It would be absurd to deny the accomplishments of “Native Son” or to protest its distinguished place in the literary canon. With Bigger Thomas, Wright courageously defied those who would have preferred a milder character, a less provocative commentary on the “problem of the color line” (as Du Bois called it), one that would reassure white readers rather than terrify them. And certainly, when Baldwin attacked “Native Son” he was, as he wrote in his essay “Alas, Poor Richard,” at a “carnivorous age,” sharpening his sword to kill his literary father so that he could take his place. Nonetheless, with regard to resonance, “Native Son” is limited by a circumscribed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel’s moment in 1940. Certainly the racism that made Bigger Thomas still exists, but, thank God, Bigger Thomas himself does not — he never did.
Ayana Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the 2014-15 New York Public Library’s Cullman Center Fellowship. “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” her first novel, was a New York Times Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2013 and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the second selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Ayana taught Creative Writing at The Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
◆ ◆ ◆
By Pankaj Mishra
Baldwin unmasked treacherous clichés in ostensibly noble programs of protest.
Meeting Ivan Turgenev in in 1867, advised the older writer to buy a telescope so that he could see better. The irate Russian nationalist assumed that after a long exile, Turgenev had lapsed into an aversion to Russia and Russians; the price of his acceptance by foreigners had been, as James Baldwin wrote a century later apropos Richard Wright, a “profound, almost ineradicable self-hatred.”
Dostoyevsky may have been guilty of literary parricide, but his jibe about the telescope was also an accusation of inauthenticity: the specter that continues to haunt those writers who rely on professional support and critical validation outside their own societies and communities. The writer who shares a dark but largely unacknowledged history of colonialism and slavery with his metropolitan patrons is burdened with particularly arduous tasks. Baldwin, for instance, not only had to challenge old consensuses about politics and art, as well as overthrow debasing racial stereotypes; he also had to resist the intellectual pieties of victimhood, and the dubious honor of “spokesperson” conferred on many writers who belong to historically ignored communities.
Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” published when he was only 24, initiates a lifelong battle to overcome his own vulnerability as well as his society’s fantasies and prejudices. His main objection to “Native Son” was that it confirmed the damning judgment on African-Americans delivered by their longstanding tormentors. Damaged by hatred and fear, Bigger Thomas tries to redeem his manhood through murder and rape. But this vengeful cruelty only validates “those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth,” reinforcing old degrading notions about black men. This is why the “protest novel,” far from being disturbing, had become a “comforting aspect of the American scene,” cherished by white liberals.
To accept, then, that violence and degradation were “the everlasting potential, or temptation, of the human race” was to disclaim moral immunity for any individual or collective; it was to break the simple opposition between virtue and guilt. The protest novel, however, soldered to a Manichaean notion of good and evil, ended up denying the “disquieting complexity” of the human being: the fact that, black or white, he is “something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable,” trapped eternally within a “web of ambiguity” and “paradox.”
In a later essay, Baldwin acknowledged that Wright “worked during a bewildering and demoralizing era in Western history.” Living in and increasingly disconnected from the African-American experience, Wright also needed, in his later years, a telescope to see America. Yet while regretting Wright’s alienation from his subject, Baldwin did not assume Dostoyevsky’s pious nativism. Rather, he confessed that he could find himself one day in a similarly “baffling and dangerous place”: “For who has not hated his black brother? Simply because he is black, because he is brother.”
Agonized with self-doubt, Baldwin could not forgive people who endlessly conjured up cheering illusions about their innocence and virtue. (You can speculate rewardingly on what he would have made of “American Sniper,” which confers on a mass executioner the glamour of victimhood.) It is bracing to read Baldwin’s denunciation of Bigger’s false redemption alongside his caustic account of ’s craving to be a “white Negro.” In both cases, Baldwin unmasked treacherous clichés in ostensibly noble programs of protest and emancipation. Not surprisingly, he could glimpse a sectarian worm in ’s much admired humanism, which merely offered French-style justice rather than political liberty to the Algerians. Such failure, Baldwin insisted, was latent in the causes and manifestoes built on abstract notions about human freedom and fulfillment — those elusive things, which could not be “legislated” or “charted.”
Pankaj Mishra is the author of several books, including “The Romantics: A Novel,” which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and “From the Ruins of Empire,” a finalist for the Orwell and Lionel Gelber Prizes in 2013. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and contributes essays on politics and literature to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Guardian of London and The London Review of Books.Continue reading the main story
Native Son by Richard Wright EssayGet Your
Starting at Just $13.90 a page
Native Son By: Richard Wright Native Son by Richard Wright is about a young, uneducated, 20 year old, poor black man, who lives is in a 1930’s Chicago society that makes blacks feel obsolete. Bigger Thomas is the main character, he is the oldest in his family with a little brother and sister, his family depends on him and his mom. Wright describes Bigger as a scared and confused person with very little ethics as they were taken away from him by society. Bigger is scared of white people because they are the oppressors and force him to live the way he does which is very poorly.
