A Research Paper on the Works by William Styron

Written / Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Exploration of Landscape is a research paper I wrote for my Advanced Studies in Author 400 level class, which focuses on three works by William Styron. The paper discusses how through the shift in the setting from the city to the country in vise versa, Styron accurately shows the protagonist’s thoughts of isolation, melancholia, and their overall state of sickness through the landscape. The three works I analyzed are Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible, all by William Styron.

Dana Webb
Dr. Jean Cash
ENG 410
18 April 2017

Exploration of Landscape in Works by William Styron

All three of Styron’s works, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible, possess an element of southern-ness. Styron portrays the descent to darkness through the setting in which he places the main characters. The landscape in Lie Down in Darkness ranges from the barren Tidewater, Virginia, to the Hospital at the University of Virginia, to the corruption of New York City. The surroundings in The Confessions of Nat Turner shows industrialization within the south from the plantations to the Dismal Swamp, to Nat’s jail cell. Last, the setting in Darkness Visible explains Styron’s journey of melancholia from the city of Paris to the hospital in Virginia. The difference between the rural south and the urban city is prevalent in all three texts. Through the shift in the setting from the city to the country in vise versa, Styron accurately shows the protagonist’s thoughts of isolation, melancholia, and their overall state of sickness through the landscape.

The landscape in Lie Down in Darkness displays the difference between the city, the suburb, and the country. The novel takes the reader on a journey from Richmond to Port Warwick, to Charlottesville, and back up north to New York City. The main characters of the novel center around their original roots in Virginia. “Lie Down in Darkness is a saga of the South [that’s] absorbed into the life of the growing urban areas of the country” (Gordon 103). “Virginia is a land of dying, Styron says. But it is a place for degenerative dying. Release, Peyton’s fall to death, can only happen outside the narcotic atmosphere of Port Warwick. While Peyton has ended her suffering, Milton and Helen remain, still drowning in the morass of their self-indulgence and self-pity. They are dying too, but slowly, without awareness, engulfed in the sweet-smelling anesthetic of decay” (West 30). The descriptions depicted of the dying land in the novel overall represent all three characters- Milton, Helen, and Peyton’s- descent away from their southern roots to despair and into darkness.

The beginning and the end of the novel opens with the description of the southern landscape as the reader takes a scenic train ride to and from the old south. The introductory pages of the novel “provide transition, then, from the real world inhabited by the reader into the imaginary world of Styron’s art. After the scene-setting descriptions of Tidewater landscapes and accents” (Ruderman 33), the reader arrives in a suburban area in Port Warwick, Virginia. The moving train shows the reader the difference between the industrialized north verses the rural south. “Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust” (Styron 9). The scenic train ride displays south as land that is dead and forlorn, a decaying paradise. The scene is “a land of dying, and the novel begins with a metaphor of spiritual desiccation. Between the railroad station and the smoky industrial city of Port Warwick lies a desolate stretch of weeds and garbage heaps, with rusty gas-storage tanks towering above the wasteland” (Fossum 9). The area in between the railroad and Port Warwick shows the expansion of industrialization spreading to the south. The train contributes to the spread of goods to Port Warwick and the “wasteland” is a portrayal of the discarded goods. It shows the slow corruption on the city that industrialization has caused. “The landscape acts as a kind of mirror of the spiritual condition of its inhabitants” (West 30). The barren landscape of Port Warwick represents how Milton feels about his faith. Much like Nat Turner and Styron, Milton feels nothing inside and does not partake in continuous religious practices.

         The area of Port Warwick, Tidewater, Virginia is a suburban “upper-middle-class, urban, southern society” (Morris 56). The “carefully tended houses and lawns disguise the spiritual disorder of their middle-class owners” and “reflects the spiritual and emotional disruption of a world in which propriety has replaced morality, lust has replaced love” (Fossum 10). The suburb is in between the country and the city. It is neither completely southern or urban. The nicely tended landscape of this rich urban society is masking the character’s faith and purpose of life. The Loftis’ residence in Port Warwick shelters them from both the dry, rural south and the industrialism within the city. Helen “takes solace in her gardening, creating order by plucking, weeding, and throwing away the broken pomegranates” (Ruderman 41). Helen places all her energy towards her gardening instead of trying to grow her relationship with her husband Milton. Her connection with the garden hides the fact that her connection with her husband is falling apart. Helen is powerless when facing Milton about their relationship and neglects to confront Milton. He is the weed that she cannot attend to because of her hatred and selfish feelings about the situation. The portrayal of Helen in the garden shows Helen’s solitude. It is the only place that she can go to express her hatred and control by pulling the weeds polluting the area.

