Lie Down in Darkness

by William Styron

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Characters Discussed

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Peyton Loftis

Peyton Loftis, the youngest daughter of Helen and Milton Loftis. She is emotionally scarred by her mother’s continuous rejection and her father’s smothering love and indulgence. At her sixteenth birthday party, Peyton, encouraged by her father, drinks alcohol and infuriates her mother. When Helen attempts to make Peyton leave the party, Peyton proclaims her hatred for her mother. Later that evening, Peyton becomes aware of her father’s infidelity, causing further distress. She soon leaves home for college, and her subsequent attempts to return lead only to further estrangement. She eventually leaves school for New York City, where she meets and marries Harry Miller. The wedding—Peyton’s last attempt to return home and win her mother’s approval—ends with Peyton and Milton both becoming drunk, Peyton telling Milton to stop smothering her, and Helen declaring that she despises Peyton. Peyton and Harry leave for their honeymoon, but their marriage already is doomed. Seemingly incapable of love and yet insanely jealous of Harry’s perceived indiscretions, Peyton begins sleeping with other men. She returns to Harry, simultaneously blaming him and begging his forgiveness. Harry leaves her, and Peyton’s letters to her father reveal the depths of her despair. She kills herself by jumping naked from a building in New York, and her body is left unclaimed and buried in Potter’s Field until Harry rescues it.

Milton Loftis

Milton Loftis, a lawyer in Port Warwick, Virginia, whose career is stagnant and whose family life is miserable. He is constantly put down by his wife, Helen, who assumes moral superiority and who maintains financial control of the family by means of a substantial inheritance. Milton turns to alcohol and eventually to Dolly Bonner to find solace. He virtually ignores his eldest daughter, Maudie, but is lovingly obsessed with Peyton and constantly tries to serve as mediator between her and Helen. Although Milton behaves miserably when Maudie is critically ill, wandering drunk through Charlottesville while she is in surgery, Maudie’s death brings a temporary reconciliation with Helen. Events at Peyton’s wedding, however, bring not only another split with Helen but also conflict with Peyton, who screams at him to stop smothering her. Milton’s subsequent contacts with Peyton are through letters, and he is devastated when he receives word of her death. Helen rejects his attempts at reconciliation and even refuses to go in the same car with him to Peyton’s funeral. At the novel’s end, with Peyton reburied in Port Warwick, Milton is ready to leave Dolly but has no sense of purpose or direction.

Helen Peyton Loftis

Helen Peyton Loftis, Milton’s wife, who dotes entirely on the handicapped eldest daughter, Maudie, and bitterly resents the hold that Peyton has over Milton. She constantly rejects Peyton’s attempts to win her love. Following Maudie’s death, Helen irrationally blames Peyton for it. She reconciles with Milton, however. After Peyton announces her desire to return home for her wedding, Helen throws herself into plans for it. At the wedding, she becomes angry and once again rejects Peyton. Despite counseling from Carey Carr, Helen is unable to find meaning in her life or to feel love. Following Peyton’s death, she rejects Milton’s attempt at reconciliation and steels herself to face life alone.

Maudie Loftis

Maudie Loftis, the physically handicapped and mentally retarded daughter of Helen and Milton who becomes the sole object of her mother’s affection. The night before leaving for college, Peyton attempts to assist Maudie but allows her to fall. Although Maudie receives only a slight bruise and is undisturbed by the fall, Helen viciously attacks Peyton. Helen later suggests that the fall contributed to Maudie’s death.

Dolly...

(This entire section contains 800 words.)

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Bonner

Dolly Bonner, Milton’s mistress, who is devastated when Milton returns to Helen after Maudie’s death. She readily accepts him back after the Loftises fight at Peyton’s wedding. Eagerly anticipating Milton’s impending divorce, Dolly is crushed when she realizes, at Peyton’s funeral, that she is losing Milton again, probably permanently.

