Review: Native Son

Native Son by Richard Wright

I’m not sure why, but I tend to view American history as pre-Depression and post-Depression. A more reasonable dividing line is surely World War II, but I tend to think of the 1930s as a time when nothing cool happened in America, life pretty much sucked, and then oh thank God Nazis we’ve got something to do. (As you might be able to discern, I am no historian.) So I was looking forward to picking up Native Son for my African-American Novel class because it had jumped that dividing line for me. And then it just kept going…

Native Son focuses on Bigger Thomas, a young black man living on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s. Living in crushing poverty, Bigger’s only outlets are violence and sex. Things look up when Bigger is hired as the driver for the Daltons, a wealthy white family, but a night chauffeuring the Daltons’ daughter, Communist Mary, ends in the girl’s death by accident, when Bigger smothers her to keep from being discovering by her mother in her bedroom. Panicked, Bigger tries to frame her boyfriend, Jan, for the murder, even as the murder proves to be a catalyst for Bigger—a catalyst towards his self-actualization.

The narrative of a man who accidentally kills someone and is trying to preserve his life is one that’s easy to make sentimental, but Richard Wright specifically wanted to write Native Son without an ounce of sentiment. And he succeeded—it’s difficult to sympathize with Bigger, the misogynist who masturbates in public. (Well, a theater, but still.) Even as Wright makes the point that Bigger’s situation is due to the oppression he faces, he also makes the point that this oppression has created, essentially, a monster. After his first, accidental kill, Bigger kills again, with more impunity and premeditation. So long only a reactive force to white oppression, Bigger’s murder gives him a sense of purpose, a sense of masculinity (the novel points out that the murder slakes the same impulses that make Bigger carry a knife and gun), and a sense of power (albeit tragically misplaced) over his white oppressors; the brief window of time when he operates in the Daltons’ house even as Mary’s corpse burns in the furnace. Even the climax of the novel doesn’t try to excuse or ignore his crimes; rather, the point is that Bigger is simply a product of the oppressive system that those judging him created. In short, Bigger was inevitable.

But even as Bigger is such an unsympathetic protagonist, I found myself invested in his fate. (It certainly helps that there’s no tension like “trying to cover up a murder” tension.) The arc of Native Son is not one of redemption, but of self-actualization. In class, we’ve discussed Bigger’s initial crime at length, and how Bigger, at the beginning of the novel, is so like an animal—not the slurs hurled at him later in the novel, but he is such a creature of instinct, incapable of seeing past the horizon. Mary’s murder involves a lot of incompetency that would have been solved had Bigger simply taken a step back, but he’s not self-aware enough to do so, and continues with his haphazard plans, rationalizing them as he goes along. But once the murder is committed, Bigger’s world begins, slowly, to expand. After an initial regression, in which Bigger believes himself to have discovered the truth of the world, that everyone does whatever they please (including committing murder), Bigger begins to see how he’s connected to the world. He starts to see how his crime affects his girlfriend, his family, and his community. It’s only during the manhunt for him that he realizes his actions reflect on other black people and the Communists he tried to frame. Slowly, he starts to see the world and his place in it—and that’s the real tragedy of Native Son.

That tragedy is ultimately Wright’s point here—such an oppressive system inevitably produces such tragedies—and it’s a point that found a sympathetic audience at the time: the book was a wild bestseller in 1940. (Does anybody else love old publishing statistics? I find them so fascinating!) And on top of all of that, Wright’s language is crisp, internally focused, and occasionally startlingly beautiful. I mean, “For the first time in his life he felt ground beneath his feet, and he wanted it to stay there” (Wright 361)? How stunning and how universal. (And how just the tip of the iceberg!) I feel that, in classes like these, there are some books you only read for their historical value (although we’ve escaped it in this class, for the most part); this is definitely not one of them.

Bottom line: In Native Son and the story of Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright makes the point that such an internally stunted human being is simply an inevitable product of an oppressive system without an ounce of sympathy for its protagonist. Add to that some startling and soulful language, and you’ve got a fascinating novel. Well worth a read.

I bought this used book from Amazon.

  • Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

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