Native Son

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Editor: Deborah A. Stanley
Date: 1999
Novels for Students
From: Novels for Students(Vol. 7. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 21
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Native Son
Richard Wright
1940

Introduction

Richard Wright's 1940 novel, Native Son, was the first book by an African-American writer to enjoy widespread success. In fact, Wright's novel generated much popular and critical interest before it was even published. Three hours after the book hit the shelves, the first print run sold out. Soon a school of black American writers—the "Wright School"—began modeling itself after the author in the belief that candid art about the black American would lead to positive political change. Wright suddenly became the most recognized black author in America. Today, the novel is essential to an understanding of twentieth-century American literature.

Native Son introduces a figure familiar to mid-twentieth-century America, the lone man backed into a corner by discrimination and misunderstanding. Frustrated by racism and the limited opportunities afforded black men in society, Bigger strikes out in a futile attempt to transgress the boundaries and limits of his position. He murders Mary Dalton, the only child of a wealthy real estate magnate, by accident. Yet the act of murder gives his life meaning, and the consequent trial and execution are incidental. Bigger Thomas remains a seminal figure in American literature.

Author Biography

Richard Nathaniel Wright came from a family of slaves still living at Rucker's Plantation in Page 213  |  Top of Article
Richard Wright

Richard Wright
Roxie, Mississippi. His father, Nathan Wright, was a sharecropper and his mother, Ella Wilson, had left the teaching profession to farm with him. Richard was born on September 4, 1908, the first of two boys. Three years later, the family moved to Ella's parents' house in Natchez.

The family moved to the city of Memphis, Tennessee, in 1913 but were soon deserted by Richard's father. For the next few years, Ella did her best to feed and clothe the boys, but her first of a series of paralytic strokes ended their independence. They moved a number of times. First, Ella and her boys went to the prosperous home of her sister Maggie and brother-in-law Silas Hoskins in Elaine, Arkansas. Unfortunately, Hoskins was murdered by a white mob, and Maggie, Ella, and the boys fled to West Helena.

Over the next few years, Ella's illness forced the extended family to care for Richard while she lay abed at her mother's. Richard eventually went there to be near her. In 1920, Richard attended the Seventh-Day Adventist school taught by his Aunt Addie. He later transferred to the Jim Hill School where he skipped the fifth grade. His last stint of formal schooling was at Smith-Robertson Junior High. While there, he published his first short story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre," in the Jackson Southern Register.

After finishing junior high, Wright moved several times until, in 1928, he settled in Chicago. Over the next decade, he wrote poetry, published various stories in magazines, supervised a youth program, and wrote for Communist newspapers. Wright started his first novel in 1935, but "Cesspool" (posthumously published as Lawd Today) was not successful. By 1938, with a $500 prize for Fire and Cloud, Wright had embarked on a career as an author. That year, Uncle Tom's Children appeared to good reviews.

In 1940 Wright became a best-selling author when Native Son was carried by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Personally, however, reconciliation with his father failed, and his first marriage, to Dhima Rose Meadman, ended. Almost immediately, he married Ellen Poplar and had two daughters—Julia in 1942 and Rachel in 1949.

After Native Son, Wright published some articles and left the Communist party. In 1945, Black Boy was published and received excellent reviews while topping best-seller charts. In 1947, Wright expatriated to France.

Wright refused to return to America, partly because the FBI had been attempting to charge him with sedition since 1942. He published the first American existentialist novel, The Outsider, in 1952. He continued to write until he died of a heart Page 214  |  Top of Articleattack in Paris, France, on November 28, 1960. Native Son gained new importance as the "Black Power" movement of the 1960s adopted Wright as a source of their inspiration. Wright's work continues to be controversial, widely read, and heavily examined.

Plot Summary

Book I: Fear

Bigger Thomas lives in a one room ghetto apartment with his brother, Buddy, his sister, Vera, and their mother. One morning, a rat appears. After a violent chase, Bigger kills the animal with an iron skillet and terrorizes Vera with the dark body. Vera faints and his mother scolds Bigger, who hates his family because they suffer, and he cannot do anything about it.

