William Styron Styron, William (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Styron, William 1925–

Styron is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. The public controversy surrounding The Confessions of Nat Turner has somewhat obscured the critical acclaim received by his previous work. The Long March, for example, is often described as a small masterpiece. A southern writer, Styron has often been compared to Faulkner because of his dense imagery and rhetorical style. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Ihab Hassan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Set This House on Fire is] an ambiguous novel of outrage, one that also happens to be artistically flawed…. [It] treats, in distraught and melodramatic fashion, the regeneration of Cass Kinsolving. The regeneration of Cass, bumbling, guilt-ridden drunkard that he is, dates from his murder of a degenerate rapist, Mason Flagg. We move in a foggy world which the narrator describes as "a grotesque fantasy of events lacking sequence and order …". We are witness to the degradation of Cass at the hands of Flagg who forces him to paint pornographic pictures, to perform before an audience as a seal, and to sing bawdy songs on all fours. Flagg violates Cass's dignity, and to make doubly sure he rapes Cass's beloved Francesca. Violence, however, begets violence; Cass breaks open Flagg's skull with a stone. But the murder, although it may be of questionable justice, proves to be a redemptive act; victim and assailant do not become one. By concealing the murder, Luigi, the police corporal, forces Cass on his own resources; he robs him of the luxury of self-recrimination, the ease of guilt. In his darkest hour, Cass mutters: "And as I sat there … I knew that I had come to the end of the road and had found nothing at all. There was nothing…. I thought of being. I thought of nothingness. I put my head into my hands, and for a moment the sharp horror of being seemed so enormous as to make the horror of nothingness less than nothing by its side …" This is the brief moment of outrage for Cass, brief because he ends by accepting the burdens of freedom. But Set This House on Fire remains a flawed book by a very gifted writer, and one of its moral flaws is that while it brings us artificially close to the facts of violence, it ends by evading them. (pp. 243-44)

Ihab Hassan, in The American Scholar (copyright © 1965 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 1965.

Welles T. Brandriff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[During The Long March] Mannix has been physically disabled and is about to be socially ostracized (at least by a part of society). But there has been no comparable emotional crisis. That inner compartment of the mind where a man reacts emotionally to the external world has not undergone any great change. Mannix is still the tortured man that he was before the march began, and, more significantly, he is still the deluded man.

The same thing cannot be said about Culver, however. His illusions have disappeared by the end of the march. He is no longer deluded by the thin veneer of order called civilization, for he has seen the chaos and disorder which seethe just beneath its surface. And as the forces of disorder prepare once again to crack open this veneer (this time in the form of the Korean War), his inner world of emotional order and serenity crumbles before their onslaught.

The most significant theme in this novel, then, deals with the thin, fabricated veneer called civilization, and one man's growing awareness of the essential disorder which lies just beneath the surface of this veneer. It also concerns the state of psychological disorder into which Culver slides, as he gradually becomes aware of the presence of this disorder.

The development of this awareness, and its by-product of psychological disorder, is paralleled by the development of a foundation of symbolism, the specific function of which is to underscore the contrast between surface order and subsurface disorder. This groundwork of symbolism, though constructed of varying individual symbols, is cemented together by an adhesive of sound. And it is this recurring motif of sounds which provides the narrative with such strong symbolic support. (pp. 54-5)

Although the inverted time order is certainly important, the most significant symbolic event in the first chapter is undoubtedly the introduction of the sound motif. A phonograph that plays only "Haydn, Mozart, and Bach" sounds somewhat unusual, but in this particular case it goes far towards pointing out the need for order in Culver's life. For although music itself is the imposition of order on sound, these three men have, in turn, imposed an ultimate order on music. (p. 55)

The character of the sound motif changes sharply after Culver's recall into the Marine Corps, signaling the transition from the old world of order to this new world of forced marches...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)

Richard Pearce

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] feeling of war as the condition of life pervades all of Styron's works: in Lie Down in Darkness, Peyton Loftis commits suicide on the day the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki; in Set This House on Fire Cass Kinsolving traces the beginning of his self-destructive striving to his experiences in World War II, which drove him to the psychiatric ward. And even The Confessions of Nat Turner, although set a full century earlier, is informed by the spirit of the battlefield.

