|Genre(s)||African American literature, Novel|
|Publisher||Harper & Brothers|
|Publication date||March 1, 1940|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
Native Son (1940) is a novel by American author Richard Wright. The novel tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, a black American youth living in utter poverty. Bigger lived in a poor area on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. The novel's treatment of Bigger and his motivations conforms to the conventions of literary naturalism.
While not apologizing for Bigger's crimes, Wright is sympathetic to the systemic inevitability behind them. As Bigger's lawyer points out, there is no escape from this destiny for his client or any other black American, since they are the necessary product of the society that formed them and told them since birth who exactly they were supposed to be. "No American Negro exists," James Baldwin once wrote, "who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull." Frantz Fanon discusses this feeling in his 1952 essay L'Experience Vecue du Noir, or "The Fact of Blackness". "In the end," writes Fanon, "Bigger Thomas acts. To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world's anticipation."
Book One: Fear
Bigger Thomas wakes up in a dark, small room at the sound of the alarm clock. He lives in one room with his brother Buddy, his sister Vera, and their mother. Suddenly, a rat appears. The room turns into a maelstrom and after a violent chase, Bigger claims the life of an animal with an iron skillet and terrorizes Vera with the dark body. Vera faints and Mrs. Thomas scolds Bigger, who hates his family because they suffer and he cannot do anything about it.
That evening, Bigger has to see Mr. Dalton for a new job. Bigger's family depends on him. He would like to leave his responsibilities forever but when he thinks of what to do, he only sees a blank wall. He walks to the poolroom and meets his friend. Gusiffer R. Bigger tells him that every time he thinks about whites, he feels something terrible will happen to him. They meet other friends, G. H. and Jack, and plan a robbery of the white wealth. They are all afraid of attacking and stealing from a white man, but none of them wants to admit their concerns. Before the robbery, Bigger and Jack go to the movies. They are attracted to the world of wealthy whites in the newsreel and feel strangely moved by the tom-toms and the primitive black people in the film, but they also feel that they are equal to those worlds. After the cinema, Bigger returns to the poolroom and attacks Gus violently, forcing him to lick his blade in a demeaning way to hide his own cowardice. The fight ends any chance of the robbery occurring; Bigger is obscurely conscious that he has done this intentionally.
When he finally gets the job, Bigger does not know how to behave in the large and luxurious house. Mr. Dalton and his blind wife use strange words. They try to be kind to Bigger, but they actually make him very uncomfortable; Bigger does not know what they expect of him. Then their daughter, Mary, enters the room, asks Bigger why he does not belong to a union, and calls her father a "capitalist." Bigger does not know that word and is even more confused and afraid to lose the job. After the conversation, Peggy, an Irish cook, takes Bigger to his room and tells him that the Daltons are a nice family but that he must avoid Mary's communist friends. Bigger has never had a room for himself before.
That night, he drives Mary around and meets her Communist boyfriend, Jan. Throughout the evening, Jan and Mary talk to Bigger, oblige him to take them to the diner where his friends are, invite him to sit at their table, and tell him to call them by their first names. Bigger does not know how to respond to their requests and becomes very frustrated, as he is simply their chauffeur for the night. At the diner they buy a bottle of rum. Bigger drives throughout the park, and Jan and Mary drink the rum and have sex in the back seat. Jan and Mary part, but Mary is so drunk that Bigger has to carry her to her bedroom when they arrive home. He is terrified someone will see him with her in his arms; however, he cannot resist the temptation of the forbidden, and he kisses her.
Just then, the bedroom door opens, and Mrs. Dalton enters. Bigger knows she is blind but is terrified she will sense him there. He silences Mary by pressing a pillow into her face. Mary claws at Bigger's hands while Mrs. Dalton is in the room, trying to alert Bigger that she cannot breathe. Mrs. Dalton approaches the bed, smells whiskey in the air, scolds her daughter, and leaves. As Bigger removes the pillow, he realizes that she has suffocated. Bigger starts thinking frantically, and decides he will tell everyone that Jan, her Communist boyfriend, took Mary into the house that night. Thinking it will be better if Mary disappears and everyone thinks she has left Chicago, he decides in desperation to burn her body in the house's furnace. Her body would not originally fit through the furnace opening, but after decapitating her with a nearby hatchet, Bigger finally manages to put the corpse inside. He adds extra coal to the furnace, leaves the corpse to burn, and goes home.
Book Two: Flight
Bigger's current girlfriend, Bessie, suspects him of having done something to Mary. Bigger goes back to work. Mr. Dalton has called a private detective, Mr.Britten. Britten, interrogates Bigger accusingly, but Mr. Dalton vouches for Bigger. Bigger relates the events of the previous evening in a way calculated to throw suspicion on Jan, knowing Mr. Dalton dislikes Jan because he is a Communist. When Britten finds Jan, he puts the boy and Bigger in the same room and confronts them with their conflicting stories. Jan is surprised by Bigger's story but offers him help.
Bigger storms away from the Daltons'. He decides to write the false kidnap note when he discovers that the owner of the rat-infested flat his family rents is Mr. Dalton. Bigger slips the note under the Daltons' front door and then returns to his room. When the Daltons receive the note, they contact the police, who take over the investigation from Britten, and journalists soon arrive at the house. Bigger is afraid, but he does not want to leave. In the afternoon, he is ordered to take the ashes out of the furnace and make a new fire. He is terrified and starts poking the ashes with the shovel until the whole room is full of smoke. Furious, one of the journalists takes the shovel and pushes Bigger aside. He immediately finds the remains of Mary's bones and an earring in the furnace, and Bigger flees.
Bigger goes directly to Bessie and tells her the whole story. Bessie realizes that white people will think he raped the girl before killing her. They leave together, but Bigger has to drag Bessie around because she is paralyzed by fear. When they lie down together in an abandoned building, Bigger rapes Bessie and falls asleep. In the morning, he decides that he has to kill her in her sleep. He hits Bessie's head with a brick several times before throwing her through a window and into an air shaft. He quickly realizes that the only money he had was in her pocket, except for some change.
Bigger runs through the city. He sees newspaper headlines concerning the crime and overhears different conversations about it. Whites hate him and blacks hate him because he brought shame on the black race. After a wild chase over the rooftops of the city, the police catch him.
Book Three: Fate
During his first few days in prison, Bigger does not eat, drink, or talk to anyone. Then Jan comes to visit him. He says Bigger has taught him a lot about black-white relationships and offers him the help of a communist lawyer named Max. In the long hours Max and Bigger pass together, he starts understanding his relationships with his family and with the world. He acknowledges his fury, his need for a future, and his wish for a meaningful life. He reconsiders his attitudes about white people, whether they are like Britten, or accepting like Jan. Bigger is found guilty and is sentenced to death for his murder and false witness.
Mary Dalton: An only child, Mary is a very rich white girl who has far leftist leanings. She is a Communist sympathizer recently understood to be frolicking with Jan, a known Communist party organizer. Consequently, she is trying to abide, for a time, by her parents' wishes and go to Detroit. She is to leave the morning after Bigger is hired as the family chauffeur. Under the ruse of a University meeting, she has Bigger take her to meet Jan. When they return to the house, she is too drunk to make it to her room unassisted and thus, Bigger helps her. Mrs. Dalton comes upon them in the room and Bigger smothers her for fear that Mrs. Dalton will discover him. Although she dies earlier in the story, she remains a significant plot element, as Bigger constantly has flashbacks during stressful times, in which he sees various scenes from her murder.
Henry Dalton: Father of Mary, he owns a controlling amount of stock in a real estate firm which maintains the black ghetto. Blacks in the ghetto pay too much for rat-infested flats. As Max points out at the inquest, Mr. Dalton refuses to rent flats to black people outside of the designated ghetto area. He does this while donating money to the NAACP, buying ping-pong tables for the local black youth outreach program, and giving people like Bigger a chance at employment. Mr. Dalton's philanthropy, however, only shows off his wealth while backing up the business practices which contain an already oppressed people. An example of this is when the reader learns that Mr. Dalton owns the real estate company that controls a lot of the South Side (where most of the black community lives), but instead of using his power to improve their situation, he does things such as donate ping pong tables to them, or hire individual blacks to work in his house. Mr. Dalton is blind to the real plight of blacks in the ghetto, a plight that he maintains.
Mrs. Dalton: Mary Dalton's mother. Her blindness serves to accentuate the motif of racial blindness throughout the story. Both Bigger and Max comment on how people are blind to the reality of race in America. Mrs. Dalton betrays her metaphorical blindness when she meets Mrs. Thomas. Mrs. Dalton hides behind her philanthropy and claims there is nothing she can do for Bigger.
Jan Erlone: Jan is a member of the Communist Party as well as the boyfriend of the very rich Mary Dalton. Bigger attempts to frame him for the murder of Mary. Even though Bigger attempts to frame him, Jan uses this to try to prove that black people aren't masters of their own destinies, but rather, a product of an oppressive white society. Jan had already been seeking for a way to understand the 'negro' so as to organize them along communist lines against the rich like Mr. Dalton. He is not able to fully do so, but he is able to put aside his personal trauma and persuade Max to help Bigger. He represents the idealistic young Marxist who hopes to save the world through revolution. However, before he can do that, he must understand the 'negro' much more than he thinks he does.
Gus: Gus is a member of Bigger's gang, but he has an uneasy relationship with Bigger. Both are aware of the other's nervous anxiety concerning whites. Consequently, Bigger would rather brutalize Gus than admit he is scared to rob a white man.
Jack Harding: Jack is a member of Bigger's gang and perhaps the only one Bigger ever views as a real friend.
G.H.: G.H. is another member of Bigger's gang. He is the neutral member of the gang who will do what the gang does, but will not be too closely attached to any one member of the gang.
Mr. Boris Max: A lawyer from the Communist Party who represents Bigger against the State's prosecuting attorney. As a Jewish American, he is in a better position to understand Bigger. It is through his speech during the trial that Wright reveals the greater moral and political implications of Bigger Thomas's life. Even though Mr. Max is the only one who understands Bigger, Bigger still horrifies him by displaying just how damaged white society has made him. When Mr. Max finally leaves Bigger he is aghast at the extent of the brutality of racism in America. The third part of the novel called Fate seems to focus on his relationship with Bigger, and because of this Max becomes the main character of Fate.
Bessie Mears: She is Bigger's casual sex partner. She drinks often, saying she is trying to forget her hard life. At the end of Book 2, Bigger rapes her, then proceeds to kill her in haste to keep her from talking to the police. This is his second murder in the book.
Peggy: Peggy is the Irish-American housekeeper for the Daltons and, like Max, can empathize with Bigger's status as an "outsider." However, she is more typical of poor whites who are sure to invest in racism if only to keep someone / anyone below themselves. Peggy hides her dislike for blacks and treats Bigger nicely.
Bigger Thomas: The protagonist of the novel, Bigger commits two ghastly crimes and is put on trial for his life. He is convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. His acts give the novel action but the real plot involves Bigger's reactions to his environment and his crime. Through it all, Bigger struggles to discuss his feelings, but he can neither find the words to fully express himself nor does he have the time to say them. However, as they have been related through the narration, Bigger—typical of the "outsider" archetype—has finally discovered the only important and real thing: his life. Though too late, his realization that he is alive—and able to choose to befriend Mr. Max—creates some hope that men like him might be reached earlier.