That same morning, Bigger has an appointment to see Mr. Dalton for a new job. Feeling trapped, he walks to the poolroom and meets his friend Gus. 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 Doc, and plan a robbery. They are afraid of attacking a white man, but none of them wants to say so. Before the robbery, Bigger and Jack, another friend, 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 feel they do not belong to either of those worlds. After the cinema, Bigger attacks Gus violently. The fight ends any chance of the robbery occurring. Bigger realizes that he has done this on purpose, hoping to get out of the robbery scheme.

When he finally goes to see Mr. Dalton at his home. Bigger is intimidated and angry. He does not know how to behave in front of Mr. Dalton. Mr. Dalton and his blind wife use strange words. They try to be kind to Bigger but they make him very uncomfortable because Bigger does not know what they expect of him. They hire him as a chauffeur. 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. After the conversation, Peggy, the 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 to meet her boyfriend, Jan. Jan and Mary infuriate Bigger because they try to be friends with him, ask him to take them to the poolroom where his friends are, invite him to sit at their table, and tell him to call them by their first names. Then 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, but he cannot resist the temptation of the forbidden, and he kisses her.

Just then, the bedroom door opens. It is Mrs. Dalton. Bigger knows she is blind but is terrified she will sense him there. He tries to make Mary still by putting the pillow over her head. Mrs. Dalton approaches the bed, smells whiskey in the air, scolds her daughter, and leaves. Just then, Bigger notices that Mary is not breathing anymore. She has suffocated. Bigger starts thinking frantically. He decides he will tell everyone that Jan took Mary into the house. Then he thinks it will be better if Mary disappears and everyone thinks she has gone for a visit. In desperation, he decides to burn her body in the house's big stove. He has to cut her head off but finally manages to put the body inside. He leaves it there to burn and goes home.

Book Two: Flight

After the murder and disposal of the body, Bigger has irrevocably changed. The crime gives meaning to his life. When he goes back to the Daltons, Mr. Dalton notices her daughter's disappearance and asks Bigger about the night before. Bigger blames Jan. Mr. Dalton sends Bigger home for the day, and Bigger decides to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie mentions a famous case in which the kidnappers of a child first killed him and then asked for ransom money. Bigger decides to do the same. He tells Bessie that he knows Mary has disappeared and will use that knowledge to get money from the Daltons, but in the conversation he realizes Bessie suspects him of having done something to Mary. Bigger goes back to work. Mr. Dalton has called a private detective, Mr. Britten. Sensing Britten's racism, Bigger accuses Jan on the grounds of his race (he is Jewish), his political beliefs (communist), and his friendly attitude towards black people. 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 Dalton's house. He decides to write the false ransom note when he discovers that the owner of the rat-infested flat his Page 215  |  Top of Articlefamily rents is Mr. Dalton. Bigger slips the note under the Dalton's front door, 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 stove and make a new fire. He is so terrified that he 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 stove. Bigger flees.

Bigger goes directly to Bessie and tells her the whole story. Bessie realizes that everyone 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 her, and he realizes he will have to kill her. He hits Bessie with a brick and then throws her through a window, but he forgets that the only money he had was in her pocket, a symbol of her value to him.

Bigger runs through the city. He sees newspaper headlines concerning the crime and overhears different conversations about it. Whites call him "ape." Blacks hate him because he has given the whites an excuse for racism. But now he is someone; he feels he has an identity. He will not say the crime was an accident. 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 see him. He says Bigger has taught him a lot about black-white relationships and offers him the help of a communist lawyer, Max. In the long hours Max and Bigger pass together, Max learns about the sufferings and feelings of black people and Bigger learns about himself. 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 prejudiced, like Britten, or liberal, like Jan.

At Bigger's trial, Max tells the jury that Bigger killed because he was cornered by society from the moment he was born. He tells them that a way to stop the evil sequence of abuse and murder is to sentence Bigger to life in prison and not to death. But the jury does not listen to him. In the last scene, while he waits for death, Bigger tells Max, "I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em." Bigger then tells him to say "hello" to Jan. For the first time, he calls him "Jan," not "Mister," just as Jan had wanted. Then Max leaves, and Bigger is alone.

Characters

Mary Dalton

An only child, Mary is a wealthy girl who has far leftist leanings. She is filmed 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 Bigger thus helps her. Mrs. Dalton comes upon them in the room, and Bigger smothers Mary for fear that Mrs. Dalton will discover him. Mary, as a symbol of white America, is destroyed by Bigger, who symbolizes what America hates and fears.

Mr. Dalton

Father of Mary, Mr. Dalton owns a controlling amount of stock in a real estate firm. This firm manages the black ghetto in town. 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 and buying ping-pong tables for the local black youth outreach program. Mr. Dalton's philanthropy, however, only assuages his guilt but does not change his shady and oppressive business practices.

Mrs. Dalton

Mary Dalton's mother is blind, and this condition accentuates 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. She cannot prevent his death nor can she admit to her family's Page 216  |  Top of Article
Victor Love (left) and David Rasche in the 1986 film Native Son.

Victor Love (left) and David Rasche in the 1986 film Native Son.
direct involvement in the creation of the ghetto that created him.

Jan Erlone

A communist, Jan is the boyfriend of the very rich Mary Dalton. Bigger attempts to frame him for the murder of Mary. Jan sees the murder as an opportunity to examine the issue of racism. Jan had already been seeking a way to understand the 'negroes' so as to organize them along communist lines against bourgeois people like Mr. Dalton. 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.

Gus

Gus is a member of Bigger's gang, but he has an uneasy relationship with Bigger.

Jack Harding

Jack is Bigger's friend. Bigger views him as a true friend.

Mr. Boris Max

A lawyer from the Communist Party, Mr. Max represents Bigger after the murders. 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.

Bessie Mears

Bessie is Bigger's girlfriend. He murders her because he fears she might speak against him. She is representative of all the women in the ghetto, like Bigger's mother and sister. All these women have the same tired look about their eyes and the same dreary occupations of washing clothes or working in kitchens. Bessie is so tired and depressed by the drudgery of her life that she only wants to drink when not working. Bigger provides drink, and she has sex with him, yet there seems to be no love between them. Still, as oppressed as she is, she cannot acquiesce to the murder of Mary. Fearing her inability to sanction the crime, Bigger brings her out with him to hide. He rapes her, bashes her head, and tosses her body into an airshaft.

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 Page 217  |  Top of Articlemore typical of poor whites who are sure to invest in racism if only to keep someone below themselves. Like everyone in the Dalton family, Peggy hides her dislike for blacks and treats Bigger nicely.

Bigger Thomas

The protagonist of the story, Bigger commits two ghastly murders and is put on trial for his life. He is convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. His act gives the novel action, but the real plot involves Bigger's reactions to his environment and his crime. Bigger struggles to discuss his feelings, but he cannot find the words or the time to fully express himself. The voice of the narrator relates that Bigger—typical of the "outsider" archetype—has finally discovered the only important and real thing: his life. 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.

Even though Bigger seems to be developing as a person, Bigger is never anything but a failed human. He represents the black man who feels he has few options in life and, as a result, turns to 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.

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

Mrs. Thomas is Bigger's mother. She struggles to keep her family alive on the meager wages she earns 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. Moreover, 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 his mother. Bigger knows that Vera will inevitably have the same tired look in her eyes and bear the continual strain of a family. The other option for Vera is to become a drunkard like Bessie.

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Media Adaptations

  • Richard Wright himself starred in a low budget film adaptation of Native Son in 1950. The film, directed by Pierre Chenal, is available on video from Classic Pictures Incorporated.
  • Native Son was adapted to film in 1987. The film, directed by Jerrold Freedmand, starred Victor Love as Bigger Thomas, Elizabeth McGovern as Mary Dalton, Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Thomas, and Matt Dillon as Jan Erlone. The film was produced by Diane Silver for Cinecom Pictures.
  • Several recordings have been made of the novel. The most recent one was done in 1991 by Caedmon Productions.
  • Richard Wright gave a talk on March 12, 1940, at Columbia University which explained his ideas about Bigger Thomas in Native Son. This talk has since been published as "How 'Bigger' Was Born" and is included in most recent editions of the novel.

