Lie Down in Darkness

by William Styron

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Places Discussed

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Port Warwick

Port Warwick. Industrial town in Virginia. The events of the central plot occur on one hot August day, in 1945, in the town of Port Warwick, based closely on William Styron’s hometown of Newport News, Virginia. In the opening scenes of the novel, a train carrying Peyton Loftis’s body arrives in Port Warwick, a town where heat and dust oppress the inhabitants. As the funeral procession drives toward the cemetery, the characters feel the omnipresent heat, smell the marsh and rotting fish, and hear the sounds of the shipyard. Peyton’s father, Milton, his mistress, and the funeral home director drive Peyton’s coffin past workers’ houses, supermarket signs, freight yards, gas tanks rising from the marsh, garbage heaps, a deserted brewery, a decrepit garage, a hotdog stand, and a waterlogged tent belonging to an itinerant fortuneteller. In other words, the town, its industry, and its heat reflect Milton’s pain and suffering; he has just lost his daughter, the one person he has loved above all others.

On the trip to the cemetery, as Milton remembers the past and Peyton, the narration shifts to other settings. In his memories and later in Peyton’s memories, Port Warwick is occasionally a beautiful place. The Loftis house is located on the Chesapeake Bay, surrounded by gardens, cedars, and a beach. Peyton’s mother loves the garden, and Peyton’s disabled sister Maudie enjoys the outdoors and the rain. Images of water, of baptisms in the James River, and of rain in the cemetery contrast with the omnipresent heat. Peyton’s fondest memories are of walks with her father along the Chesapeake Bay toward Hampton, the only “pure moments” in her troubled life. The novel ends by breaking the heat of Port Warwick with a thunderstorm and with the river baptisms. This contrast of heat and water symbolizes both an ending and a beginning, but in this transformation, there is no promise of a better life; there is only the suggestion that opportunities existed and that these opportunities were squandered.


*Charlottesville. City in central Virginia that was the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson and the home of the University of Virginia. Milton graduates from the University of Virginia, and Peyton dates a young man who attends the university. In addition, Maudie is treated at the University of Virginia medical center, so the memories of the characters return them to Charlottesville, where Milton drinks to excess, attends a football game, and carries a Confederate flag. On the same weekend, Peyton drinks excessively at a fraternity party, and Maudie receives treatment at the university’s shoddy medical center. After the football game, Milton becomes so drunk that he finds himself lost in an African American neighborhood, where he falls into an open sewage ditch. In these scenes, the Virginia of Jefferson stands in sharp contrast with the Virginia of the twentieth century. This contrast emphasizes how far these characters have fallen.

*New York City

*New York City. Great northern city in which Peyton spends her last days. In an attempt to escape her dysfunctional family, Peyton marries New York artist Harry Miller and moves to the city, but in New York, the heat and the family problems continue. Peyton and Harry separate, and Peyton moves in with Anthony, a milkman, and lives in a roach-infested apartment. In August, New York is as hot and uninhabitable as Virginia. The irony is that Peyton does not escape her problems by moving; the same heat continues, and this heat symbolizes her suffering. By shifting the setting to New York, Styron is showing that the dysfunctional family is not uniquely southern. The “lost generations”...

(This entire section contains 638 words.)

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of modern times are a product of an industrialized society, and the hot oppressive places of this novel ultimately symbolize the inhospitable and dysfunctional environments of modern industrial society.

Literary Techniques

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Like all of Styron's novels, Lie Down in Darkness has an intricate, dramatically justified narrative structure. Although the point of view is omniscient (except for a second-person opening), Styron cleverly limits it by entering, with smooth, natural transitions, the minds of his principle characters, including those who play a significant role in the life of the Loftis family. Styron's skill allows him to engage the reader quite intimately without forcing the author to identify with any of his characters.

Quite original also is Styron's treatment of time. Objectively, the novel's action covers the events of just one day — the day of Peyton's funeral, from the time her remains arrive by train until, after some unexpected misadventures, she is buried. In a sense, then, the novel begins at the end and moves forward through many flashbacks. The funeral provides only a compositional frame while the plot deals with the exploration of the fragments of the past to explain the characters' psyches. Instead of building the climax around the old question of what happened, Styron involves the reader in the equally if not more dramatic how and why it happened.

Literary Precedents

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Although its theme is universal rather than regional, both structurally and stylistically Lie Down in Darkness belongs to the Southern tradition. The novel's ornate diction owes much to Thomas Wolfe. Its use of interior monologue in Peyton's section recalls Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929). The novel's composition, on the other hand, is heavily indebted to Faulkner's novel, As I Lay Dying (1930). Critics have also pointed out that Milton's predicament and character resemble that of Dick Diver in Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (1934).


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Baumbach, Jonathan. “Paradise Lost: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron.” In The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary Novel. New York: New York Uni-versity Press, 1965. Places novel in the context of Southern gothic literature. Useful for comparisons with Faulkner and other writers of the genre.

Casciato, Arthur D., and James L. W. West III, eds. Critical Essays on William Styron. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. The most comprehensive collection of criticism available on Styron. Good basic resource for scholars and students, making available some of the more useful work published on Styron.

Crane, John Kenny. The Root of All Evil: The Thematic Unity of William Styron’s Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984. Organized around the themes in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and traces the themes through his earlier works including Lie Down in Darkness.

Pearce, Richard. William Styron. University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, No. 98. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. Traces Styron’s development as a writer in his four novels. Examines the tensions between Styron’s belief in the traditional form of the novel and the nontraditional techniques he uses.

Ratner, Marc L. William Styron. New York: Twayne, 1972. Deals with Styron’s main techniques and ideas inherent in his characters’ struggles as “rebellious children.” Sees Styron as apart from the Southern tradition of literature.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide