The Confessions of Nat Turner | Study Guide

William Styron

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The Confessions of Nat Turner | Symbols



During the uprising, the impulsive Will steals "an enormous gilt-framed wall mirror." When Nat encounters him clutching it, Will is mounted on a horse and wearing bits of military finery. Will proclaims himself leader of the rebellion. Nat knows he can't completely stop his troops from taking "baubles and trophies," but the mirror is the limit for him, and it sets off a showdown over leadership. However, more than setting a plot point in motion, the mirror symbolizes the weaknesses of Nat's army of enslaved men: vanity, impulsiveness, and lack of discipline. Dressed in a jacket with glittering epaulets and an officer's braided cap, vain Will fancies himself a kind of general. Like a magpie, he has carried off something shiny, not stopping to think rationally about what a mounted soldier should do with an "enormous" framed mirror. Several times, Will is ordered to drop the mirror. But when Nelson finally prevails on Will to do so, the mirror slides to the ground "unbroken." It is possible that shattered dreams of victory would have been too obvious a symbol to Styron as he planned the novel.

The image of the potent and powerful Will in the mirror contrasts with what Nat sees as his reflection earlier in the novel—certainly a more modest mirror and a more modest perception. Nat sees what he is: a slave, whereas Will sees a potent—and violent—military leader. Both Will and Nat are what others have made them, in addition to their individual natures.

White Building

At the beginning and end of the novel, Nat envisions a white building he has seen in visions since childhood. The building stands on a promontory high above a riverbank. With its "doorless façade" and "no entry anywhere," it seems to have no human purpose or even to be hospitable to human beings. The white building symbolizes something unutterable and mysterious. In fact, William Styron is plain about this; what the building means cannot be decoded, at least not by Nat. The building is not a temple, monument, or sarcophagus, Nat says, rejecting the most obvious interpretations. It is "a white inscrutable paradigm of a mystery beyond utterance." The effect of giving Nat such a vision is to give his character a mysterious and unplumbed depth. The building in his recurring vision symbolizes that he wanted something more than revenge, that he is attuned to something divine or sublime. Thus, the building also symbolizes what is lost with the death of Nat Turner and the impossibility of fully understanding his tragic tale.

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