The Confessions of Nat Turner | Study Guide

William Styron

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The Confessions of Nat Turner | Themes


Presence of God

At the beginning of the novel Nat Turner tries to pray, but he cannot feel the presence of God. At the end, however, he is restored to God's nearness by remorse for killing Margaret Whitehead. In between, Nat's story is of his following what he believes is the voice of God as he interprets and attempts to understand what God's will is for his life. His mission to kill the white people in Southampton County is granted by God, Nat believes.

The novel, however, gives readers three reasons to doubt Nat Turner's interpretation of God's will. First, when readers first meet Nat, he has attempted his mission, but God is absent from his life. Nat's prayer from his prison cell "fall[s] away futile on the air like a wisp of smoke." The spiritual crisis signals something has gone wrong with Nat Turner's sense of God's will. Second, Nat has doubts about his interpretation throughout the novel, and God's words to him are ambiguous. When Nat finally hears God's voice, he has just been whipped for the first time in his life. This could be William Styron's way of giving Nat's spiritual experience a psychological explanation: in response to the trauma of being beaten, Nat's mind turns to an image of a comforting God. But this God says only, "I abide"; it's not a detailed plan for a night raid on a white farm. Finally, Styron casts doubt on the divine origin of Nat Turner's mission to liberate slaves. Before Nat comes up with the idea of killing all the white people, his first sense of mission is a Christian one. As he looks at his fellow slaves, he quotes the prophet Hosea: "I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death." But immediately before this quotation, Nat has been watching the field hands obsequiously accept little Christmas trinkets from their master, and he is filled with loathing for the slaves. Thus, Styron suggests that Nat Turner became a redeemer of slaves to compensate for the intense loathing he felt. This suggestion casts a skeptical shadow on his mission to free them.

Decline of Paternalist Virginia

Several white characters in the novel believe the farmland and economy of Virginia are in decline. Jeremiah Cobb asks, "Is not the handwriting on the wall for this beloved and foolish and tragic Old Dominion?" ("Old Dominion" is a nickname for the state of Virginia.) There are different explanations for its decline. Cobb seems to say that tobacco farming changed Virginia from "a plump and virginal principality" to "a withering, defeated hag." As a colony, Virginia put all its effort into raising a cash crop, tobacco, for the home country, England. Now tobacco farming is finished, and "we can raise only horses!" Cobb complains. Other characters believe slavery has ruined "foolish" and "tragic" Virginia. In a discussion with his brother, Samuel Turner says slavery is a "cancer" and the "cause of all the chief evils in the land." In addition to these explanations—cash crops and slavery—the novel adds a third: the drought that blights the land in the late 1820s. All these conditions work together to signal the end of an era for the proud state.

The decline of the slaveholding economy in Virginia is manifested in the breakup of Turner's Mill. When Nat's friend Willis is sold, Samuel Turner tells Nat that this is just the first sale of many. Samuel repeats that the land of Virginia has been overtaken by "that terrible weed," tobacco. Virginia's slaves are being sold to cotton-producing regions farther south, Samuel says. Turner's Mill will become "a dead hulk" and "the fragment of a dream."

In the context of American slavery, paternalism was the idea that slaves and slaveholders alike had responsibilities to each other. The owners had responsibilities toward their slaves, such as clothing and feeding them. Paternalism was used as argument against abolition. When Samuel Turner, Benjamin Turner, and Dr. Ballard discuss slavery, the Turners take the view that slavery is a necessary evil, and Dr. Ballard calls it "benevolent subjection." Readers are not meant to agree with Ballard; his praise for slavery's benevolence sounds absurd. However, the novel makes paternalistic Virginia look good by comparison with conditions in the cotton-producing Deep South, which fills Virginia slaves with horror: "Even the most child-like, benighted Negroes in Virginia" have "learned to fear those names [Mississippi and Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas] like death." Nat himself says his way of life with Moore in Virginia was "far from ... Elysian, but it was not Alabama." Virginia slave owners generally have between two and five slaves, while the scale of cotton-farming produces horrors of a different order. By using Alabama as a comparison, the novel ends up to some extent defending Virginia paternalism in the same terms as Dr. Ballard; the slain white people are small-holders with good hearts.

Freed Black People

The misery of freed black people in Virginia is a prominent theme in The Confessions of Nat Turner. The poverty and isolation of freed black people help convince Nat Turner that he has no choice but to rebel. His original owner, Samuel Turner, has plans to free him, but when Nat hears those plans, he recalls his mother's words: "Druther be a low cornfield nigger or dead than a free nigger." His mother is pointing out that freed black people have no place in the slaveholding South. Freed, they are severed from their paternalistic relationship to their owners and have difficulty attaining any other economic status because white people hold all the cards. Nat's mother's view of the misery of freed black people in the South is borne out in what happens after the rebellion. White slave owners, eager to take revenge, viciously gang up on Laurie, a free black woman. Her freedom does nothing but make her available as a victim. The same is true for Arnold, a freed black man whom Nat considers worse off than "the lepers of Galilee and all the outcasts to whom Jesus ministered." Eventually the breakup of Turner's Mill and the death of Samuel Turner interfere with the plan to free Nat. However, the examples of Arnold and Laurie teach Nat Turner that there is no place for him in white-dominated society. This despair helps radicalize him.

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