56 pages 1 hour read

William Styron

The Confessions of Nat Turner

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1967

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron, is a work of historical fiction that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. The first-person account of the 1831 Virginia slave revolt begins and ends in the prison where Nat Turner, an African American slave, was held before, during, and following his trial. Turner awaits execution as the leader of the two-day slave rebellion that started in Southampton County and ended with the death of approximately 55 whites—men, women, and children. Styron constructed the novel from the “testimony” recounted to the public by lawyer Thomas Gray, who is a character included within the novel. Jumping in and out of Turner’s memory, the narrative focuses on and complicates Turner’s imagined religious, ideological, and relational conundrums across his life.

In his prison cell, Nat Turner witnesses the world moving outside: horses coming and going, a few black people going about daily tasks. He also hears noises, including a woman’s voice singing one dark night after his trial, “grieving, yet somehow unbending, steadfast, unafraid” (113). These scenes establish Nat’s deep connection to nature, but they also show his deep connection to other black people, however limited by walls and differences. They also demonstrate his vivid, imaginative mind and his natural sense for descriptive language. Nat, for whom literacy has always been important, sees and creates metaphors in the world around him.

The overarching sense of doubt and fear, magnified from his sense of being “removed from God” (12) in these last days of his life, pervades those metaphors. As he watches flies, “God’s supreme outcasts, buzzing eternally” (27) in his cell and in the courthouse, Nat philosophizes about the differences between his own race and those base animals. From the first pages of the novel, Nat’s strong internal imagination and analysis emerges; his visions and his preaching, which he reveals as he tells the story of his life, are the outer fruits of those internal habits.

Thomas Gray, a supposedly neutral lawyer covering Nat’s case, retells and elaborates upon Nat’s confession in the courtroom. Then Nat begins to retell his own story through small windows into his memory. Contrary to Gray’s assertation, which seeks order and reason for Nat’s story that will allow white people to continue to believe that “slavery’s going to last a thousand years” (26), Nat’s confession is unstable. Jumping back and forth across years, spaces, and even owners, Nat follows his mind in pursuit of some way to understand whether or not his actions were justifiable. He revisits the families, the plantations, and the fellow enslaved people with whom he lived. He tracks the rise of his literacy, his religious vocation, his sexuality, and his pride. These events, brutal and tender, display Nat’s strong and unique perspective on the world around him, which is always set apart from others of any race.

Guilt, for which Gray presses, is Nat’s to admit to himself. The greatest difference between Nat’s storytelling and Gray’s is the presence of the internal life of the black man, which, except in the case of Jonathan Cobb, no white man ever hears in Nat’s story. That internal life is the space for an admission of guilt, for Nat cannot reconcile his murder of Margaret Whitehead.

The distance that Nat feels from God is bridged in the last moments of the novel, when he finally hears a small, but mysterious, voice from God. Mystery, then, governs the novel more than clarity, the original intention that Gray seeks. Styron emphasizes the role of mystery, repetition, and the incomprehensible when he repeats Nat’s obscure, but vivid, vision of the white tower at the beginning and end of the text. Although his body is destroyed and lost, Nat’s story continues. The question of his rebellion’s ability to change the balance of power remains open, a continuous mystery that continues to evolve and shape the world even after Nat’s body—and the bodies of his compatriots—have long since degraded underground.

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