Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

After writing the first portion of Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron realized that he was too heavily under the influence of his guiding lights, William Faulkner and James Joyce. He decided to put his work aside temporarily, hoping to find his own distinct voice. Indeed, his instincts appear to have been accurate, as critics have written voluminously on particular scenes that are derivative of other works. The plot is likely to be familiar to readers of southern fiction: It tells of a deeply flawed, dysfunctional family of four in mid-twentieth century Virginia. It is despairing and nihilistic, devoid of hope. The novel starts in deep despair and goes deeper into the abyss. It begins at the end, as the hearse awaits Peyton’s body. Peyton’s story unfolds during the long journey from train station to grave site. There are many complications along the way. The hearse breaks down, it gets stuck in a rutted dirt path, and participants in a religious revival flood the roads, further delaying the procession.

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Despite its potentially derivative nature, Lie Down in Darkness is distinctly different from the works of earlier writers. For example, Styron tries an innovative approach to narration and to plot development. With the funeral cortege as a constant backdrop, he is able to hand the narrative to assorted people and to employ shifts in time and place without losing continuity or cohesiveness. At each gap in the progression, he has a different narrator take the reins. At the first delay, the narrator is impartial, unidentified, simply relating one aspect of Peyton’s life. Subsequent lapses are narrated by major characters. Readers can thus gain intimate knowledge of multiple points of view, reserving judgment until all the facts are known.

Each monologue begins with an event in Peyton’s life, such as a typical Sunday dinner, her sixteenth birthday party, Christmas two years later, a college football game, or her marriage. Each event ends disastrously. Peyton’s own monologue is reserved for last. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this structure could have been a recipe for failure, but Styron is meticulous, and he has been praised for the architecture of the novel. Form and style make Lie Down in Darkness successful. Styron switches from one narrative point of view to another with ease, bringing readers into the minds of his characters and making each character at least partly sympathetic. Greater understanding of motivations and individual pathologies helps create a sense that no one is evil per se. Most of the characters are despairing, lonely, and seeking meaning. Styron balances their narrations so delicately that the structure does not seem contrived. Always, in the background, the funeral cortege crawls along toward eternal darkness.

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