Debatable as the final scene is, in which for the first time Bigger calls a white man by his first name, Bigger is never anything but a failed human. He represents the black man conscious of a system of racial oppression that leaves him no opportunity to exist but through crime. As he says to Gus, "They don't let us do nothing... [and] I can't get used to it." He even admits to wanting to be an aviator and later, to Max, he admits to wanting to be a great number of things. He can do nothing but be one of many blacks in the ghetto and maybe get a job serving whites; crime seems preferable. Not surprisingly, then, he already has a criminal history, and he has even been to reform school. Ultimately, the greatest thing he can do is transgress the boundary the white world has set for him. He can violate what those who oppress him hold sacred and thereby meet the challenge they set in establishing their boundaries.
Buddy Thomas: Buddy, Bigger's younger brother, idolizes Bigger as a male role model. He defends him to the rest of the family and consistently asks if he can help Bigger.
Mrs. Thomas: Bigger's mother. She struggles to keep her family alive on the meager wages earned by taking in other people's laundry. She is a religious woman who believes she will be rewarded in an "afterlife," but as a black woman accepts that nothing can be done to improve her people's situation. Additionally, she knows that Bigger will end up hanging from the "gallows" for his crime, but this is just another fact of life.
Vera Thomas: Vera is Bigger's sister and in her Bigger sees many similarities to his mother. Bigger is scared that Vera will grow up to either be like his mother, constantly exhausted with the strain of supporting a family, or like Bessie, a drunk trying to escape her troubles.
Buckley: The state prosecutor.
Britten: The investigator. He seems quite prejudiced, first towards Bigger (because he is black) and then towards Jan (because he is a Communist).
True crime influence
Native Son was the original title of Chicago writer Nelson Algren's first novel Somebody in Boots, based on a piece of doggerel about the first Texan. Algren and Wright had met at Chicago's John Reed Club circa 1933 and later worked together at the Federal Writers' Project in Chicago. According to Bettina Drew's 1989 biography Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, he bequeathed the title "Native Son" to Wright.
Literary significance and criticism
Wright's protest novel was an immediate best-seller, selling 250,000 hardcover copies within three weeks of its publication by the Book-of-the-Month Club on March 1, 1940. It was one of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African-Americans by the dominant white society. It also made Wright the wealthiest black writer of his time and established him as a spokesperson for African-American issues, and the "father of Black American literature." As Irving Howe said in his 1963 essay "Black Boys and Native Sons," "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies . . . [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture."
However, the book was criticized by some of Wright's fellow African-American writers. James Baldwin's 1948 essay Everybody's Protest Novel dismissed Native Son as protest fiction, and therefore limited in its understanding of human character and its artistic value. The essay was collected with nine others in Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (1955).
In 1991 the novel was for the first time published in its entirety by the Library of America, together with an introduction, a chronology and notes by Arnold Rampersad, a well-regarded scholar of African-American literary works. This edition also contains Richard Wright's 1940 essay How 'Bigger' Was Born.
Native Son by Richard Wright has endured a series of challenges in public high schools and libraries all over the United States. Many of these challenges focus on the book being “sexually graphic," "unnecessarily violent," and "profane.” Despite complaints from parents, many schools have successfully fought to keep Wright's work in the classroom. Some teachers believe the themes in Native Son and other challenged books "foster dialogue and discussion in the classroom" and "guide students into the reality of the complex adult and social world." Native Son is number 27 on Radcliffe’s Rival 100 Best Novels List.
