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When it appeared in 1940, Native Son was without precedent in American literature. Previous African American writing, including Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), had treated blacks as passive and innocent victims of racism suffering their lot in dignified silence. As Wright said of his own earlier work, the reading audience could escape into the self-indulgence of pity on reading such work rather than truly face the hard facts of racism. In Bigger Thomas, Wright created a character who was neither a passive sufferer nor an innocent victim. Instead, Wright reminded Americans of the full cost of bigotry in social and human terms by dramatizing the deep anger, hate, and fear that many blacks felt.

Years after Native Son’s appearance, James Baldwin would assert that every black person carries some degree of Bigger Thomas within him- or herself. Perhaps so, and it is to Wright’s credit that he was the first American writer to bring those feelings into the open. Readers are reminded that Bigger is a “native son,” and his experience is quintessentially a part of the American experience. On the psychological, the sociological, and the philosophical levels, Wright explores the most disturbing implications of what it means to be African American.

The basic tone of Wright’s psychological treatment of Bigger is set in the opening scene in which Bigger and Buddy battle the rat. Here is a symbolic paradigm for the entire novel in which Bigger, like the rat, will be hunted and destroyed. The rat, it must be understood, operates entirely at the instinctual level, and its viciousness is in response to fear. Recalling that “Fear” is the title of the first section of the novel, as “Flight” is of the second, suggests that Bigger, too, is a creature motivated by fear and acting instinctively. This is demonstrably true of his killing Mary Dalton while avoiding detection, and it shows up even earlier in the fight with Gus. Fearful of outside forces, particularly white people, Bigger is equally fearful of the repressed anger within himself, as his several comments referring to his concern that he is destined to commit some terrible act indicate. Thus, in at least the first two sections of the novel, Bigger, before and after the murder, is operating at an instinctual level, and it is against this background that his development takes place.

Bigger’s psychological state is an obvious result of the sociological conditions prevailing in the novel. As Bigger dramatizes the anger and pain of his race, the Daltons effectively represent the ruling white power structure. It is to Wright’s credit that he does not give way to the temptation to create villains, but makes these whites generous, liberal, and humanitarian. It is ironic that even while giving a “chance” to Bigger and helping in ghetto programs, the Daltons are reaping the proceeds of ghetto housing. Appropriately, Wright uses the metaphor of blindness to characterize the attitude of the Daltons here, as he will later, to account for Max’s failure to comprehend Bigger. Bigger, too, is described as blind, because, in this world of Native Son, there is no real possibility of people seeing one another in clear human perspective. All the characters respond to one another as symbols rather than as people.

Wright’s use of the polarities of black and white symbolism is not limited to the literal and racial levels of the novel. The entire world of Native Son, as the story unfolds, is increasingly polarized into a symbolic black-white dichotomy. Especially during part 2, the snow that buries the city under a cold and hostile blanket of white becomes a more complicated manifestation of the white symbolism than that limited to the sociological level. At the same time, not only does Bigger escape into the black ghetto in search of safety and security, he also seeks out the black interiors of abandoned buildings to hide from both the freezing snow and the death-dealing white mob. Finally, Bigger’s flight ends when he is spread out against the white snow as though he were being crucified.

It is not probable that Wright had heard of European existentialism when he wrote Native Son, so it is all the more remarkable that this novel should so clearly demonstrate concepts that anticipate Wright’s embracing of existentialist philosophy when he went to Europe in the late 1940’s. Though Bigger very obviously commits the first murder without premeditation, he quickly comes to the realization that somehow the act is the sum of his entire life. Rather than repudiating responsibility for his crime, or seeing himself as a victim of circumstances, either of which would be understandable, Bigger consciously and deliberately affirms the killing as the most creative act of his life. Whereas before he was in the position of constantly reacting—like the rat—he now sees himself as having responsibility for his own fate. Further, the world that before had seemed frighteningly ambiguous is now clearly revealed to him. For the first time in his life, Bigger has a positive sense of his own identity and a concrete knowledge of how he relates to the world around him. Ironically, Max’s case that Bigger is a victim of society threatens to deprive Bigger of the identity he has purchased at such terrible cost to himself, but, facing death at the end of the novel, he reaffirms his belief that he killed for something, and he faces death with the courage born of his one creative moment.

Wright’s novel is not without faults, particularly the tedious final section in which Max argues a doctrinaire Marxist interpretation of Bigger’s crime. Apparently, however, Wright himself could not fully accept this view, since Bigger’s reaffirmation of responsibility contradicts Max’s deterministic justification. In the final analysis, Bigger’s insistence upon responsibility for his act demonstrates the human potential for freedom of act and will and asserts human possibility in contrast to the Marxist vision of people as animals trapped in a world they cannot control.