Themes

Race and Racism

The central event in the novel is the murder of Mary Dalton, a white woman. Ironically, whites are more infuriated by the idea that Bigger presumably raped her than the fact that he killed her. But he did not rape her. The woman he did rape and murder—his girlfriend Bessie Mears—is forgotten by white courts and white society. With this stark contrast, Wright suggests the great racial chasm that Page 218  |  Top of Articleexists between blacks and whites. It is the image of Mary in a newsreel that inspired Bigger to take the job so that he might be closer to whites. He decides that by proximity he might learn how they make all their money. The film encourages him to pursue the American dream even though he is already excluded from it.

Naturalism

The theme of naturalism—how a character's environment influences the character and his or her actions—allowed Wright to create an explanation for the economic and social condition of African Americans. In other words, Wright sought to demonstrate the "making" of Bigger. In doing so, he unveiled how a black individual's choice to pursue the ideals of freedom within American society (represented in the newsreel featuring Mary Dalton) leads him to destruction. Wright's theory of naturalism is often seen as an early form of existentialism, but it had this important difference—existentialism presents a character who realizes that only his choices give his life meaning. Naturalism posits that a character is formed and makes choices in response to the environment in which he lives.

The theme of naturalism is further strengthened by Wright's use of irony throughout the novel. An example is in the very title of the work, Native Son. Bigger longs to live the American dream. Yet when he admits his desires, someone is always on hand, like Gus, to remind him of the impossibility of doing so. Bigger cannot possibly reconcile his exclusion from the dream and his longing to be a "native son."

Violence and Cruelty

Native Son is a violent novel that includes a rape, two murders, fights, and a manhunt. There are also allusions to Bigger's thoughts of violence: "He felt suddenly that he wanted something in his hand, something solid and heavy: his gun, a knife, a brick." Such pervasive violence has disturbed many readers. Wright conveyed, in "How Bigger was Born," his belief that placing a group of oppressed people in a savage environment, like the ghetto, is an invitation for more Bigger Thomases. Wright prophesied that if society and government fail to address the horrendous living conditions of black Americans, then society would be responsible for the resulting violence.

Style

Point of View

An important technique employed in Native Son is a third-person-limited narrative structure. This technique reveals all the action in the novel but limits it to the perspective of the central character. The narrative voice, then, takes on the vantage point of—but does not become—Bigger Thomas. Consequently, other characters appear flat because they are visible only through this limiting filter.

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Topics for Further Study

  • Read Ann Petry's The Street. Compare the climactic death in that novel to the crimes of Bigger Thomas. Does Lutie Johnson's escape from the street justify her crime and the abandonment of her child? Is she an innocent victim of circumstances or did she take advantage of circumstances?
  • Consider the following list of questions compiled by Robert Butler as the essential list critics have long struggled with: "Is the novel an artistic success, or is it crude propaganda that is deeply flawed by the melodramatic action and stereotyped characterization required by the advancement of a political thesis? Does the book supply a believable vision of race relations in America? Does it provide an accurate image of Afro-American life? Is the central character a boldly conceived new hero, or is he an overdrawn, heavily exaggerated, symbolic monster?"
  • Do some research on living conditions in Chicago in 1940. How realistic is depiction of the city in the novel compared to your research? (Start with the article "Native Son: The Personal, Social, and Political Background," by Kenneth Kinnamon.)

One advantage of this technique is that the reader becomes close to the protagonist. In other words, since the point of the novel is to reveal the Page 219  |  Top of Articlemind of a dehumanized black man cornered in the ghetto, the reader must identify with Bigger. Wright wanted readers to understand how hostile the American environment is to those who have already been excluded based on skin color.

Setting

In Native Son, Wright suggests that environmental conditions play a role in Bigger's psychodrama. Bigger sees the Dalton's neighborhood as "a cold and distant world." He learns that Mr. Dalton owns the South Side Real Estate Company, which in turn owns the decrepit house in which his family lives. During the trial, Max confronts Mr. Dalton, charging that the inadequate housing he rents to blacks contributes to their oppression.

