Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1289
Albert Camus (1913–1960) was a well-known French writer and philosopher who greatly influenced Styron’s writing and thinking about the human condition. Camus ran a theater company during the 1930s and was a leading voice of the French Resistance. His books include The Plague, The Fall, The Rebel, and A Happy Death. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. Styron writes that Camus’ novel The Stranger influenced his approach to The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron’s psychological portrait of an American slave. Styron also mentions Camus’ book, The Myth of Sisyphus, saying that it gave him great courage to continue in the face of his own struggles. Styron sums up the book’s message: ‘‘In the absence of hope, we must struggle to survive—by the skin of our teeth.’’ Romain Gary had planned to arrange a dinner to introduce Styron to Camus, but Camus died in an automobile accident before that could happen.
Simone del Duca
Simone del Duca is the wife of Cino del Duca, a wealthy Italian immigrant, after whom the Prix Mondial Cino del Duca is named. Styron describes her as ‘‘a large dark-haired woman of queenly manner.’’ She is at the center of Styron’s emotional breakdown while the writer is in Paris to receive the Prix Mondial Cino del Duca. His state of mind deteriorating at the time, Styron refused, then accepted, to appear at a luncheon with del Duca.
Gallimard is Styron’s publisher in France. Styron makes a luncheon date with Gallimard instead of appearing at a luncheon in his honor with Simone del Duca.
Romain Gary, a Russian Jew born in Lithuania, was a writer and close friend of Styron and Camus. Gary’s works include The Life Before Us, Promise at Dawn, European Education, Goodbye Gary Cooper, and Lady L. He was married to the actress Jean Seberg. Styron describes Gary’s life, his battles with depression, and his suicide as a way of thinking through his own depression.
Dr. Gold is Styron’s Yale-trained psychiatrist, introduced in chapter five. Styron compares his relationship to Dr. Gold with Emma Bovary’s relationship to the village priest in Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. Just as the priest had no cure for Madame Bovary’s malaise, Dr. Gold could offer only platitudes to Styron. Gold met with Styron twice a week but was largely ineffectual in his treatment of the writer. Gold’s primary attempts to help him were through the prescription of antidepressants, especially Nardil. Gold is symbolic of contemporary medicine’s de-humanizing approach to depression, which considers the ailment almost exclusively in physical terms.
Hoffman was a counter-culture figure and one of the founders of the Yippies, a group of pranksters and political activists who wreaked havoc at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Styron testified on his behalf in 1970. In 1989 Hoffman died after taking more than 150 phenobarbitals. Styron thinks that Hoffman’s death, like the death of many other celebrities and famous writers he mentions, was the result of depression and could have been prevented with the proper treatment and attention.
James is the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, which Styron cites as an example of a book that tries unsuccessfully to describe depression.
Jarrell was an American poet and critic who battled depression and mental illness for most of his life. He died after being hit by a car in 1965. Styron uses Jarrell, like Hoffman, as an example of someone who committed suicide because the pain of living with debilitating depression was too much. Styron discusses the stigma of suicide and how those close to suicide victims often attempt to represent their deaths otherwise.
Kushner is the author of the book Destruction in the Promised Land. In the book, Kushner, a social historian, holds that incomplete mourning is a contributing cause of depression and suicide. Styron uses Kushner’s theory as a way to think about his own childhood and the difficulty he had mourning the loss of his mother, which may have contributed to his depression as an adult.
Primo Levi was an Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor who died after a fall down a stairwell in Turin in 1987. Levi had been ill and was said to have been depressed. Styron, who himself wrote about Holocaust survival in his novel Sophie’s Choice, speculates that Levi committed suicide as a result of his depression. He wrote a letter to the New York Times saying that suicide will never fully be prevented until people understand the intense pain of those who suffer from depression. Styron details the intellectual community’s refusal to acknowledge Levi’s depression as a legitimate cause of his suicide, suggesting that others cannot possibly understand the torment of one experiencing depression.
Seberg was Romain Gary’s wife. She was an Iowa-born actress who committed suicide after battling depression. Styron describes her during her depression: ‘‘All her once fragile and luminous blond beauty had disappeared into a puffy mask. She moved like a sleepwalker, said little, and had the blank gaze of someone tranquilized . . . nearly to the point of catalepsy.’’ Her description is important, for Styron uses it to illustrate how an outsider can never know at the time what someone experiencing severe depression is going through. His awareness of Seberg’s suffering comes to light only after Styron tries to make sense of his own depression.
Rose Styron is the author’s long-suffering wife who accompanies the author to Paris and is always at his side. The author describes her as, ‘‘The endlessly patient soul who had become nanny, mommy, comforter, priestess, and, most important, confidant–a counselor or rocklike centrality to my existence whose wisdom far exceeded that of Dr. Gold.’’ Styron never describes her appearance.
William Styron is the central character in his own story about his battles with depression. He chronicles the major events of his depression, from the onset of a major episode in October 1985 to the beginning of his recovery in February 1986. Styron is sixty years old when the full force of his depression hits him, and he details his battles with it and the effects it has on his body and his relationships with other people, including his wife, Rose, and his friends. He describes his gradual withdrawal from his friends and the life he had known, his inability to work, the loss of his voice and his libido. Everything readers learn about other characters is through Styron’s responses to them. He is alternately meditative and nostalgic, wistful and indignant, as he reflects on the illness of depression and how it sapped all life and hope from him.
The unnamed hospital therapist is well-intentioned yet almost comical in her behavior. Styron describes her as ‘‘a delirious young woman with a fixed, indefatigable smile, who was plainly trained at a school offering courses in Teaching Art to the mentally ill.’’ She is relentless in her praise of those in group therapy, almost to the point of idiocy. Her therapy consists of having group members draw pictures and make clay models of themes in which they were interested. Styron felt infantalized by many of the activities but nonetheless grew to ‘‘become fond’’ of the woman.
Woolf is a well-known British feminist and writer who also suffered from depression and extreme mood swings. Her novels include To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, A Wave, and A Room of One’s Own. She committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Ouse. Woolf appears in Styron’s list of famous writers and artists who have committed suicide because of their depression.