Traveling through Time & Minds

William Styron’s novel Lie Down in Darkness begins and ends the day of a funeral. Between those pages, readers travel back and forth in time, in and out of the consciousness of many characters. All this shifting is done with few chapter breaks: only seven divide the book. Styron handles time and consciousness masterfully. His techniques compress flashbacks from many years into a day’s time frame and expand his characters’ emotional investigations during this one day to 382 pages. 

Lesson: Compress and expand time by giving readers time “touchpoints” 

The narrative begins in the morning through a second-person point-of-view which pulls readers intimately into the journey on a southbound train destined for Port Warwick, Virginia. Then you settle back in your set, your face feeling unwashed and swollen from the intermittent sleep you got sitting up the night before and your gums sore from too many cigarettes…

A train heading north (perhaps the same one returning?) carries the reader away that night at the end of the book.

The book’s sixth paragraph gives the first time touchpoint — At precisely eleven o’clock on a weekday morning in August of 1945″—to establish the time frame for the day. This and only a few other dates mentioned throughout serve as references for the constant shifting, which takes readers again and again into the past and returns them again and again to the present moment — the impending funeral and the coming together of the characters and their fate.

Lesson: Give present time constancy through one character

On the third page of text, right before that first time touchpoint is given, the reader is deposited at the station platform …you climb off the train onto the station dock to a welcoming “Oh, there he is!”, but neither that greeter, nor you the passenger, plays a role in this story. Immediately, the point-of-view shifts to omniscient — we see Milton Loftis arrive with Dolly Bonner and a Negro named Ella Swan.

Ella turns out to be the one character most in charge of herself: she knows how to find happiness through her faith. She is caretaker of the Loftis family and a witness to their demise. Styron uses her to good effect at the end, delivering the reader from the tragic story to her perceived hopefulness. Her rapture may be due to the theatrics of a baptizing evangelist, but at least she’s able to keep from drowning in the sorrows around her. Other characters — Milton, his daughters Peyton and the disabled Maudie (both dead in the present day, though we meet them in flashbacks), his wife Helen, his long-time mistress Dolly, and Peyton’s husband, Harry — don’t fare so well.

Ella’s presence bookends the novel — she’s at the platform when the train arrives carrying Peyton’s coffin, and we find ourselves in her consciousness at the end of the day, when she attends a baptism given by Daddy Faith. Her need for redemption is great and, as opposed to her employers, her acceptance of a power greater than herself readily given.

Lesson: Use a sensory reference to weave past & present 

The train whistling through this Southern town provides another reference point. You hear a whistle while you’re on the train: …you look out once more at the late summer landscape and the low, sorrowful beauty of tideland streams winding through marshes full of small, darting, frightened noises and glistening and dead silent at noon, except for a whistle, far off, and a distant rumble on the rails.

We hear a shipyard whistle through Helen’s consciousness: Now, gently drowsing, she remembers the whistle blowing. It surrounds space, time, sleepy summer evenings many years ago: a remote sad wail involving sleep and memory and somehow love. They’d fight on summer nights because it was hot and Maudie cried and the ice-box made a dripping noise, and because the whistle blew. But they loved each other, and the whistle—now it’s a part of sleep and darkness, things that happened long ago: a wild, lost wail, like the voice of love, passing through the darkened room and softly wailing, passing out of the sphere of sound itself and hearing.

We hear a whistle at the baptism, when the train roar intrudes into Ella’s consciousness and passes into omniscience: Another blast from the whistle, a roar, a gigantic sound; and it seemed to soar into the dusk beyond and above them forever, with a noise, perhaps, like the clatter of the opening of everlasting gates and doors — passed swiftly on — toward Richmond, the North, the oncoming night.

Lesson: Choose a reference that serves the story thematically

When the train rumbles into view, it could be a sign of Jesus himself, proving the unrelenting forward motion of time, leaving in its clatter and roar memories of lives wasted. La Ruth, Ella’s unsophisticated, unschooled daughter sums it up: “I don’t know, comin’ around to think’ about all dat time an’ ev’ything, po’ Peyton, po’ little Peyton. Gone! Gone!” When readers exit with the train going north into “the oncoming night,” it’s implied, at some moment in life’s journey, that we too will lie down in darkness.

Lesson: Use sensory information to spark or bridge consciousness

As implied by the title, this is not a light-hearted novel. The first dark recess entered is within Milton. From the bustling platform and its surroundings, the reader is drawn into a conversation between Milton, Ella, and Dolly, where we learn that Helen has not come with  him today although he’s begged her saying: “It’s our daughter, our daughter, not just mine. How can you expect me to endure…” The self-serving Dolly entreats him to provide reassurance of her role in the drama, but he hadn’t heard her and, furthermore, his mind was too occupied with his own bewildering sorrow.