Native Son, A Critical Review

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Bigger, Crime, and Society

In the heated trial that determines whether Bigger Thomas will live or die, his supportive defense attorney exclaims, “You cannot kill this man, your Honor, for we have made it plain that we do not recognize that he lives!” Living in the Chicago slums as a poor, uneducated young black man whose only confidence can come from acts of violence, Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son is destined to meet a poor fate. Anger and hopelessness are a daily reality for him as he realizes that his life has no real meaning. When he accidentally murders a young, rich, white woman, however, his actions begin to have meaning as he accepts the crime as his own, even while he lies to the authorities. Bigger is, of course, taken down by a society who takes offense at the remarks of his supporters and seeks to justify itself. Bigger himself is doomed, but his emotions, his actions, and his motivations all help to give the reader a window into the mind of a criminal and a repressed inner city African American.
Fear, flight, fate. These are the three simple and meaningful words chosen by Wright to mark Bigger’s sad existence. Growing up angry at the white world, he is forced into working as a chauffeur for a rich white family, the Daltons, to support his struggling family. He is frightened and angered by the attempts of Mary Dalton and her Communist friend Jan to be friendly to him and interprets their actions as condescending. As he tries to stifle a drunken Mary to avoid detection after carrying her upstairs, he accidentally kills her. In a time of panic, he burns the body in the furnace and concocts an elaborate lie imputing the Communist Party. He lies, dodges questions, and even tries to demand ransom, but this can only last for so long before Bigger is named as chief suspect. He brings with him in flight his girlfriend Bessie and later kills her, as she cannot continue with him nor return home. After being caught and brought to trial he is supported by attorney Boris Max who defends him intensely with his own eloquence and conviction. Bigger discovers that the man, though white, feels genuinely for him, but in the end, as dictated by fate, he is sentenced to death and is granted no clemency by a society refusing to take any responsibility for a member for whom it has failed to care.

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Bigger is the only truly developed character of the novel, as the book is a chronicle of his downfall. He grows up using motion pictures as a means for him to escape his narrow existence. Meaning is only assigned to his life when he is responsible for Mary Dalton’s death. He feels a sense of power, of confidence and accomplishment, as he accepts the crime and even when facing death, recognizes that he must have done something significant, even as he cringes in fear and agony while committing his heinous deeds. Though he initially blames the Communist Party for his actions, he doesn’t do it out of any anger toward Communism, but merely views the party as something on which he can pin his actions. He never is fortunate enough to find warm, mutually beneficial relationships, but he comes closest to having true friends with Jan Erlone and Boris Max, both of the white race Bigger has grown to hate. By the end of the novel, he realizes his end is the product of fate, a fate determined by the life to which he has been subjected by white America. Understanding this, he tells Boris Max to let his mother know he’s all right.
At the forefront of Wright’s novel is the clear theme of social injustice. The blacks he describes suffer from inescapable conditions that naturally breed anger and hate set by white society, who won’t even allow them to step onto the lowest rung of the economic ladder through capitalism. While Wright does not condone violence, he expresses that Bigger’s actions are, in part, the product of a nation wishing to promote equality in freedom on paper but not in practice. Mr. Dalton, for instance, may be generous with money but neglects moral responsibility by not using the power he has to try to change the underlying conditions that hurt black culture. Bigger’s mother, Mrs. Thomas, is a strong black woman trying to do the best she can to provide for her inner-city family. As long as men like the D.A. Buckley who exploit black culture are working against her to satisfy personal greed, though, she and those like her will not be given the opportunities to which they are entitled. Wright writes with the intention of promoting personal freedom, of promoting a culture that does not actively misshape the lives of a minority.
Through vivid contrasting imagery that appeals to all of the senses, whether it be the ringing of Bigger’s alarm clock, descriptions of Mary’s body and the furnace, or images stirred by Bigger and Bessie’s brief physical union, Wright pushes the novel forward with honesty and realism. Bigger’s perceptions of the wooden cross around his neck and the burning cross outside, of the black rat in his apartment and the white cat bearing witness to his ‘cremation’ of Mary are all brought to life. One can see the complexities of Bigger’s thoughts while being moved along swiftly through Wright’s clear prose in times of action. Through his tale of an ill-fated journey to give existence meaning and find understanding, Wright provokes his audience to true enlightenment.


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