His gang does nothing but steal from their own kind of people and they dare not steal from a white man. In order to avoid doing this and not admit he is scared bigger results in drastic measures. He separates himself from the gang by starting a fight with one of his friends. His mom stresses about taking this big job as a chauffeur with a man who runs the white society. They need this money in order to survive because his mom cannot make enough to put food on the table. Mr. Dalton is a wealthy white man with a blind wife and a young teenage communist daughter named Mary.
The Dalton family turns Bigger’s life upside down as he ends up raping and murdering Mary one night when she is under the influence. Bigger then tries to run but is caught, put up for trail, and sentenced to death. In the book Native Son Wright uses characterization, imagery, and symbolism to show how white society gives the people no option in life and denies them the basic human rights to live free. In the book Native Son Wright uses characterization to show how society affects the nature of people.
The people in the poor slum urban areas, like Bigger, have a hard time fitting into society because society does not accept them and their natural human rights are forgotten. Bigger cannot handle this hate of society and results in drastic unethical decisions. “He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family…he knew they were suffering… he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. ”(13). Bigger is afraid and powerless to help his family and is on the verge of breaking down or exploding, either one isn’t good and doesn’t help his family and will only make it worse for his family.
He knows he is sacred of the world, society, and life itself, but he doesn’t show and keeps it buried deep inside of him. “He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else, so he denied himself and acted tough. ”(14). At this point, Bigger realizes that he will be depended on by his family and he is scared to take responsibility of his life. He acts out of fear with this fake wall of toughness in front of him.
It’s like he doesn’t want to grow up, he just wants to stay and have his mom do everything for him like she has done his entire life. Wright tries to show how effective society is on ones mindset of life and promotes fear which forces people to act out of fear like Bigger does throughout his whole life. In the book Native Son Wright uses imagery to convey a sense of fear and guilt in the actions of the people in this society. To be an African American in the 1930’s is hard because racism lingers through society which forces them to live in the white man’s shadow as their human rights don’t exist to the whites. The rat scuttled across the floor and stopped again at the box and searched quickly for the hole; then it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly, belly quivering…the flat black body of the rat lay exposed its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. ”( 10). Unsanitary, pest infestation, and no livable space are the conditions in which every African American family is living in under the roof of this apartment building which is owned by Mr. Dalton. Mr. Dalton is a very wealthy man but couldn’t spend a little extra of his money to make his apartments livable space for his customers.
Bigger’s family would like to leave but they don’t have the money and wouldn’t be able to find a better place with what they have, they can barely pay rent as it is. This shows how whites keep blacks from becoming something more then what society sets them as. By giving them nothing they become nothing and cannot set a foundation for growth which is exactly what whites want. Imagery is used to show how Bigger’s ethics were taken from him by society “He touched the sharp blade to the throat…he sawed the blade into the flesh and struck a bone.
He gritted his teeth and cut harder…he whacked at the bone with the knife. The head hung limply on the newspapers, the curly black hair dragging about in the blood. ”(90). Bigger at this point in the book has done the unthinkable. He has seduced a white girl, raped her, suffocated her, and now decapitated her, all to avoid losing his job and going to jail. Bigger didn’t mean to kill Mary, he was only trying to keep her quiet. This was so Mrs. Dalton wouldn’t catch bigger in the room, alone with Mary, a white girl, the daughter of a very wealthy family.
Bigger obviously didn’t think any of this through and was forced to use drastic measures out of fear in which society has forced upon him. A black man alone in a room with a white young girl in the 1930’s is just as bad as murder from society’s perspective. Wright gives extreme details of the decapitation to show the extent that someone like Bigger, an African American acting out of fear, will go to not get caught. Now, the situation would be different if it was a black girl and not a white girl. Then Bigger wouldn’t have acted out of fear and confusion like he did with Mary.
This shows how White society forces blacks to live in fear of being around whites or else there would be consequences, and it could result in death. Imagery is used to show how society causes people to live in fear and guilt. “…each passing moment he felt an urgent need to run and hide…the bell were sounding a warning…a red glare of light like that which came from the furnace…he had a package in his arms so wet and slippery and heavy.. He stopped and unwrapped it…his own head lying with black face and half-closed eyes and lips parted with white teeth showing and hair wet with blood…”(156).
