Lie Down in Darkness

by William Styron

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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 daughter and resented his wife’s harsh criticism of his drinking and that Helen has been jealous of Peyton and rejected her in favor of her ailing daughter, Maudie.

Nothing Peyton does seems right in Helen’s eyes. When Peyton accidentally drops Maudie, Helen accuses her of doing it deliberately. When a teenage Peyton is given a drink at a party by her father, Helen treats Peyton like a slut and excoriates Milton for turning his daughter into an alcoholic like himself. Although Helen is overly severe, she is largely right about Milton’s behavior. Her unbending personality, however, is entirely devoid of humanity.

The novel’s climax arrives in a flashback relating the catastrophe of Peyton’s wedding. She has been away from home for years, refusing to see her mother, but she is coaxed home by her father. He has stopped drinking and become reconciled with Helen, a development that has come about partly as a result of Maudie’s death. The patterns of Peyton’s childhood reassert themselves at the wedding—only this time, it is Peyton encouraging her father to drink. She hurts him terribly when she confesses that she thinks he is a jerk and that she has come home only to play a role that will please her parents. She is being honest but very cruel. She has become a rather hopeless figure. She tells her father that she is a part of a lost generation because his generation has provided no substantial legacy, no repository of values that might guide her in a new, uncertain world.

In many ways, the characters of this novel are unpleasant and irredeemable. Yet they do struggle to right themselves, and Styron’s deft use of flashbacks, in which the reader’s knowledge of the characters increases incrementally, is riveting.

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