The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner

by William Styron


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The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

The story that inspired the major motion picture The Birth of a Nation (2016)

In the late summer of 1831, in a remote section of southeastern Virginia, there took place the only effective, sustained revolt in the annals of American Negro slavery...

The revolt was led by a remarkable Negro preacher named Nat Turner, an educated slave who felt himself divinely ordained to annihilate all the white people in the region.

The Confessions of Nat Turner is narrated by Nat himself as he lingers in jail through the cold autumnal days before his execution. The compelling story ranges over the whole of Nat's Life, reaching its inevitable and shattering climax that bloody day in August.

The Confessions of Nat Turner is not only a masterpiece of storytelling; is also reveals in unforgettable human terms the agonizing essence of Negro slavery. Through the mind of a slave, Willie Styron has re-created a catastrophic event, and dramatized the intermingled miseries, frustrations--and hopes--which caused this extraordinary black man to rise up out of the early mists of our history and strike down those who held his people in bondage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679736639
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/17/1993
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 150,939
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: 1450L (what's this?)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

William Styron (1925-2006), a native of the Virginia Tidewater, was a graduate of Duke University and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. His books include Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, Set This House on Fire, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice, This Quiet Dust, Darkness Visible, and A Tidewater Morning. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Howells Medal, the American Book Award, the Légion d’Honneur, and the Witness to Justice Award from the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. With his wife, the poet and activist Rose Styron, he lived for most of his adult life in Roxbury, Connecticut, and in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, where he is buried.


Roxbury, Connecticut, and Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

June 11, 1925

Date of Death:

November 1, 2006

Place of Birth:

Newport News, Virginia

Place of Death:

Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts


Davidson College and Duke University, both in North Carolina; courses at the New School for Social Research in New York

Reading Group Guide

Pulitzer Prize Winner

The introduction, discussion questions, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance you group's reading of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. We hope they will aid your understanding of the themes and the historical and political issues that are central to Styron's fictionalized narrative of Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion—the only effective slave revolt in United States history.

1. During Nat's lifetime it was forbidden by law for slaves to learn to read and write. What was the purpose of such a law? What sort of power might a slave derive from literacy? How do the other characters in the novel, black and white, respond to Nat's ability to read?

2. How do Nat's thought processes during his long conversation with Jeremiah Cobb early in the novel illustrate the difficulty, even the impossibility, of an honest and unguarded dialogue between a slave and a white man? Compare this conversation with Nat's last meeting with Gray. Can you find other moments in the story when Nat comes close to making emotional contact with a white person but draws back?

3. Styron suggestively leaves the reader uncertain as to whether his protagonist has actually witnessed supernatural events or whether in fact he is the victim of delusions. How does Styron achieve this effect in writing about Nat's "visions"? Does Nat's interpretation of these visions possess its own inner logic?

4. Moore's encounter with the starving Isham and his family is one of the morst harrowing moments of the novel. Why does Moore turn away from the terrible sight? Nat observes that "chatter or unchained, slave or free, people whose skins were black would never find true liberty—never, never so long as men like Moore dwelt on God's earth" [p. 298]. How does this profoundly pessimistic statement square with the message of redemption at the end of the book?

5. What is Styron's purpose in presenting so many of the white characters as grotesques? Is there a measure of realism here, or are they grotesque because we see them through Nat's eyes? How does Nat's principle of not looking white people in the eye contribute to his perception of them? Does his vision change toward the end of the book, and if so, why?

6. Most of the people in the novel, even the illiterate, are familiar with Scripture. How does Nat manipulate Scripture to achieve his ends? How do other characters—Richard Whitehead, Reverend Eppes, even Margaret Whitehead—similarly manipulate Scripture? What advantages does a profound knowledge of the Bible represent in this culture?

7. Nat spends half his life on the poor holdings and dirt farms of the Virginia Southside. Here, mutual respect between black and white men is even rarer than it is in the hierarchical society of the plantation. What do you take to be the reasons for this?

