(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 478 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Peyton Loftis has committed suicide in New York City. A hearse awaits her body at a train station for a transfer that will carry it to the distant cemetery. Her mother, Helen, shares a limousine with the family’s minister; her father, Milton, shares another car with his mistress, Dolly. As the body is delivered and taken to the cemetary, the survivors reflect upon the past.

Milton Loftis is an alcoholic and an unfaithful husband. Helen is cold, neurotic, self-righteous, unforgiving, and intolerant of weakness. The couple has two children only to fulfill their sense of obligation to the social mores of the day. Their elder daughter, Maudie, is severely handicapped physically and emotionally. Their younger daughter, Peyton, is stunningly beautiful, much beloved by her father, and consequently hated by her mother. As the Loftises’ marriage disintegrates, the bond between father and daughter strengthens, several times lapsing into quasi-incestuous behavior.

Milton adores Peyton, who reciprocates his feelings. She is not an innocent party, though her age makes her a victim. She knows sex play, if not its boundaries, very well. She dresses skimpily, calls her father by such loving names as “Dear Bunny,” leans and sits on him, snuggles and hugs him tightly, and whispers and giggles into his ear. Once, she even kisses him full on the lips, under the guise of playfulness. At one point, Peyton asks her father to leave her room so that she can change her clothes, but he lingers, making clear the depth of his passion. Milton never sexually engages Peyton, but each touch is sexually charged. Peyton is sexually attracted to her father, but she confines her actions to teasing and innuendo.

Milton finds outlets for his forbidden love in alcohol and his mistress, Dolly Bonner. Helen seeks out her minister Carey Carr, who has, at best, a shaky faith and who does not like people well enough to offer wise counsel or care what happens to them. Helen’s rigidity and her compulsions cause her constantly to attempt to bring order into the family morass, but to no avail.