A sense of claustrophobia pervades the work. Bigger's family is crowded into a rat-infested room. His hangouts include the street, where he feels like a rat. At one point, Bigger admits to feeling "bottled up" in the city like a "wild animal." He also feels that the "white world sprawled and towered" above him. The murder occurs when Bigger is trapped in Mary's room. As Bigger flees the police manhunt, a record-breaking snowfall hits, blocking all roads in and out of Chicago and trapping Bigger in the city. The novel ends with Bigger alone in a small prison cell.

Symbolism

The drama of Bigger Thomas plays out in much the same way as the opening drama of the rat's death. Both Bigger and the rat find themselves trapped, leaving them little choice but to fight for survival. The rat is closely associated with the decrepit environment that constitutes ghetto life. The novel consistently reveals the psychology of Bigger as being similar to the rat, caught in the confines of a "narrow circle, looking for a place to hide…." Conversely, the white cat at the Dalton house symbolizes the justice system of the whites. Bigger does not like this cat because of the attention it draws to him when it lands on his shoulder. When the cat will not easily go away, the reader senses Bigger's eventual capture.

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Compare & Contrast

  • 1940s: Workers during the Great Depression are faced with unemployment rates as high as 25% and relief comes through socialistic government programs. The U.S. also increases defense spending as officials realize the nation will be come involved in World War II.

    Today: Unemployment stands around 6%, but corporate downsizing has many workers concerned about their future. The government must reduce a multibillion dollar deficit, yet the stock market continues its strong performance.
  • 1940s: Blacks are excluded from the suburban housing boom of the era. The Federal Housing Authority practices "redlining": on city maps it draws red lines around predominantly black inner-city areas and refuses to insure loans for houses in those areas. This practice contributes to the demise of the inner city.
  • Today: Though many upper- and middle-class blacks live and work in the suburbs, poor blacks are often confined to substandard housing in decaying urban areas, or ghettos.
  • 1940s: Race relations are tense as blacks grow frustrated with segregation and discrimination. In southern states, poll taxes and literacy tests are used to prevent blacks from voting. Tempers explode during race riots in Detroit and Harlem in the summer of 1943.

    Today: Though civil rights legislation enacted during the 1960s has improved the conditions of minorities, particularly African Americans, the nation was polarized along racial lines in the debates over the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson trials.

Bigger himself reflects on the degree to which those around him see the predicament of blacks and whites. Mrs. Dalton is blind, literally and metaphor-Page 220  |  Top of Article
Unemployed men standing in line outside a Chicago soup kitchen during the Great Depression (1931).

Unemployed men standing in line outside a Chicago soup kitchen during the Great Depression (1931).
ically. She cannot see that her desire for Bigger to further his education is not what he wants from life. The rest of the family is blind to its own biases. The family's claim of having liberal politics is undercut by Max's charge that Mr. Dalton perpetuates the "black belt." The name Dalton ironically recalls daltonism—color blindness.

Historical Context

The Great Migration

Blacks had been leaving the South since the Emancipation Proclamation, but the numbers coming north increased dramatically over time. In 1910, blacks in America were overwhelmingly rural, with nine out of ten living in former Confederate states. From 1915 to 1930, one million blacks moved north. Richard Wright was part of this exodus from poverty and racism. By 1960, 75% of blacks in America lived in northern cities. This incredible alteration in the demographics of the United States had a profound effect on blacks as well as the political makeup of the nation as a whole. There are many reasons for this, the most important being the tremendous disappointment that met the individual migrants when they reached the North. The rapid infusion of people into the northern cities produced the ghettos described in Native Son. In addition, little effort was made to integrate the new arrivals with the rest of society. Instead, as Max argues with Mr. Dalton in Native Son, concerted efforts were made to keep them in the ghetto.

