Book review: The Confessions of Nat Turner

January 19, 2010

Title: The Confessions of Nat Turner
Author: William Styron
Pages: 404

The Confessions of Nat Turner is a novel based on the slave revolt in Virginia in 1831 that was led by Nat Turner.

The slave revolt described in the book really did take place and it really was led by Nat Turner but not much is known about him. The Confessions of Nat Turner is actually the name of the document that contains Turner’s confession after his capture. It can be found here. Styron uses this confession in his novel but since very little is known about Turner most of the book is fictional.

Nat Turner (or rather Styron’s Nat Turner) was a highly intelligent slave who was fortunate enough to be born on a plantation whose owner was quite an open-minded man. He believed that blacks could be educated and turned into productive members of society, a view that was highly controversial at the time.

Since Nat was unusually bright and showed promise at a young age he was given instruction by his master’s daughters in language, religion, etc. His knowledge of the Bible grew and grew until he could recite lengthy passages easily and on demand. He was also taught carpentry, a skill at which he excelled.

Nat’s master promised to set him free after making certain that he could support himself. Unfortunately the plantation fell on hard times and Nat was never set free, instead he was sold to another owner. The betrayal of this promise might have been the primary motivation for Nat to revolt.

I think Styron meant this to be a sympathetic portrayal of Nat. I could not empathize with Nat for a number of reasons:

  1. Nat and his followers killed harmless children and even babies. Perhaps the killing of children was meant to prevent them from raising an alarm but for babies there is no such excuse.
  2. Nat was not the victim of shocking ill-treatment. His anger seems to have arisen due to his master breaking his promise of emancipating him.I should say that I believe that being a slave is sufficient ill-treatment by itself. However I simply could not identify and empathize with Nat the way that I would have with a slave who was knocked around or tortured.
  3. Nat’s belief that God wanted him to revolt meant that he was passing the buck onto God. This is understandable to a certain extent because revolt would have been unimaginable to a person who was a slave from birth. It is hard to feel empathy for someone who kills because he hears voices.

2 Responses to “Book review: The Confessions of Nat Turner”

  1. AcademyX Says:

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  2. […] The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron […]

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