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William Styron: Lie Down in Darkness

Styron’s first novel was hailed on first publication in 1951 as the arrival of a new, talented Southern writer. Like Southern writers both before and after, he was, with some justification, compared to William Faulkner and though he certainly does show some Faulknerian traits, he is very much his own man. This novel opens on the day of the funeral of Peyton Loftis, a young Southern woman who has killed herself. The novel tells the story of the events that led to her death.

The story is set in Port Warwick, in Tidewater Virginia and Styron’s home town. Her father is Milton, a weak man but one who had a promising legal career. He is now a drunk and turns for succour to his mistress, Dolly Bonner. His wife, Helen, is the daughter of a military man and has brought a sizeable inheritance to the marriage. Her father was the stereotypical Southern military man, tall, handsome, swaggering and religious. She turns to religion, in the form of the Reverend Caleb Carr, when she finds out about her husband’s infidelity. Her initial tragedy came when her oldest daughter, Maudie, who was mentally deficient, died.

But the focus is on Peyton (her mother’s maiden name). Like many a Styron hero and like her parents, she is lost in this world. She is spoiled by her father and there is a strong indication of incest between the two. She does have as sexual relationship, with a fellow student, Dick Cartwright, but it does not make her happy. Later, when she moves to Greenwich Village she meets and marries Harry Miller, a Jewish artist. Her father is insanely jealous of Harry. Peyton herself has affairs and Harry finally leaves her. She ends up insane and killing herself.

Styron’s tale of a family – a Faulknerian family or, at least, a Southern literary family, that is failing from within – that is doomed by the nature of the individuals, all of whom are lost, self-absorbed and unable to escape either from themselves or the family is a brilliant first work. It may not be Faulkner, almost certainly does not want to be Faulkner, but it is still a fine achievement.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by Bobbs-Merrill