Native Son by Richard Wright was first published on the 1st of March 1940. It is said to have been written for a white audience. Bigger Thomas, the main protagonist, has been criticised (or identified) as a caricature lacking the depth and truth of other black protagonists found in that era.
Setting is the most important part of this novel. It’s 1930s Chicago and the Jim Crow Laws are in full force. Black people are corralled into the Black Belt, living in cramped, rat infested apartments that cost more to rent than the white people’s apartments across town; bread is more expensive but not as fresh as white people’s bread; It’s America at a time when black people are unknown and unwanted by the whites ruling class. It’s a country where black people feel completely alienated; a world where a murdered black woman’s body is considered with such disregard that it is used as evidence in the murder trial of a white woman.
It’s over 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and 17 years before Elizabeth Eckford and The Little Rock Nine met with such hate when they went to integrated high school for the first time.
Bigger stays in a one room apartment with his mother, brother and sister. He and his brother share one bed while his mother and sister share another. They avert their eyes each morning to allow the others to get dressed without “feeling ashamed.”
Like his humanity, Bigger’s manhood is under constant attack, both at home and outside. To the white men in society he is a boy. To his mother he’s also boy, albeit in a different way:
‘sometimes I wonder why I birthed you.’
‘We wouldn’t have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you’
How is his manhood realised? In violence. When a helpless rat appears in the room, it’s Bigger who must kill it. He corners it and its fangs tear a three inch hole in his trousers. This happens in the first few pages and is a metaphor for the story to come, for Bigger is also helpless but cornered. He holds up the dead rat to his sister – his manhood and dominance made tangible, just as the state will hold him up to the white mob.
I will focus only on Bigger Thomas because to include the other characters: Mr. Dalton, Mary and Jan, Bessie, Max and Buckley, would be to turn this review into an essay.
Bigger’s acts of bravado and violence hide his fear and make him feel, momentarily, as big as those he commits the acts upon. His ultimate act of violence though, that of taking a white life enables him to see clearly while those around him are blind. He sees the heavy burden his mother carries, his brothers naive innocence, his sister’s fear, her “shrinking from life.” However, in his clear sightedness he can only contrast his family against the white people he has met – His Mother/Mrs.Dalton, Buddy/Jan, Vera/Mary.
Committing murder and taking the subsequent actions is the first time in his life he’s acted fully on his own accord even though he feels forced into it to avoid being found in the girl’s room by her blind mother and being accused of the usual things that black men got accused of in those days.
He becomes obsessed with his ‘creation’ and constantly wants to read the newspaper to find out what’s being said about it and him, to read about his relevance in the world.
It’s not easy for me to separate Bigger from setting and plot. While I was reading, I highlighted a number of sentences that help characterise him:
“He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them.”
“he could take the job at Dalton’s and be miserable, or he could refuse it and starve. It maddened him to think that he did not have a wider choice of action.”
“Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence…”
“God, I’d love to fly up there in that sky.”
“His entire body hungered for keen sensation, something exciting and violent to relieve the taughtness.”
“In all his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had he been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.”
“It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.”
The novel is set in three parts.
Book 1 – Fear: Bigger Thomas is the man of the Thomas household: a one room apartment in the Black Belt of 1930’s Chicago which he shares with his mother, brother and sister. He’s chosen by the ‘Relief’ as empoverished enough to be given a job as a driver for Mr Dalton, owner of a real estate empire, who is particularly charitable towards the poor black people in town. Bigger accidentally kills Mr Dalton’s daughter, Mary, on his very first night on the job.
Book 2 – Flight: Bigger tries to evade capture by implicating Mary’s friend Jan in the murder, then opportunistically writes a ransom letter in an attempt to gain $10,000 for the safe return of the girl. He engages Bessie in this plan against her will, and in the process gets found out, goes on the run, kills Bessie to save himself, then get’s caught.
Book 3 – Fate: Bigger’s lawyer Mr Max explains to the court how Bigger, a product of his surroundings came to kill, and pleads leniency. However, the state and the mob it incited are out for blood and have already made their minds up.
I enjoyed reading Native Son and learning more about American history in the process. It shows how fear, hate, repression and alienation can force someone (or an idea of someone) into drastic action. Any animal or human forced into a corner by someone or something with harmful intentions will fight to free itself. It’s an important novel and despite or perhaps because of the criticism has introduced me to more works from that period in a way that To Kill a Mocking Bird didn’t. Thanks to the Ayana Mathis article linked in the introduction, I’ve added the following books to my reading list:
I give Native Son 4 stars.
I finished this book in Bali. Click here for my Ubud travel blog.
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