The Great Depression

The stock market crash of 1929 and the following years of high unemployment hit blacks even harder than whites. Nationwide, the unemployment rate jumped from 15% in 1929 to 25% in 1933. Between 25 and 40% of all blacks in major cities of the country were on public assistance. By 1934, 38% of blacks could not find wage earnings higher than the subsistence provided by public relief. As with Bigger Thomas, most blacks—if they could find employment—worked menial, low-paying jobs. In response to these conditions, artists and intellectuals took on radical politics and openly questioned American political institutions and values.

Political Freedom

Although the country had still not entered World War II, the United States Congress passed the Smith Act. This extended the prohibitions of the Espionage Act of 1917. The Smith Act made it Page 221  |  Top of Articlea crime to advocate the overthrow of the government. Whether in publication or in membership of a political group—such as the Communist Party—it was illegal to challenge the legitimacy of the United States government. The act indicated an increased atmosphere of intolerance for alternative political ideas, which would eventually culminate in the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s.

Critical Overview

In Native Son, Richard Wright aimed to present the complex and disturbing status of racial politics in America. The great quantity of criticism that the work has generated and its popularity over more than fifty years indicate that Wright succeeded. The work has undergone several periods of critical assessment. Early reviewers, especially African American critics, recognized the book's significance. In the decade that followed its publication, the novel's stature was diminished by harsh criticism from James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Later critics, examining the ability of art to wage battle in the social war for greater equality, once again praised the novel. This phase coincided with the "black power" movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, the novel was faulted by feminist critics for its misogynist tone.

Early reviewers of the novel acknowledged its significance. Charles Poore, in the New York Times, declared that "few other recent novels have been preceded by more advance critical acclamation." Native Son was seen as a novel of social protest, typical of works from the 1930s, when writers who lived through the Great Depression created works critical of the American dream. Thus, Wright was easily subsumed in the category of "protest novelist" along with John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, and others.

After World War II, writers like James Baldwin, in the Partisan Review, and Ralph Ellison, in the New Leader, soundly criticized Wright for being too harsh and impatient. They felt that his picture of the black man in America was too negative. Baldwin went further to say that the protest novel did not advance the cause of equality but instead worsened relations between the races. Ellison, meanwhile, declared the novel artistically crude and its perspective excessively committed to Marxism.

In his 1963 article, "Black Boys and Native Sons," Irving Howe defended Wright as a representative of the protest tradition in black literature. The "black power" movement took inspiration from Native Son with many of its members declaring an emphatic identification with Bigger. Theodore Solotaroff stated in his The Red Hot Vacuum & Other Pieces on the Writings of the Sixties: "we came to our own yearly confrontation with the algebra of hatred and guilt, alienation and violence, freedom and self-integration and in the struggle for what is called today 'civil rights' the meaning of Bigger Thomas and of Richard Wright continue to reveal itself."

By the 1980s Wright's reputation was firmly established in American literature, and Native Son became required reading in high schools and colleges. New questions were being posed about his work. For example, an aspect of the novel previously unexamined was Wright's attitude towards women. Marie Mootry discussed this in her 1984 article, "Bitches, Whores, and Woman Haters: Archetypes and Typologies in the Art of Richard Wright." She was not alone in taking to task Wright's novel for its view of women, although she was more direct than some. She found that Bigger's inability to see women as human beings, with the same rights to expression that he claimed for himself, restricted his view of humankind and made his self-destruction a foregone conclusion.

David Bradley, a New York Times critic, admitted to hating the novel on his first reading, finding Bigger to be sociopathic. However, when reading it for the fourth time years later, he believed the book to be "a valuable document—not of sociology but of history. It reminds us of a time in this land when a man of freedom could have this bleak and frightening vision of his people."

In Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero, Robert Butler offered a contemporary interpretation of Wright's work: "The novel is … much more than the 'powerful' but artistically flawed piece of crude naturalism that many early reviewers and some later critics mistakenly saw. It is a masterwork because its formal artistry and its revolutionary new content are solidly integrated to produce a complex and resonant vision of modern American reality."

Criticism

Margara Averbach

In the following essay, Averbach, a writer and translator with a doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires, illuminates Wright's motivations for Page 222  |  Top of Articlewriting the novel and discusses the strategies the author uses to express his themes.