The book is number 71 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The Modern Library placed it number 20 on its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. Time Magazine also included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Native Son and the Bible
The presence of the Bible is apparent in Native Son. Biblical allusions appear frequently throughout the novel, but they do not serve as an uplifting component of Bigger Thomas’s life. Instead, Richard Wright seems to allude to the Bible with irony. Bigger is exposed to Christianity through his religious mother, Reverend Hammond, a Catholic priest, and his encounter with the church. However, Bigger’s constant rejection of Christianity and the church reveals Wright’s negative tone toward the religion. He views Christianity as an opiate of the black masses. Bigger has several negative encounters with religion. In one instance, Bigger sees his mother singing a hymn when he sneaks into his flat to get his pistol to prepare for robbing Blum’s delicatessen. His mother is singing the words: “Lord, I want to be a Christian, /In my heart, in my heart." Her hymns and prayers are wholly ineffective and do nothing to forestall his violence. Even toward the end of the novel, facing a possible death sentence, Bigger’s mother pleads with her son to pray to God for repentance. Reverend Hammond also preaches to Bigger, yet he does not understand the words of Reverend Hammond and does not pray for repentance. Instead, Bigger does the opposite and rejects Christianity. When he later sees the fiery cross that the Ku Klux Klan displays, he tears off the cross from his neck which Reverend Hammond had given him and throws it to the ground. In yet another instance, Bigger overhears the church choir singing and ponders whether he should become Christian. However, his realization of changing his heart into a humble heart causes him to reject the idea because it meant, “losing his hope of living in the world. And he would never do that.”
Wright directly alludes to the Bible in the epigraph of Native Son. The epigraph states, “Even today is my complaint rebellious; my stroke is heavier than my groaning” (Job 23:2). This quotation is from the book of Job. According to the Bible, Job was a faithful man of God. However, Job experienced immense suffering in his lifetime, losing his children and his great wealth. He was stricken with poverty and boils. In these afflictions, God was silent, leaving Job in a state of deep spiritual anguish. This tone of anguish and despair is established in the epigraph at the outset of Native Son, and emphasizes Bigger’s suffering.
Job and Bigger are parallel characters in their dealings with suffering. This further suggests the aptness of Wright’s epigraph. Job suffered trials from an outside force that he could not control. Similar to Job, Bigger struggled with an outside force of the racial norms of society. The parallel is further strengthened by the freedom both characters display in their defiance. Savory has mentioned two quotes in the book of Job and Native Son that suggest Bigger and Job’s parallel stories. According to the book of Job, he lifts himself proudly through his suffering. “If the charges my opponent brings against me were written down so that I could have them, I would wear them proudly around my neck, and hold them up for everyone to see. I would tell God everything I have done, and hold my head high in his presence”. During this point of the passage, Job has yet to confess his sins to God. Convinced of his innocence, Job asserts that he will stand proud and tall in God’s presence. Bigger also has a similar experience. Bigger muses, “He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of 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 his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight". This is the first time in the novel where Bigger does not throw the blame on others but instead asserts that he was responsible for his actions. Through this, he finally experiences free will and finds freedom.
Influence on Wright by Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Native Son contains several allusions to other works that were significant during Wright’s time. One of the major works that influenced Native Son was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This novel was published in 1852 and was not only the best-selling novel of the century but also played a major role in the abolitionist movement.
Wright’s Native Son was published in 1940 and contains similarities to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son can be interpreted as an illustration of the harsh reality of racial injustice in the United States. James Baldwin, writing in the Partisan Review, boldly linked the two novels. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as in Native Son, racial injustice is a “pre-ordained pattern set upon the living reality.” There is little that the characters can do to escape racial discrimination. Both of these novels are a form of social protest and seek to disprove the idea that society neatly analyzes and treats race. In both of these works, African Americans emerge confused, dishonest, and panicked as they are trapped and immobilized as prisoners within the American dream.
Another novel that Wright published, Uncle Tom’s Children, was a collection of short stories. The novel’s title and content suggest the inspiration Stowe’s work provided Wright in his own books. Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Uncle Tom’s Children exploit the term “Uncle Tom”, attacking an African American who seems to act in a subservient manner toward white people. However, while these two titles are extremely similar and contain similar themes, Wright’s Native Son can also be considered reactionary against Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bigger Thomas is the antithesis of Uncle Tom. Bigger is fearful of and angry toward white society. He also lacks the religious background and Christian faith that Uncle Tom possessed. This contrast between the characters of Bigger Thomas and Uncle Tom may be Wright’s attempt to show the contemporary racial conflicts that persisted long after the publishing of Stowe’s novel in 1852.