The Loftis family trip to the University hospital in the city of Charlottesville is a reminder that the Christian values of the south overpower the “modern suburban wilderness of country clubs, golf courses, college football games, and “scene[s] of odious domesticity” (Coale 17). The city of Charlottesville is a place that possesses a corruption through fun and entertainment. The Loftis family is out of place in the city of Charlottesville and must wrestle with Christian values and “ideals inherent through a socio-economic culture over which [there is] no power to prevail” (Coale 17). Charlottesville encompasses the remains of the life of southern aristocracy” (Gordon 101). Although the rural, southern landscape is not far off from the city of Charlottesville, the characters have trouble returning to their southern roots. Milton’s character struggles with this when he looks out towards the rural landscape from the window in the hospital. Milton remembers Thomas Jefferson and his father dying in this moment. “The lost human dignity of Thomas Jefferson is soon echoed in Milton’s memory of his own father’s meeting with the angelic Lincoln” (Morris 90). Milton Loftis’s father, a southerner, a Virginian, and a democrat notes that “especially Virginians wrestle with their original roots and taught values of the south” (Morris 90). The influences of the suburban activities such as football games, parties, and country clubs pull Milton away from his southern roots to the corrupted activities that take place within the city. By secluding himself to the hospital from the rest of the outside world, Milton realizes that the suburban influences have lead him to no longer care about his original southern roots.

The corrupted, industrialized city of New York New York City is the place where Peyton moves after she becomes married. The setting of the urban city provides a contrast to the southern-ness in Port Warwick, Virginia where Peyton grew up. It is the escape from the city to the country. The dark alleys and shadows that Peyton encounters in the dirty city portray the corruption of society. Peyton remembers her native roots but she wanted to escape the constant familiarity of southern Virginia. New York is outside the main setting of the book. The scene has a cumulative impact to the novel and is the most climactic. Peyton is exploring a new setting, the urban lifestyle in the city. She discovers that New York is a place full of industrialism and corruption. She comes to realize that she lived a privileged life growing up in the sheltered area of Virginia. “When Peyton spoke of Virginia, Harry saw passion glowing in her eyes, and love; she was so desperate to convince them all of the wonder of her lovely, lost land” (Styron 331). Peyton eventually subdues to the corruption of the city by giving into the ultimate alienation, suicide. There is no connection that her isolation from Port Warwick contributed to her death; however, her isolation shows she does not fit into the community within New York City and she yearns to return to her hometown in southern Virginia. Peyton “walks forlornly about the city because of her family’s failure to fill its accustomed historical role” (Morris 65). She continues to oppress her “feelings of self-loathing, dependency, and abandonment” (Berman 64) much like Styron in Darkness Visible. Peyton, unlike Styron, allows herself to end her suffering by jumping to her death off one of the buildings within the dark city. The darkness within the city has overpowered Peyton’s spirit and her suicide illuminates the horrors and negative feelings that the city has caused her to feel.

The landscape in The Confessions of Nat Turner portrays the negative aspects of slavery in Southside, Virginia. The bleak, beautiful landscape possesses great power for the white landholders but indicates oppression for the Negros. Styron’s novel follows the life of Nat Turner through his spiritual journey from slavery to imprisonment. He goes from enduring the horrors of living on a plantation to retreating to the Great Dismal Swamp after rebelling against his oppressors. Thrown in jail, Nat contemplates his actions, think about his faith, and live out his final days. The setting, which is historical and contemporaneous, shows the “collisions of two worlds, the one dying, the other struggling to be born” (Morris 153). Nat goes through a change over the course of the novel much like the setting which changes from a beautiful bleak landscape, to a swamp, to the emptiness of a dirty jail cell. The different places within the state of Virginia parallel Nat’s descent into darkness and his questioning of belief in his faith.\