8. "Big talk will fetch you nothing," Nat observes at one point, "but nigger talk might work" [p. 9]. How does Nat modulate his speech according to the person he is addressing? Is there a difference in the way he addresses, for example, Margaret Whitehead and Samuel Turner? What is Styron's purpose in giving him such a very literary, indeed poetic, inner voice?

9. Why is Jeremiah Cobb alone exempted from Nat's plan of destruction? What, in Nat's eyes, makes him different from the other sympathetic white characters, such as Samuel Turner, Margaret Whitehead, and Sarah Travis?

10. How does Styron use images of nature to stress, or provide counterpoint to, the story's themes and events?

11. Will, who lusts for blood, and Nat, who cannot bring himself to kill, represent two sides of the slave rebellion and, indeed, of the slave character. How does Styron balance these two aspects? Are characters like Will necessary to effect social change, or do they represent an intolerable threat? Do the conflicting passions represented by Will and Nat continue to influence the civil rights movement today? Is it possible to draw a correlation to the conflicting philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X?

12. Judging from his behavior during the rebellion, how do you sum up Nat's character? Do you feel that he is weak, or do you believe that his inability to act, even assert his authority over Will, is in truth a sign of humanity, of a growing realization that the avenging God of Ezekial must be balanced with the New Testament God of love? In what way does Nat's murder of Margaret constitute, in Styron's words, "a dramatic image for slavery's annihilating power, which crushed black and white alike, and in the end a whole society" [p. 447]?

13. Styron strongly believes that it is the historical novelist's "right and privilege to substitute imagination for facts" [This Quiet Dust, p. 7], even when writing about characters who actually existed. Do you feel that the novelist is allowed complete license with historical characters, or is there a case to be made for not ascribing emotions and actions to people who might have had very different ones?

14. The year after the novel was published, a group of prominent black critics gave voice to a number of complaints about the book (William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Blacks Respond, ed. John H. Clark). Among other objections, they accused Styron of racism in his decision to place the rebellion's central flaw in Nat's character rather than in the social system itself. Do you agree with that criticism? Do you feel that Nat's flaws are presented as intrinsic to his character or to his race, or does Styron actually imply that they arise from the social system of which Nat is a product?

15. The ten black writers mentioned above also criticized Styron for presumption in pretending to understand the emotions of a black slave. Do you feel that Styron's race makes The Confessions of Nat Turner less valid as a work of art and a social document? Or do you believe that such efforts are valuable, even vital, in the ongoing struggle to bridge "that grim apartness that has defined racial relations in this country" [p. 454]?

16. What is Nat's attitude towards the "paternalistic" ethos of the Southern racial system, exemplified at its best by Samuel Turner and Joseph Travis? How do different black characters in the book, such as Hank, Arnold, or Willis, respond to paternalism? Although it is always risky to speculate on an author's opinions when it comes to a work of fiction, is it possible to deduce from the text Styron's own feelings about white paternalism? In three essays," This Quiet Dust," "A Southern Conscience," and "Slave and Citizen" (published in This Quiet Dust), Styron discusses paternalistic attitudes, including those of his own family. These essays may be of special interest to you as you read the novel.


Pulitzer Prize Winner

The introduction, discussion questions, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance you group's reading of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. We hope they will aid your understanding of the themes and the historical and political issues that are central to Styron's fictionalized narrative of Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion—the only effective slave revolt in United States history.

