The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner

by William Styron


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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: 161,877
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 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 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.
araridan on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I started reading this book because it's one of the few left on my shelf that I haven't read. The description includes the phrase, "from the tradition of Hemingway and Faulkner." I would agree with that sentiment, but I think Faulkner has a sense of humor (albeit very dark). The first section was pretty whatever, but then sometime during the second section, I found myself comparing the story to that of "Go Tell It On the Mountain" and especially "Native Son", both of which were stories that I really liked. The Native Son comparison comes from the trajectory of the main character, in this case the leader of the most famous slave uprising, Nat Turner. Styron presents Nat as someone who has been psychologically beaten down by slavery to the point where he eventually takes on an "avenging angel" persona, much in the way that Bigger Thomas turns into a murderer that you still care about. It's nearly impossible to mention this book without addressing the controversy it stirred up upon its release. Originally released to nearly universal acclaim, the book has suffered a backlash so severe that to this day many black people refuse to read it. The main point of contention is that a white man is essentially writing about a black man's thoughts...arguably something that he can never understand. Secondly, Nat is not given a wife and when he fantasizes about women, they are always young and white. On the first point, I do not have any problems. James Baldwin wrote from the perspective of white characters sometimes. Men and women authors often write in first person form in the opposite gender. Basically, part of writing is imagining what life is like for people other than yourself. Besides, The Confessions of Nat Turner is a piece of historical FICTION. The only document surviving today regarding Nat Turner, is a 7000 word statement collected from a member of the court detailing his rebellion. This gives an author a lot of leeway to fill in the details of his life and mindset. The second point was something that I also noticed in the book...why couldn't Nat fantasize about a black woman every once in a while?..maybe just stereotypical thinking on Styron's part. Basically, I think Styron was well-intentioned in writing this book during the 1960s as the Civil Rights movement was gaining ground. It's also a shame that this book has been quarantined as much as it has, because even James Baldwin is quoted as saying "If you were just darker it would be you, not me, who was the most famous black writer in America." (I don't know about that, but still...)
HankIII on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I don't know if I can add anything to the review of this work that others have done. I've read it twice, and it has to be pretty damn interesting for me to have done so. I like how Styron uses Nat to narrate the events--vividly told, and how Styron constructs the events around Nat's narration. It's an overwhelming, stunning read, and the controversy that surrounded it when it was first published was totally unwarranted, and a cheap shot, which probably helped create greater attention for the work.
kcslade on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Good story of what Nat Turner was thinking as he led a slave rebellion in the pre-Civil War South.
mjspear on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is a fictional retelling of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in Virginia, August 1831.Wowie, zowie. I've read several accounts of the American slavery experience but this is the first that truly made me feel its real emotional toll. There is plenty to shock in this book. Nat Turner and his fellow enslaved revolutionaries, commit violence and mayhem equal to the cruelty they endured. There is a strong sexual -- bestial-- undertow as Nat struggles to overcome his animal nature with his intellectual and spiritual sides. If that's not enough, free use of the n-word, while appropriate to the time and setting, will offend some readers. This book is understandably controversial (a 20th century white man dares to try to tell Nat's tale) but to censor or avoid it would be a shame -- some of the prose (e.g., the scene when Nat is sold for the first time) are transcendent.
PinkPandaParade on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Why is a novel that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 on my "Hate" list? Author Styron has no question about the important presence his novel has; he states that he is giving readers a fictional presentation of the actual history surrounding our title "character" in 1831. With this, Stryon takes on a certain authorial latitude that can be easily misconstrued with actual history. I can understand the message Styron wishes to communicate. He presents the historical precursor for the problems and prejudices that haunt urban African-Americans today. But, with this, is it necessary to add his own altering of the actual history of this slave rebellion? Here are some of the true facts Styron presents either directly or indirectly: 60 white persons killed, 17 perpetrators hung, 12 more sent to Alabama to die in slavery, and 131 free and enslaved Americans killed by a mob. With 220 dead and America's laws at the time becoming increasingly harsh (think of the Fugitive Slave Law), how much more latitude does Styron need to express his point?With such a novel that uses an actual person and event, how much responsibility does Styron hold to historical accuracy? Many would say that he holds none at all. There is, indeed, the anonymously-written Primary Colors, among others, that takes its own version of history and "tweaks" it for entertainment appeal. So let's consider Styron's purpose? Is it entertainment? In the book's afterword, Styron writes that the real Nat Turner was a person of "conspicuous ghastliness" and "a dangerously religious lunatic". So what does Styron want to do? He wants to change this person of demonic fanaticism with one of "stern piety". Thus Styron wants to alter this man's personality. With this, the story becomes one of a tortured man who feels that being cut off from God is a fate worse than death. Throughout all his brutal and grotesque violence, he claims himself in the fictional parts of this novel to be a man of God. Has Styron acted responsibly in doing this? More importantly, does this alteration make it easier to swallow this historical event, and should that even be a consideration? This event is just a small slice of the over 60 million slaves whose lives were lost. What if these and other figures were altered in other historical events? What if the numbers and events were altered regarding the over 12 million lost in the Holocaust? What if authors decide they want to take some authorial license over the recent events in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Kosovo?I do not discount the fact that the actual historically-accurate circumstances regarding Nat Turner are of great significance today. But can readers benefit from a story that claims to present important history and yet is not wholly accurate? In a book entitled Ten Black Writers Respond, the title persons say that both they and their white counterparts would have better benefited from an unbiased assessment and chronicling of history as it is truly presented. In fact, in one of the most obvious historically-accurate omissions of Nat Turner being married with at least two children, activists and black writers accused Styron of adding firewood to the white racist view that black men are obsessed with white women.By taking liberties with the story and the man, Styron seemed to brush off the fact that slaves' lives were actually worsened by Nat Turner and his rebellion. The fact that Turner seems almost as prejudiced against field slaves as well as masters is soon overshadowed by the fact that he later becomes a champion of slaves nationwide. Styron overlooks the fact that the real Nat Turner had a wife, and that his last few masters were actually relatively kind in a system of slavery that did not afford many kindnesses. These overlooked historical facts could have only added to the human complexity that Styron was aiming for. Noting all of these fallbacks, it seems the author was seeking a preposterous self-aggrandizement by claiming unabashedly that his novel is a c
jmcilree on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Marvelous writing and imaginative use of real story of Nat Turner's uprising to explore slavery in the early 1800's. Excellent book.
SeriousGrace on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I have never run so hot and cold about a book before. On the one hand William Styron has a beautiful writing style. His descriptions of the Virginian south in the 1830s are breathtaking while his depictions of slavery are simultaneously heartbreaking. What I didn't care for was the obvious artistic liberties Styron took with the plot surrounding historical fact. Obviously, in order to fill an entire novel he needed to expound on the factual confession of Nat Turner which was less than a standard chapter in length. He had to assume supporting plots and characters, but was it necessary to have Nat Turner only lust after white women? Do we know this to be a true trait of Nat? His sexuality seems to be fodder for controversy. I saw The Confessions of Nat Turner to be the truth bundled by fiction. At the heart of Styron's novel is Nat Turner's confession, but what surrounds it is pure imagination and speculation. While the book garnered a Pulitzer Prize it was also banned in some parts of the south. That should tell you something.
ejfertig on LibraryThing 11 months 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?