In 1940, when Native Son was published, African Americans already had an impressive tradition of poetry and essay writing, but Richard Wright's work was the first critically significant novel by a black author in the United States. The subject of Native Son was quite a shock for many critics and writers. Some black critics protested because, according to them, the book was doing exactly what should not be done: showing white people that their prejudices against black men were true. Those critics believed black writers should only write about cultured, refined black people, so as to show the white world that blacks could be trusted, that they were capable of achieving the same things white middle class people could achieve. Wright wanted to do just the opposite: he wanted to show white America what black life was about, and that most black persons in America were not middle class. As he wrote in "How 'Bigger' Was Born," Wright was interested in the lives of people who told him: "I wish I didn't have to live this way, I feel like I want to burst."

Now, if we say Native Son was written to prove or show something, we are talking about a very special class of literature: "literature engage" or "politically committed literature." Literature has many definitions. To consider literature as a means to change the world around us is one way to define it. Richard Wright defined literature this way; therefore he wanted his ideas to be clear to his audience. He devised a form that would allow him to explain himself. The reader should try to understand that form before he or she passes on to the details of the novel.

The novel is divided into three sections: "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate." The first two sections tell the story of Bigger Thomas's crime and his arrest. If the novel were a thriller (and it has some elements of a thriller: the crime and the investigation are only two of them), this would be the end of the story. But for Richard Wright's purpose, the most important part of the novel is still missing. In "Fate" Wright introduces a lawyer named Max. Max's role is to explain the meaning of "Fear" and "Flight," not only to the reader but also to Bigger himself. A critic who despises politically committed literature would say that such explanations should be left to the mind of the reader. But if one wants to transmit certain ideas to the world in a novel, sometimes it is necessary to put those ideas into words.

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What Do I Read Next?

  • Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, published in 1945 by Harper, was a semi-autobiographical version of Richard Wright's life.
  • The 1963 novel entitled Lawd Today!, published by Walker, is in many ways Wright's best work, although it was never as successful as Black Boy or Native Son.
  • A member of the "Wright School," Ann Petry wrote about the trials of life on 116th Street in Harlem in The Street. In that 1946 novel, published by Houghton, Petry explores the relationship of environment to a black woman's effort to live with self-respect in the ghetto.
  • The 1952 Random House novel, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison has become a classic portrayal of black experience in America.
  • The most authoritative biography of Richard Wright to date is Michel J. Fabre's The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, Morrow, 1973.

The presentation of ideas makes this part of the novel very essay-like, but Wright manages to make it fiction through two devices. The first one is the use of the trial itself. Trials are important in American fiction: they impose a form of narration. They can be used as a means of manipulating the reader's emotions. One goes on reading because one wants to know whether the jury will say "guilty" or "not guilty." A writer can also use a lawyer as his spokesman. In the story the lawyer explains and analyzes his client's actions. He is required to do so within what we call a "realistic" presentation of fiction (that is, a narrative in which the writer tries to convince the reader that the actions taking place could really happen). The lawyer's analysis and explanations are, as we say, "justified." Richard Wright wanted to explain Bigger Thomas' actions from his point of view, and a lawyer was a good device to voice those explanations.

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The second device has to do with the "psychological" presentation of fiction. In "Fate," Wright is interested in the mental changes undergone by Bigger. Max's explanations help Bigger understand himself. In the first two parts of the novel, Bigger does not know who he is. At the end of "Fate," he still does not know, but he has begun to think deeply about it. He is beginning to understand himself, and the explanations are part of this change; they are "justified" also in that sense.

When he wrote the novel, Wright was a communist. He thus analyzes Bigger's case and the role of society in it from a Marxist point of view. Yet he adds an ethnical dimension to Marxist ideas; that is why the Communist Party did not like the book, in spite of the fact that the communists (Jan and Max) play a very positive role in the novel.