Bigger has had this nightmare after detective Britten questioned him. This is a constant reminder of his guilt of accidently killing Mary and leaving her in the furnace to burn. The red glare reminds him of the furnace and the blood, the head as his own reminds him of Mary’s and how he last saw her. The package reminds him of the newspaper soaked in her blood when he sawed off her head. In his dream he had this constant feeling to run and hide which is how he is in reality but he knows he can’t because he doesn’t know how to live with the weight of killing Mary.
This shows how White society forces blacks to live in fear of being around whites or else there would be consequences, and it could result in death. In the book Native Son Wright uses symbolism to show how society affects people’s way of life. “The rat scuttled across the floor and stopped again at the box and searched quickly for the hole; then it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly, belly quivering…the flat black body of the rat lay exposed its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. ”(10). The rat is scared; it’s scared to die as it is acting out of fear moving quickly looking for a way out.
The rat symbolizes Bigger’s mindset and the way he reacts to drastic situation throughout the book. This is shown when he starts a fight with his friend, when he kills Mary, and when he runs from society. This isn’t Bigger’s fault as the fault is truly society because they caused this. Whites forced Bigger to live in fear of them therefore he acted out of fear, afraid he would get caught as a rapist and a murderer. Symbolism is used to show how freedom is the goal and it’s what society denies to African Americans. No matter how much blacks wish to be free, they will never be free.
Even though blacks were legalized as equals, doesn’t mean they were accepted into society as equals. “a slate-colored pigeon swooped down to the middle of the steel car tracks and began strutting to and fro with ruffled feathers, its fat neck bobbing with regal pride…the pigeon rose swiftly through the air on wings stretched so taut…the slate-colored bird flap and wheel out of sight. ”(23) The pigeon represents the wish for freedom. Freedom to fly away, do what you want, go where you want, and be who you want. This is a dream to Bigger as he wishes he could be free throughout the book.
Free from being scared, free from feeling guilty, and free from this oppressing white society. This proves that white society doesn’t give blacks the natural human rights of freedom that they deserve. Symbolism is used to show how society is corrupt, blind and surrounds everything and everyone as it is in control. White society is all around Bigger wherever he goes and he cannot run from it. “…a few fine flakes of snow were floating down. It had gone colder. ”(92). This is the beginning of the snow as it is also right after he kills Mary and sneaks out the back door. “It was white and cold.
Snow was falling and an icy wind blew. ”(95). The snow grows as he runs home to his family thinking of a story to tell if he’s asked about Mary which he expects he will get away with. “…he stood at the window, looking wistfully out the window at the feathery flakes of falling snow. ” (97). The snow is at a constant pace as he is inside safe from it for now knowing he will have to face it. “a bulk rising up sheer from snow of the roof and swelling in the night…his feet slipping and sliding over snow, keeping in mind that white looming bulk which he had glimpsed ahead of him. ”(248).
Fast forward to when he is suspected of killing and raping Mary, he is being chased by the white police officers. “He felt his body sliding over the slick ice and snow…he landed on the roof, on his face, in snow, dazed… he was in the snow, lying flat on his back. ”(252). He is caught and he knows it by the snow surrounding him all around as the white police officers did. Bigger was always surrounded by white society as he was surrounded by snow from the moment he killed Mary to the moment he got caught. The snow represents white society and how it overwhelms the world and the people it oppresses. The door behind him had creaked… a white blur was standing by the door, silent, ghostlike. It was Mrs. Dalton… Mrs. Dalton was moving slowly toward him and he grew tight and full, as though about to explode. ”(84). The blindness of Mrs. Dalton represents the blindness of white society. She cannot see bigger killing her daughter as she his inches away from him at one point. This blindness of white society is defined as their inability to see pass the stereotypes that society promotes towards African Americans.
Then again Bigger is also blind to see whites as individuals rather this one whole oppressive mass believes them to be. Richard Wright is an African American who has lived through this oppression of society and the fear of whites as Bigger did in the book. He wrote the book Native Son in the 1940’s, a difficult time for African Americans as racism was still a major issue. Whites don’t truly accept blacks into society until about the 1980’s, but even today racism lingers and it always will no matter what.
Do you like
this material?Get help to write a similar one
In the book Native Son Wright uses characterization, imagery, and symbolism to show how white society gives them no option in life and denies them the basic human rights to live free. The tone that Wright uses throughout the book is sympathetic, sympathetic for bigger, sympathetic for African Americans, and sympathetic for whites within society. The issues in the book still have a affect on today’s society as racism still lingers, discrimination by race is still present, and the fear that society promotes still causes confusion how to react in situations similar to Bigger’s but in today’s time they aren’t as drastic.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Native Son by Richard Wright Essay
We have so large base of authors that we can prepare a unique summary of any book. Don't believe? Check it!
How fast would you like to get it?