We’re brought slowly out of Milton’s innermost thoughts through a description of his face —become slack with grief —to a flourish of gray in his hair and the fact that he had rarely worn a hat.

When we surface, Ella is waiting on the platform with a hint of information–Peyton’s on the train—and though we don’t know yet that the train carries her coffin, from the weeping we know it doesn’t bode well for Peyton. Dolly tries to silence Ella and, during that silence as Milton watches two redcaps hauling, we’re taken again into Milton’s agony — because he loved his daughter more than anything — and the thought which suddenly struck him—that of meeting her this morning, silent, invisible within a coffin — filled him with  horror. (So now we know.)

Lesson: Trigger flashbacks through thought trains that link to present events

We see the train approaching through Milton’s consciousness—he’s imagining the train is on the outskirts of the town passing the Negro shacks—and his plaintive “Ah, my God” is answered by Ella, still weeping and asking for Jesus’ blessing. Milton turns away and we tunnel into another deep place within him, a memory of a conversation with his father thirty years previous. We glimpse Milton’s bleek childhood — his ghost of  a mother and a father who told him: “Your first duty remember, son, is always to yourself.” (Poor man. Milton seems doomed to self-indulgence from the start.)

Lesson: Introduce one character through another’s consciousness

By the middle of page fifteen we have learned of Milton’s marriage to Helen (even that joyous occasion was stained by news of his childhood friend’s death) and we’ve heard the ominous sound of his bride Helen’s laughter shattering the air like falling glass.

That introduction to Helen is through Milton’s consciousness via flashback, but our first journey into her consciousness begins with the funeral director’s visit to her home. Mr. Casper overhears the conversation between Milton and Helen, the one we’ve already been partially appraised of — Helen refusing to go to the station. Milton and Helen’s exchange ends in argument and a closed door. Casper remains downstairs waiting as we go with Helen behind the door to her room. The house is an important element to her character and within the marriage conflict.

Lesson: Create an environment full of memory triggers to develop and connect characters

Helen’s room is a sensory-rich world of sun, soft breeze, and holly leaves rustling, but suddenly the house is filled with wicked heat, like that which escapes from an oven door. A screen door slams, the hearse pullls away. Noises and the noise of silence menace her; the unmade bed betrays her sense of propriety (Ella has fallen short on the job today). In Helen’s muddled mind, we jump from her realization — I was a mother for twentythree years. This is the first day that I have awakened knowing that I am a mother no longer— to newspaper events (the bombing of Japan) to her mirror image to memories of Milton telling her of Peyton’s death to his grieving to Helen’s awareness of her own sickness to a memory of Peyton as a child — the happy life, a hundred years ago.

Within that remembered scene—with the shipyard whistle, mentioned above—Helen remembers attending to her disabled daughter, Maudie, and the whistle’s lost wail, like the voice of love brings her consciousness back to the recent scene of Milton’s sorrow and his drunken request the previous evening to stay the night even if it’s your [Helen’s] house. We’ve learned a lot about Helen, her abilities as a mother, her marriage to Milton, and his financial dependence on her, all in flashback.

Helen is fragile, despairing, almost ephemeral, yet two mentions of Ella serve to ground Helen’s unstable world in the time and space of domestic reality: the bed escaped Ella’s notice, but the previous evening after being told of Peyton’s death, Ella finds time amid lamentations and wails to gather up the kitchen debris and take the garbage for her pigs. This woman, as opposed to Helen, does not have the luxury of spending too much time wallowing in grief.

Lesson: Know when enough is enough: offer relief, a time out, a way out

Other characters are dipped into: the do-good minister, the conniving Dolly, Peyton’s suffering husband. They each provide other glimpses of the main trio of Milton, Helen, and Peyton and offer segues into and out of them. Beautiful Peyton’s dark recesses, perhaps the blackest of them all, are not revealed until near book’s end when we travel with her into memories of her courtships, marriage, and infidelities and join her on her suicidal day.

Styron’s beautiful, intricate prose keeps us engaged even as the main characters repel one another. The minor characters do offer a bit of relief in this dark tale, however the Loftis’ self-indulgence and self-destruction is relentless.

After the funeral where Milton has tried to strangle Helen, seeming to obliterate (do you think?) any slight hope there might have been that the couple could reunite through mutual grief, we drop into Ella’s consciousness at the baptism and hear the train whistling north. By now, this reader was ready to hop it and leave the Loftis family behind.