Carey Carr

Carey Carr, the Episcopal rector at Helen’s church to whom Helen turns in her despair. Strongly attracted to Helen, Carey listens and seeks to comfort her but is unable to offer any real help. His own belief in God is so uncertain that he can only mildly protest when Helen angrily asserts that God does not exist.

Harry Miller

Harry Miller, a Jewish artist whom Peyton meets in New York and marries. He loves Peyton and attempts to help her but is so tormented by her unfaithfulness and her unfounded attacks on him that he leaves her. When Harry learns of Peyton’s death, he has her body exhumed from Potter’s Field and shipped to Port Warwick for reburial.

Characters

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Of the three main characters, Milton Loftis, the father of the family, is the central voice of the novel — perhaps because he, unlike Peyton and Helen, truly, although desperately, tries to keep the family together. The reader soon realizes that despite Milton's sensitivity, his strong adoration of Peyton, and his attempts to reach out to his wife, he is weak. He does not have enough will power or courage to make a radical decision that could have prevented the family's tragedy. Estranged by his prudish, frigid, and authoritative wife, he seduces Dolly Bonner, an attractive, but submissive and simple-minded, wife of a pathetic real estate agent, and hides his infidelity until confronted by his wife. Even then he is unable to commit himself wholly to one or the other. Although Dolly gives him sexual fulfillment and tries to support him emotionally, Milton hopelessly persists in believing he can save his marriage and give Peyton a normal family. Perhaps he wants Helen because he is depending on her financially, or perhaps he wants to prove to himself and Peyton, despite evidence to the contrary, that they can be one, happy family. At any rate, whatever he does is ineffectual because his actions are too cautious and guarded by his selfishness. He remains in the cage he puts himself in. Emotionally trapped, Milton lavishes all his love on his beautiful and bright daughter, Peyton, spoiling her and separating her from her mother, who is morbidly jealous of their relationship. In one way, to Milton, Peyton is the woman he would want Helen to be. In another, he idolizes Peyton, seeing in her the huge potential he once had but failed to realize.

Helen's coldness must have developed under the influence of her domineering, self-righteous father, an Army officer. Milton's unmanly indecisiveness, his failure as a lawyer, his dependence on her, and Peyton's manipulation of him all could have led her to withdraw from him. But Helen's intolerance and obsessive jealousy are not normal. As long as Maudie, their second but retarded and crippled daughter is alive, Helen possessively turns to her for an emotional outlet, which symbolically reflects her own crippled, abnormal psyche. However, after Maudie's death, which Helen irrationally blames on Peyton and Milton, Helen's behavior becomes clearly pathological. On the one hand, Helen needs Milton if only to show Dolly where he belongs and make him feel guilty for what he did. On the other, she hates him for what he is not. In any case, her motives have nothing to do with love. What Milton fails to recognize, and what makes the novel so deterministically tragic, is that Helen's cruel coldness is incurable.

Caught between Helen's irrational hatred and Milton's excessive devotion is the family's victim, Peyton. Beautiful and intelligent, proud and independent, she serves as the mirror in which her parents can see their real selves. But they never look, especially the intractable Helen. Unlike her father, Peyton gradually builds up the courage to rebel, but when she leaves everything behind — her psychotic mother, a loving but weak father, her whole southern background — and marries a Jewish New York artist, she discovers that her rebellion has turned into a continuous and progressively alienating escape from herself and the curse of her family. To her horror, Peyton realizes how much her personality, her emotional instability, her selfishness and inability to love have been shaped by her "peculiar" upbringing. Her father's irresponsibility and dependence on alcohol and her mother's jealousy and intolerance have now become parts of her own personality. Her suicide must be read then in two ways — as a final desperate rebellion in which by destroying herself she destroys that which she hated but could not negate, and as an act of final surrender to death, an admission of her failure to become her own independent self.

Most of the other characters are largely instrumental or simply decorative. They populate the story, enriching its context, and enhance the personalities of the main characters. Interesting, though, is Styron's portrayal of blacks. Although they serve the white people, their world seems completely independent. Racially separated but united as people, they are the silent witnesses of the white family's troubled life.

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