back to his various owners, from Benjamin and Samuel Turner to Joseph Travis. The memory that dominates from the Travis years concerns Jeremiah Cobb, the man who eventually sentences Nat Turner to death. Cobb was impressed with the slave’s intelligence while listening to him explain that Hark, a fellow slave, was disoriented because of the sale of his wife and children. After the conversation with Cobb, Turner decided that Cobb would “be among the few spared the sword.” Turner’s memory shifts to Cobb’s voice in the courtroom warning him to stay awake. Gray, agreeing with the prosecution’s call for “swift retribution,” states in court that a slave rebellion is not likely to happen again because of “the basic weakness and inferiority, the moral deficiency of the Negro character.” It is a rationalization of slavery that the public wants to hear. During the trial, Turner thinks of Margaret Whitehead. Although she is the only person he kills, she was also one of the whites that he was close to. He recalls the day when she read her poem to him and told him that he was the only person at home whom she could confide in.

Turner’s reverie is interrupted by Cobb’s voice sentencing him to death by hanging. Back in jail after the trial, Gray arrives and attacks Christianity, saying that it accomplished nothing but “misery and suffering for untold generations.” Pondering Gray’s words, Turner has doubts about being called by God for his “divine mission.” The condemned man recalls trying to escape from his dilemma by thinking about his youth at Turner’s Mill. Turner learned to read by smuggling a book out of the Turner library. When Samuel Turner discovered his slave’s ability to read, he was delighted. It validated his belief that “slaves were...

(The entire section is 1244 words.)