Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Lie Down in Darkness: A Story of Two Processions

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Lie Down in Darkness: A Story of Two Processions

Article excerpt

As William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness opens, Peyton Loftis, the twenty-two year old daughter of Milton and Helen Loftis, has committed suicide, and her parents are accompanying her body to a grave in suburban Port Warwick, Virginia, on an August day in 1945. What the reader comes to see very quickly is that this funeral procession marks more than the death of Peyton, that the hearse carries not only the corpse of the daughter but also the wreckage of a family, and that this second death is no less real than the first. Told from six different points of view and largely through flashbacks that grow increasingly longer as the narrative progresses, the story is anchored to the present, as a number of readers point out, by this procession and funeral. Richard Pearce reflects that the hearse serves "in its realistic detail and comic irrelevancy, to ground remembrance and rhetoric in the chaotic and sweltering reality of the present moment" (12). Mark Ratner notes that "the journey of the hearse and Carey's car gives the narrative a sense of progression" (52), and Jonathan Baumbach remarks that "The time present of the novel is the burial of Peyton, a ritualistic symbol of the completion of the life cycle--a going back at least to the starting point of existence" (124). But what these readers fail to note is that not one, but two processions anchor the story to the present. The paradox is that the procession that looks like a procession is nothing more than a parody, a joke, whereas the procession that looks like a parody is an act of faith, an act of worship. And this startling contrast between Peyton's funeral procession and Daddy Faith's baptismal procession, between death and life, is perhaps the most striking way that Styron illuminates the death of the Loftis family.

Whether liturgical (reliving, for example, a special event in salvation history) or functional (making holy a necessary journey, the movement of a group of people from one place to another), a religious procession is traditionally a symbol of the pilgrim church on earth, the community of the faithful walking with each other and toward their God. It is thus all the more noteworthy that all the way from its mid-day starting point at the train station to its late afternoon arrival at the cemetery, Peyton's funeral procession is a journey of isolation and anxiety. Symbolic of the brokenness of the family is that even now, at this sacred moment, family members ride in separate cars: Peyton, of course, is in the hearse; Milton is in a limousine with his mistress Dolly Bonner and the family servant Ella Swan; and Helen is in a car with her friend Carey Carr, the ineffectual minister who will preside at the burial.

With its tires sizzling on the hot asphalt, the limousine crawls through the wasteland: past the mounds of garbage, the flies, the rats; over the brackish creek, foul with sewage; through the noon hour traffic, and always in windless, sweltering heat. The interruptions and delays are legion. Twice the hearse breaks down and they stop for emergency repairs in heavy traffic. Milton swills a beer at a roadside tavern, holding the bottle in a "sacramental embrace," as the forsaken and forgotten Dolly, in a booth by herself, cries into a wet kleenex. In their car, Helen and Carr are silent, not because they share the ease of quiet understanding but because they are uncomfortable with themselves and with each other. Instead of a solemn funeral cortege, not only proceeding toward a worship service but also serving, in itself, as an act of worship, this procession becomes a parody. Juke box music and the stench of the wasteland replace the traditional psalms and incense as a group of isolated, anxious, selfish individuals, each worrying about his or her own agony, proceed in jerky stops and starts, heedless that escorting the dead to their final resting place is a sacred trust.

If the procession is a parody, the worship service at the cemetery is, if possible, even less holy. …

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