My Son, You Must Remember: Hiroshima and Nagasaki in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness

By Osborne, Virginia Nickles | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

My Son, You Must Remember: Hiroshima and Nagasaki in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness


Osborne, Virginia Nickles, The Mississippi Quarterly


Always remember where you came from, the ground is bloody and full of guilt where you were born and you must tread a long narrow path toward your destiny.

(Lie Down in Darkness 77)

IN HIS 1993 NEWSWEEK COVER STORY, WILLIAM STYRON REFLECTED ON HIS service as a Marine officer in World War II. Remembering the fear and fatalism with which he and his rifle platoon regarded the approaching Japanese invasion, aware that seventeen thousand American soldiers had already died at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Styron recalled his joy at the news of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, believing these events had almost certainly saved his life. After the war ended, Styron claims there was a period of "a year or so when it was truly possible to conceive of a world without war" (28). The prospect of peace dimmed, however, with Churchill's Iron Curtain speech and disappeared entirely with the onset of hostilities in Korea in 1950, convincing Styron that war was "a savage continuum ... a perpetual way of life in which small oases of peace provided intermittent relief" (28). Though he admits that the attacks on Japan did save lives, Styron nevertheless acknowledges the cataclysmic effects of the bombs, arguing that "the war left us, with nothing else, two prodigious and enduring metaphors for human suffering--Auschwitz and Hiroshima. History has carved no sterner monuments to its own propensity for unfathomable evil" (28). Styron's literary career has, in many ways, focused on suffering and the human penchant for evil. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990) recounts his own major depressive episode that almost ended in suicide; the concentration camp at Auschwitz serves as the backdrop for his 1979 novel Sophie's Choice and its 1982 film adaptation; Pulitzer-Prize winning The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) is narrated by the leader of the 1831 slave revolt in Virginia in the hours before his execution; and Lie Down in Darkness (1951), the story of Milton and Helen Loffis and their troubled daughter, Peyton, progresses in tandem with the events of World War II, culminating with Peyton's suicide on the day of the Nagasaki bombing.

According to Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Lie Down in Darkness marks a decisive change in the complexion of Southern literature, a radical departure from the Faulknerian tradition. In The Faraway Country (1963), Rubin argues that the setting of Lie Down in Darkuess is wholly contemporary and the text is "fully of the present moment in its concerns and attitudes"; Styron, more than any other postwar writer, conveys a sense of speaking "directly to the experiences of his times" (186, 193). In response to the suggestion of stylistic and thematic parallels between Lie Down in Darkness and The Sound and the Fury, Rubin counters:

   The Loftises exist entirely in the present. Milton Loftis'
   alcoholic stupor is not importantly the result of changed times.
   There is no outdated concept of Loftis honor, no heritage of former
   leadership to be lived down. Milton is not the sot he is because of
   the impossible burden of the past; his failure is entirely the
   result of personal weakness. His spinelessness must be blamed on
   his own character, not on the decadence of a fallen dynasty.
   Likewise, Helen Loftis is no Mrs. Compson; she is no morose
   worshiper of her family's past, but a twisted psychotic, whose sin
   is not hypochondria but insane jealousy. And her daughter Peyton's
   tragedy is not the result of a massively decadent family past, but
   of the personal failure of her parents. (200)

In a word, Styron has all but removed the historical dimension from the novel and the tragedy of Peyton's suicide is private rather than communal.

Contemporary literary critics come to similar conclusions, arguing that Lie Down in Darkness is the story of personal failure in an increasingly individualized society; the issues the family faces are modern ones rather than holdovers from the Southern past or other regional issues. …

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