The novel begins and ends with Nat Turner trapped in an isolated dark, dirty jail cell. The seclusion to this jail cell is the setting that Nat returns to at the beginning and end of the book. He takes the reader through the landscape of Virginia by recalling his memories before his time in jail. The plantations and the Dismal Swamp is the outside setting that Nat explores before he becomes forced into isolation. The cell is damp and cold. A “fine line of pale frost [was] where the hard clay of the floor met the bottom plank of the jail wall” (Styron 6). The jail cell represents Nat’s spirit. The cell is cold and dark suppressing his powerful spirit. Secluded, hidden away from God, Nat endures by himself this hell like place. Nat is a neglected prisoner “refused [to have] the Bible, and as for prayer- well, it was no surprise to [him] any longer that [he] was totally unable to force a prayer from his lips” (Styron 8). The seclusion of the cell has forced Nat to contemplate his faith in God. The jail cell serves as a type of purgatory. He is in a state of repetition, unable to break free. Nat’s lack of faith and failure to continue good religious practices contribute to his state of depression. The dark jail cell mirrors how Nat feels about his faith. Nat, lost, stuck in purgatory, cannot escape. His “forsaken solitary apartness [was] so beyond hope that [Nat] could not have felt more sundered from the divine spirit had [he] been cast alive” (Styron 10). Nat resides in the dark, away from God, forced to be alone. The light from the window, which shows Nat the beauty of the outside world, isn’t mentioned until the end of the book when Nat realizes his wrongdoing of killing Margaret and repents. The warm light from the window illuminates the “presence” of the Bible and “warm[s] the cell” (Styron 425) indicating Nat’s return to his Christian faith.

The landscape of the plantations in the novel represent both economic growth and repression within the South. The plantations provide the landholders the power to have control over the slaves. The “exploration of the humiliations of slavery, densely textured antebellum landscape, and plantation life” (Bell 182) show the control of bio-power and the negative effects of industrialism on slavery. The landowners force the slaves to tend to the land on the plantations through brutal labor. Nat Turner, the Virginian slave, “is weak, caught in a depression caused by the exhaustion of tobacco lands” (West 158). “It is precisely on these large Virginia plantations that the most degrading and debasing form of slavery developed. The Virginia land [continued] to become dry, exhausted by [the] tobacco” (West 192). It is through the south that the plantations have “developed its own monied class, has produced its own wealth, its own class values” (West 273). The tobacco on these plantations generates money for the land but is the landholder’s downfall. When the slaves revolt at the end of the novel, the land overtakes the industrialism returning it back to its original barren state of the old south through the burning of brushfires in the “abandoned fields of the ruined plantations” (Styron 288).

The Great Dismal Swamp is a place of refuge and escape from the labor forced upon the slaves that reside on the plantations. After the rebellion against the plantation owners, Nat along with his followers “retreat into the fastness of the Dismal Swamp” (West 165). The Great Dismal Swamp, “which flanks the Tidewater on the lee side of the coast is, of course, the place where life and death meet insofar as it is an arena where the processes of decay yield to the new energy” (Gordon 101). Styron indicates that the cave in the swamp indicates a state of isolation from the real, outside world. Nat is stuck in between the real, sensible world and the intelligible world, the world of forms in the cave. He is unsure of his beliefs in his Christian faith and is regretful of killing Margaret. The “dark and treacherous forest where Nat is captured is a fitting emblem for the bog of despair, the cave of error, the jungle of tangled emotions in this [conceived] mission” (Fossum 41). The Dismal Swamp’s landscape, the vines and the cave, mirror Nat’s uncertainty in his faith and represent his tangled feelings of regret, remorse, melancholia, and despair.

The landscape in Darkness Visible consists of Styron’s travels from Paris to the Yale-New Haven hospital. In this non-fiction memoir, Styron portrayed as the main character that recognizes his depression, his feelings, and his state of mind. He realizes that “his novels [character’s] had long foreshadowed [the] suicidal obsession” (Berman 63) within his mind. In Lie Down in Darkness and The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron created “passages where [his] heroines ha[d] lurched down pathways towards doom” and was “stunned to perceive how accurately [he] had created a landscape of depression” (Berman 63) in his works. His return from Paris back to his hometown in Virginia helped Styron realize he needed to find help with his depression. By escaping the real world and enduring alienation in the hospital, Styron overcomes his suicidal thoughts to find a greater happiness.