Besides being inescapable, war is outrageously unreasonable. The enemy is undefined; heroic action becomes clownish and self-destructive…. What Styron shows in his most convincing fiction is, first, that beneath the calm and affluent exterior of modern life lies a violent potential, and, second, that this violence has a capricious life of its own and erupts as a senseless surprise, often in the form of an accident. He was feeling his way toward this vision in Lie Down in Darkness where, despite the influence of Faulkner, his characters are moved not by the logic of history but by ahistorical, irrational, and undefinable energies which burst through the mannered and manicured surface of their lives to drive them apart, frustrate connection, and deny psychological and aesthetic resolution. (pp. 6-7)

Styron, in dramatizing war as the condition of life, developed a postwar perspective close to that of Heller and the next generation. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to turn his own phrase and see him as a "bridge" between two generations. With most writers of his generation [such as James Jones and Norman Mailer,] he shares a faith in literature as a way to knowledge and order, and a faith in Christian humanism as a way to salvation. With Heller, Vonnegut and the next generation he shares an apocalyptic, or neo-apocalyptic, view which denies the possibility of knowledge, order, or salvation. (p. 8)

The modern experience of apocalypse lacks a temporal or linear dimension. It is ahistorical and nonrational. It does not follow from anything, cannot be explained causally, cannot be justified morally, and does not look forward to a golden age of peace. It is an experience of violent and perpetual ending. Such an experience pervades the worlds of Peyton Loftis and Cass Kinsolving; both of these novels are charged with violent and irrational energies. [The Long March] reveals a world dominated by indefinable capricious forces; but, more importantly, it dramatizes the impotence of reason in explanation and moral guidance. The universe of the novel is dualistic, but there is no way of telling the forces of good from the forces of evil; and this is epitomized in the confrontation between Colonel Templeton, whose orders are both capriciously destructive and morally necessary, and Captain Mannix, whose rebellion is at once profoundly humanitarian and necessarily dehumanizing. The weaknesses in Styron's writing, especially in parts of his otherwise powerful Set This House on Fire and in the primary conception of The Confessions of Nat Turner, seem to arise when Styron substitutes a traditional, rational, and, in context, simplified apocalypse for the terrifying one he imaginatively discovered.

Styron also shares with the earlier generation a desire to see the world in heroic proportions; hence his use of myth in evoking the downfall of the Loftis family in Lie Down in Darkness, the crucifixion of Mannix in The Long March, the hubris of Cass in Set This House on Fire, the martyrdom of Nat Turner in The Confessions. But in each case the subject of his fiction is denied its heroic potential. Lie Down in Darkness remains a domestic tragedy, Mannix is turned into a clownish perpetrator of the very violence he rebels against, Cass is humiliated and must finally renounce his strivings. Except for The Confessions of Nat Turner, where I think Styron was working counter to his best imaginative instincts, the forces against which his characters contend cannot be confronted heroically. This is just their malicious quality. They end by reducing the protagonist, comically, by humiliating him. They are just like the forces that "shanghaied" young Styron into the "clap shack." (pp. 8-9)

The senseless surprise, the absurd humiliation, and the final realization that it was all a mistake effect the ultimate violation in Styron's world. We should remember that violation is the end result of violence; it is an unjustified infringement …, primarily physical but finally psychological. (p. 9)

Styron's heroes [according to Ihab Hassan] follow in the tradition of Ivan Karamazov and Ahab, as "metaphysical rebels," struggling against a world which God created as "perpetually unjust," and perpetuating the unjust violence in the dialectic of their rebellions. Metaphysical rebels, yes, but not quite in the mold of Ivan or Ahab, for there is an unreasonable and indefinable force in the modern world which undermines their kind of heroic rebellion. (p. 10)

Lie Down in Darkness [is] a remarkable achievement of imagination, observation, and control. A large cast of characters are, for the most part, fully imagined. The locale and manners of Tidewater society are sensitively observed and recorded. The novel, a collage of flashbacks from the day of Peyton Loftis' burial, is skillfully put together. And there is a rich range of style and pace in the narrative, the descriptions, and the dialogue, which includes a final tour de force in Peyton's interior monologue on the day of her suicide.