Influence of Communism on Native Son
Wright was affiliated with the Communist Party of the United States both prior to and following his publishing of Native Son. The presence of communist ideas in Native Son is evident as Wright draws a parallel between the Scottsboro boys case and Bigger Thomas’s case. There is a parallel between the court scene in Native Son in which Max calls the “hate and impatience” of “the mob congregated upon the streets beyond the window” (Wright 386) and the “mob who surrounded the Scottsboro jail with rope and kerosene” after the Scottsboro boys’ initial conviction. (Maxwell 132) Critics attacked Max’s final speech in the courtroom, claiming that it was an irrelevant elaboration on Wright’s own communist beliefs and unrelated to Bigger’s case. There are many different interpretations concerning the group that was the intended target of Max’s speech. James Baldwin, a renowned critic of Wright, presented his own interpretation of Max's final speech in his Notes by a Native Son. He says that Max’s speech is “…addressed to those among us of good will and it seems to say that, though there are whites and blacks among us who hate each other, we will not; there are those who are betrayed by greed, by guilt, by blood, by blood lust, but not we; we will set our faces against them and join hands and walk together into that dazzling future when there will be no white or black" (Baldwin 47). However, other critics such as Siegel have argued that the original text in Native Son does not imply “the dazzling future when there will be no white or black.” Thus, the argument that Max’s final speech is a communist promotion is not supported by the texts in the novel. (Kinnamon, p96) Max referred to Bigger as a part of the working class in his closing statement. Furthermore, in 1938, Wright also advocated the image of African Americans as members of the working class in his article in the New York Amsterdam News. Wright stated, “I have found in the Negro worker the real symbol of the working class in America.” (Foley 190) Thus, Wright’s depiction of and belief in the figure of African-American workers and his depiction of Bigger Thomas as a worker showed evidence of communistic influence on Native Son.
Allusions and references in other works
A line from the trial speech by Bigger Thomas' lawyer, Boris Max, is woven into the plot of The Penultimate Peril, a 2005 book by Lemony Snicket. "Richard Wright, an American novelist of the realist school, asks a famous unfathomable question ... 'Who knows when some slight shock,' he asks, 'disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling?' ... So when Mr. Wright asks his question, he might be wondering if a small event, such as a stone dropping into a pond, can cause ripples in the system of the world, and tremble the things that people want, until all this rippling and trembling brings down something enormous..."
A large section of Percival Everett's Erasure (1999) contains a parody, entitled "Fuck," of Native Son.
Bigger Thomas is mentioned in one of the lyrical hooks of "The Ritual" in Saul Williams's The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!
An allusion to the story is presented in part 1 of The Second Renaissance, a short anime film from The Animatrix collection. In this film, a domestic robot named "B1-66ER" is placed on trial for murder. The name is created using Leet Speak.
The U2 song Vertigo was called Native Son by the band during the recording sessions for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The song was later released in the collections Unreleased & Rare and U2: Medium, Rare & Remastered.
On the HBO series Brave New Voices during the 2008 finals, the Chicago team performed a poem called "Lost Count: A Love Story". This poem addressed the youth on youth murder in Chicago and referenced Bigger; "Being brown in Bigger Thomas' town".
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
It was adapted for the stage by Wright and Paul Green, with some conflict between the authors affecting the project. The initial production, directed by Orson Welles and with Canada Lee as Bigger opened at the St. James Theatre on March 24, 1941.
The book was newly adapted and directed again by Kent Gash (in conjunction with the Paul Green Foundation) for Intiman Theatre in Seattle, WA in 2006. The production, featuring Ato Essandoh as Bigger Thomas, was a more literal translation of the book than the 1941 version and was a critical success.
Native Son has been filmed twice; once in 1951 and again in 1986. The first version was made in Argentina. Wright, aged 42, played the protagonist despite being twice the age of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas. The film was not well received, with Wright's performance being a particular target of critics. This version of the film was preserved by the Library of Congress in 2004.
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