The city of Paris is a European city filled with festivity and romance. For Styron, the trip to Paris has “retained a notable meaning for [him]” (Styron 8). Styron noticed his slow descent to melancholia when he took note of the architecture of the city. His surroundings took on a different tone at certain times: the shadows of nightfall seemed more somber, [the] mornings were less buoyant, walks in the woods became more zestful” (Styron 42) and he began to feel differently about the city. Styron was not “cheered by the festive occasion that had brought [him] to France” (Styron 5). Styron’s journey to Paris illuminated Styron’s symptoms of clinical depression and allowed him to become aware of his suicidal state of mind.

Styron alienates himself to the hospital for six weeks after he returned from Paris to cure his depression. “The novelist narrowly rejected suicide, hospitalized himself, and initiated the healing process” (Berman 61). The isolation inside Yale-New Haven hospital helped Styron realize that only he, himself, can overcome the darkness in his mind, not the resources provided for him in the hospital. He alienates himself from the outside world by waiting to pass the time inside the hospital. The “hospital environment—with its enforced safety, solitude, and stability—and time” (Berman 63) helped Styron overcome his negative thoughts. It was not the resources, such as the small group session, that helped Styron overcome his mind, rather it was time. Only with time will the suicidal thoughts subside. Styron waited for his thoughts to dwindle by secluding himself to the hospital. He explains how the hospital “was a way station, a purgatory” (Styron 69). Much like Nat secluded to the jail cell in The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron endures the repetition of the same activities within the secluded walls of the hospital. As he got better, he found “distraction[s] of sorts in the hospital’s routine” (Styron 73). He breaks the repetition of the hospital’s routine by attending group therapy sessions. Styron recognized that it wasn’t the group therapy session that will help him overcome his depression but only he, himself, could overcome it through time.

All three of Styron’s works, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible, reflect the southern-ness in the region of Virginia. The landscape in each of the texts parallels the idea that the land portrays each of the character’s descent to darkness, isolation, and melancholia. Lie Down in Darkness uses the city, suburb, and the country to show Milton’s fall to depression and Helen’s twisted religiosity; The Confessions of Nat Turner shows how the barren land, the darkness of the cave in the dismal swamp, and the isolation in the jail cell affect Nat’s struggle with his belief in God; The setting of the city of Paris and the hospital in Virginia in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness recognizes Styron’s fall to depression. Styron’s struggle with melancholia portrays the isolation of the two protagonists in both novels. All three characters within Styron’s works, Milton Loftis, Nat Turner, and William Styron, all realize an understanding through their alienation from the real world. Milton realizes that he no longer cares for his southern-ness in the setting of the hospital; Nat Turner realizes his wrong-doing in killing Margaret and repents in the setting of the jail cell; William Styron overcomes his suicidal state of mind in the setting of the hospital. Styron fails to use the effects of nature in a positive manner; however, the difference between the city and the country accurately mimic the negative feelings that each character possesses within all three of his works.


 Works Cited

Bell, Pearl K. “Evil and William Styron.” The Critical Response to William Styron. Greenwood, 1995, pp. 181-185.

Berman, Jeffrey. “Darkness Visible and Invisible: The Landscape of Depression in Lie Down in Darkness.” The Critical Response to William Styron. Greenwood, 1995, pp. 61-80.

Coale, Samuel. William Styron Revisited. Twayne, 1991.

Fossum, Robert H. William Styron: A Critical Essay. Eerdmans, 1968.

Ruderman, Judiath. William Styron. Ungar, 1987.

Styron, William. Lie Down in Darkness. Bobbs-Merrill, 1951.

—. The Confessions of Nat Tuner. Random House, 1967.

—. Darkness Visible. Random House, 1990.

West, James L.W. and Arthur D. Casciato. Critical Essays on William Styron. G. K. Hall & Co, 1982.

—. Conversations with William Styron. University Press of Mississippi, 2011.