Lie Down in Darkness bears Faulkner's imprint, despite Styron's deliberate efforts to eliminate it. The structure, the key symbols, and many of the characters recall The Sound and the Fury, and the funeral procession seems to derive from As I Lay Dying…. In Lie Down in Darkness, despite the literary allusions, there is almost no sense of passing time, no real connection between the present and a past that contained its communal and sustaining values. And despite the preponderance of flashbacks the novel is all present. Unlike Faulkner, who shows us a present rising out of an ambiguous past, Styron shows us a past that is part of the ambiguous present. (p. 11)

[The] hearse carrying Peyton's body to the cemetery will remain central: it will serve, in its realistic detail and comic irrelevancy, to ground remembrance and rhetoric in the chaotic and sweltering reality of the present moment. (p. 12)

If the hearse continually brings us back to the present moment in time, it also brings us back to the present position in space…. The hearse serves to stall us, to fix us, in the mundane present. And if, with its implacable reminder of Peyton's death, it begins to suggest a meaningful connection between past events and the present moment, the connections are never made for us in the fabric of the novel and are in fact undermined by the continual insistence of physical irrelevancy. There is no connection between the places where the hearse—accidentally—stops and any places in the lives of the main characters. Nor is there any connection between the physical details so sharply reported in these scenes and any details in the main story line—and the contrast is enforced by the contrast in tone, pace, and diction. The continual insistence of irrelevancy in the present makes flight into the past—for either escape or meaning—futile. While Faulkner fractured his narrative and the objective continuum of time in The Sound and the Fury to discover meanings in the subjective time patterns of his characters, Styron fractures his narrative to destroy whatever connections of causality and meaning might be gained by his flights into the past. (pp. 12-13)

Lie Down in Darkness is structured to undermine causal connections between past, present, and future…. With no causal connections, no organic nexus, there are no physical, emotional, psychological, or ethical directions…. [The] modern experience of apocalypse goes beyond this and expresses a total nihilism and chaos; there is neither a sense of ending nor a sense of beginning, nor can the warring powers be ethically designated. (p. 15)

Peyton's story is not one of the loss of innocence, as so many critics conclude. There is nothing for her to lose. She is desperately striving for an emotional, psychological, and ethical center…. [In]...

(The entire section is 3485 words.)

Ardner R. Cheshire, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A man on his judgment day, reflecting on his moral responsibility for past actions and the possibility of redemption—this is an important motif not only in The Confessions of Nat Turner but in Styron's two other novels as well. (p. 110)

[Particularly] in The Confessions of Nat Turner, the recollective character of the hero's meditation on past experience provides the structural key to the novel. When The Confessions of Nat Turner is viewed from this perspective, the existential questions that Styron poses are placed in sharp focus, and the novel transcends the many heated arguments concerning the relationship between black characters and a white author and the institution of...

(The entire section is 1447 words.)

Richard Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since the time he started writing, it seems to have been [Styron's] conscious aim to perpetuate the great tradition in Southern literature, and to assume the throne left vacant by William Faulkner by producing something that, in terms of both its themes and its historical scope, could merit comparison with The Sound and the Fury, Look Homeward, Angel, and All the King's Men…. Styron's first published book, Lie Down in Darkness, [was] treated with almost universal respect and had epithets like "brilliant," "major," and "tragic" showered upon it. Lie Down in Darkness, as befitted its author, had ambition written over its every page—it represented a deliberate stab at greatness—and the...

(The entire section is 2089 words.)