Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692
Among the dominant themes in the novels of Robert Penn Warren are the search for self-identity, the isolation of the individual in society, and the opposition of violence and order in the development of modern America. All three themes appear in Warren’s first published novel, Night Rider. The principal action of Night Rider is based on events that occurred in Kentucky between the years 1905 and 1908. The growers of dark tobacco in Kentucky and Tennessee formed a protective association to combat the tobacco companies and to try to force them to pay higher prices for tobacco. When the companies countered with small increases offered to all who would sell to them, some planters turned to violent action executed by bands of “night riders.” This included the destruction of the plant beds of those who refused to join the fight against the companies and finally led to the dynamiting of company warehouses in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The action of the lawless bands was finally stopped by sending troops into the area.
Though most of the events in Night Rider are related to the battle of the tobacco planters against the companies and the farmers who refused to join or cooperate with the protective association, the book is not, as Warren warns the reader in a prefatory note, a historical novel. The tobacco war provides the framework for the story of a young lawyer, Percy Munn (Mr. Munn), and his degeneration from a man of principle to a man of violence. It is a story of self-realization that comes too late to a man who, though intelligent, lacks the will, moral strength, or clarity of vision to make the right decisions when faced by crises in his life. From one wrong action, he seems to move inevitably to the next, troubled and brooding yet unable to stop the movement toward his certain doom.
Though Night Rider is a novel with extensive action and a large cast of characters, Warren has unified the work by using Munn as what Henry James called a “central consciousness.” People and events are seen primarily through one mind. Introspective Munn seeks cause, meaning, and value in what is done by himself and by others. Munn’s ambivalence is seen in his alternate revulsion of people and in his desire to be a part of a group or to wield power over them. This appears in the opening scene when Munn resents the crowd on the train and then experiences a moment of near exaltation when he imagines himself being greeted by the even larger crowd at the station. Throughout the novel, he examines his own paradoxes and confusions, his basic coldness opposed to momentary heated involvement in talk and action, and his sense of isolation not only when alone but also with others.
Stylistically, Night Rider is marked by recurrent imagery of light and dark. As in the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joseph Conrad, and others, this opposition is symbolic. The story opens in brilliant sunshine and ends in the dark. Munn’s acts, which show his progress from light into darkness, all occur in the dark: the illegal search of homes, the initiation into the Brotherhood, the night raids, the killing of Bunk, the sexual assault on May, the lust with Lucille, the dynamiting of the warehouses, the death of Benton Todd (the result of Munn’s error in judgment), the final confrontation with Tolliver, and Munn’s death. The opposed light and dark are sometimes shown as mirroring each other as if one contained the other, and Munn’s divided self is often symbolically portrayed, as in the scene in which he reads the account in the morning news of a raid in which he participated and finds it difficult to see himself as a part of it. Such symbolic imagery serves, like the strong focus on Munn’s point of view, to unify Night Rider and emphasize Warren’s intent of writing a novel of moral as well as physical violence, of ethical more than historical significance. Night Rider is an important first novel that introduces the themes, style, and structure Warren employs in his later work.