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The Confessions of Nat Turner 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Ann_Madison More than 1 year ago
When civil rights leaders were looking for a case to take to the Supreme Court regarding school segregation, they rightfully looked to the best segregated schools in the country--those which had the best system of "separate but equal" education for whites and blacks--which they found in Kansas, specifically in Topeka. The court found that the problem with "separate but equal" was not in equality but in separation which was in fact an extension of slavery. Styron has taken similar action in choosing Nat Turner as the protagonist of this novel. Nat was somewhat educated and trained in a craft. He didn't work the cotton fields and for the most part his masters did not horribly mistreat him. The psychological effects of slavery were as deep, however, as those of any field hand. Nat hated white people in a stereotypical fashion that is the underpinning of all slavery, though we usually think of stereotyping from the white perspective. Few authors have given readers a glimpse of this bottom up stereotyping of whites from the slave's point of view as does Styron. Enlightening!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has been attacked for taking too much liberty with history. I cannot understand this since history is mostly silent concerning Nat Turner: The Man. Styron has also been charged with an inaccurate and unflattering portrait of a slave. I believe this charge stems from the discomfort of being as close to slavery as Styron brings us in this book. Romantics may think Nat Turner needs special qualities to lead a slave uprising as he did, but how realistic is that? I prefer Styron's account of a good man caught in the machinery of a horrible institution who is stretched to the breaking point. Nat Turner was a man in the end; we often try to make legends more than that. Huck Finn makes many uncomfortable for the same reasons this book does. Rather than trying to paint a rosy picture, we need to consider the reality books like this portray.
Guest More than 1 year ago
William Styron, winner of countless literary prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize (for Confessions) and the Prix de Rome, is probably one of the best writers of critical acclaim today. He has lived to see his novels grace the shelves of college bookstores (as canonical Southern Literature) and has even lived to read a definitive biography written about him. He does not simply write novels, he writes literature. And The Confessions of Nat Turner is no exception. Confessions is a brilliant amalgam of history, elegant prose, and an intense, if not sometimes overwrought, imagination. Ultimately, Confessions is a novel of tragedy, a sense of which can be felt from the very beginning. It is an almost melancholy book that, despite what some critics have said, does not downplay the evil and ignorance of slavery at all. Rather, it provides an intimate protraiture of slavery and of slaves, particularly the tormented Nat Turner. I highly recommend this book.
ejfertig on LibraryThing 6 hours ago
This is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. The descriptions of everything, from the most beautiful to most horrific are so vivid, you feel like you're right there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
britsmom7 More than 1 year ago
This book was assigned reading for my 11th grade AP English class. At that time I was easily manipulated by social movements and was so self-centered that I created my own reality. I remember thinking that Confessions was likely a hype, and because of that I disconnected it from American history. Consequently, I had little interest in it and read it only because I needed the course's credits and an A grade for college, to which I had just been accepted. This time, however, I found it extremely absorbing and gripping, simultaneously bringing about a deep sense of sadness and strong feelings of revulsion, horror and white European guilt. It's too bad that we adults don't have a required reading mandate;I'm convicted that I need to re-read all of the books I was assigned when I was fifteen through eighteen. I don't know if I'll respond to them as I did with Confessions; but throughout my second reading, this book thoroughly shook me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although Styron attempted to do good by writing this book, his underlying racists attitude towards a man who sacrificed his life for a cause  kept slipping anyway. No one is sure where Styron got his creative license but that agency that gave it to him, should shut down. He won a  pulitizer prize for killing Nat  Turner's character.  Maybe that's why so many bad things are written about people of color because in the late 60's you could get a pulitizer prize. It is bad enough that Nat Turner was cut to pieces and his body parts sold. Nat did  not deserve a southern white fiction writer to kill his character the way Styron did. it was wrong and uncalled for.  It was outright disgusting. Nat Turner did not have homosexual tendencies as alluded to in this trash of a book. His motivation for the insurrection had nothing to do  with Nat  wanting to sleep with white women.  Research has shown and the most recent book about Turner has shown that Nat Turner was a married man with a beautiful supportive wife and child. If you want to know about Nat Turner, the truth about him, skip this book. Get the new book Prophet The Story of Nat Turner and combine it with the original Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Gray.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I viewed this book and believed that this novel would just turn out like any other. I was wrong, and I find out that there is an extreme amount of knowledge that I had been baffled about. Once I had read this novel, almost all of my answers have been met. I would recommend this to anyone. I usually don't have a particular caring of a book, but this just made me wonder and wonder about the next step!! Two thumbs up!!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a thirteen year old girl, and i find this book to be not only good, well written literature, but captivating and somewhat hostorically correct. As i read, i was captivated throughout. Hats off to Styron(if he weren'nt dead)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Got out of the car and held her. Natasha whats wrong?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How am i suppose to explain to him that his daddy was put on death row for 60 r.a.p.e.s