"Things I Don't Want to Find out About": The Primal Scene in "The Confessions of Nat Turner." (Novel by William Styron)

By Ross, Daniel W. | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

"Things I Don't Want to Find out About": The Primal Scene in "The Confessions of Nat Turner." (Novel by William Styron)


Ross, Daniel W., Twentieth Century Literature


Facing death by hanging, haunted by guilt because he has lost touch with the avenging God whose word he has followed, William Styron's Nat Turner devotes his last days to a careful examination of the people and events that have driven his life. Styron calls the section of the novel that commences Nat's analysis "Old Times Past: Voices, Dreams, Recollections." Nat's determination to focus on these elements of his life--the voices that he has heard and that have shaped his mental world, his dreams, and his memory--indicates his desire to find a new sense of himself by reconstructing the narrative of his life. His religion having failed him, Nat searches for another means to understand how he has become the man he is and how he has committed his life to the most important slave revolt in American history.

The episodic structure of "Old Times Past: Voices, Dreams, Recollections" resembles the structure of an analysand's free association through his store of experiences. Such an examination constitutes a self-analysis and more, for Styron puts Nat at the mercy not only of his own conscience but of readers who, he must hope, can accept the confession of his pain and guilt. Already judged legally guilty in a Virginia courtroom, Nat seeks self-justification and moral expiation from his readers by providing the complex network of events that motivated his actions, beginning with events from his childhood. Among the motifs that dominate Nat's recollection are his sense of having been a "chosen one," his curiosity about his father's departure (and his desire to replace the lost father), and, perhaps most of all, his reaction to seeing an Irish overseer rape his mother. Though no single act fully determines one's personality, one as shocking as his mother's rape makes such an impact on Nat that he relives the experience at several points in his life. Deprived of a father and unable to forget his mother's violation as he watched passively, Nat suffers a fractured masculine identity. To compensate, he makes women the object of his rage, while denying himself the fulfillment of his sexual desires. Before he can understand himself and his actions, Nat must recognize the importance of his ambivalent feelings, some of which are directed at the absent father and his white surrogate fathers, others of which are directed at the violated mother and the sexual attraction and threat she represents.

In his representation of Nat's family life and his relatively comfortable status as a house slave, Styron has given his hero considerable grounds for confusion and ambivalence. Nat's ambivalence is first evident in his feelings about his father, a runaway. How is Nat to accept his mother's story of his father's flight? Nat seems proud, on the one hand, of his father's refusal to take the beatings his master has given him. On the other hand, Nat must wonder whether fate or a failure of will has caused his father not to fulfill the promise he made to Nat's mother to come back and buy their freedom. Even if he fully understands the dangers inherent in such a return, young Nat might understandably feel rejected by his father.

His real father gone, Nat is left especially free to fantasize about himself and his family origins. He creates a "family romance," a fantasy in which, according to Freud, "the child's imagination becomes engaged in the task of getting free from the parents of whom he now has a low opinion and of replacing them by others, who, as a rule, are of higher social standing" ("Family" 238-39).(1) I have shown elsewhere that Styron used the family romance in Sophie's Choice (Ross), but in the case of a black slave the family romance has the potential to be especially complex. For a slave child like Nat this fantasy could easily have implications of racial mixing: according to Frederick Douglass, no black child could be sure of his paternity, and many fantasized having a white father.(2) Others encourage Nat's fantasy, especially his master, Samuel Turner, who gives him special attention, and his mother, who, as Nat recalls, "teases me for the way I parrot white folks' talk--teases me with pride" (114). …

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