Before leaving aside the general form of the novel, the character of Max should be looked at once more. In general, important characters are at least mentioned in the first pages of a novel. Yet Wright introduces Max only in the last third of his book. Max's character is what the Greeks called a deus ex machina. In Greek comedy, if situations became complicated, the author introduced a magical character who could solve everything at the end. The device of the deus ex machina has been rejected by the novel as genre, especially in the twentieth century. That is why Max's role in the novel may seem awkward to contemporary readers.

In "Fear" and "Flight," the story is told by an omniscient narrator. That is essential here because if Bigger Thomas does not understand himself, he cannot tell his story. Bigger is dominated by two forces: one is fear and the other is flight, the impulse to avoid problems. Before he kills, Bigger is a cornered animal, and as a cornered animal, he is violent and cruel. That is why the novel's opening scene (Bigger killing a rat in his apartment) is so important. As Wright himself says in "How 'Bigger' Was Born", he wrote that first scene after he had finished the rest of the novel because he felt he needed a strong, powerful introduction to the story. The scene is a symbolic summary of the rest of the novel: the rat is a cornered animal, as Bigger and his family are. The rat and Bigger are violent with each other, as white and black people are. Psychologically, the scene shows Bigger's tendency toward violence.

Bigger kills out of fear. After putting a drunken Mary Dalton to bed, he is about to be discovered in a very bad situation: alone with a helpless white girl in her bedroom. One of the stereotypes applied to black men is that they are attracted to white women and want to rape them. Bigger is so afraid of this image and its consequences that he kills Mary. But after the murder, he discovers he has finally accomplished something. He is in a way proud of the murder. This is an important point: society has forbidden Bigger to do almost everything. Now the horrid thing he has done gives meaning to his life because it is the only thing he could do. As he tells Max in the last book: "For a little while I was free. I was doing something. It was wrong, but I was feeling all right … I killed 'em 'cause I was scared and mad but I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn't scared no more for a little while."

Wright shows the reaction of several black characters to the pressure of white society. Like Bigger, these characters do not know what they want out of life. The most dramatic expression of this lack of dreams appears in "Fate." When Max asks Bigger what happiness would have been for him, Bigger answers: "I don't know. It wouldn't be like this." Bigger, his family, Bessie, and the men at the poolroom want something different from life, but they cannot imagine what it would be. Society does not even allow them to dream. They deal with this situation in different ways: Bigger, Gus, and Doc through violence; Bigger's mother through religion; Bessie through alcohol. There seem to be no good choices for black people (religion is not shown as a positive force in this book). This is what makes Max cry in the last scene. Before he is sentenced, Bigger does not have time to learn how to dream something for himself. In that sense, the novel is deeply pessimistic.

If Wright wanted to show the conditions of blacks in the United States, he also had to describe whites' ideas and attitudes towards the blacks. He presents a whole catalog of white people's reactions to black reality. Britten, the racist, is the most predictable character, but the most interesting are the liberals, the Daltons and Jan.

There is one important metaphor of the condition of white people in Native Son: blindness. Whites are blind, literally (Mrs. Dalton) and symbolically (Mr. Dalton and Jan are blind because they do not understand blacks, much less their own reactions to them). Blindness here means not seeing another person, or seeing only what you yourself want to see in another. Mrs. Dalton wants Bigger to go to school. School is not Bigger's goal; it is Mrs. Dalton's goal for Bigger. Mr. Dalton thinks Page 224  |  Top of Articlehe helps blacks, but he charges outrageous rents for rat-infested rooms. Mary and Jan believe they are kind to Bigger, but in "Fate," when Max tells Bigger that Mary was being kind to him, Bigger answers: "What you say is kind ain't kind at all…. Maybe she was trying to be kind but she didn't act like it." For black people like Bigger, whites are like the blind wall Bigger sees in his future: something that crushes them. Kindness does not change that.

Now, what is Wright's diagnosis of this situation? As I said before, the ending seems pessimistic: "He (Bigger) heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut." The sound symbolizes Bigger's lost life. He will not have the opportunity to finish the process of self-understanding he has started. Yet there is a ray of hope, an indication of the difference between the early Bigger, the one who kills the rat, and the later one. In the last scene, Bigger says something important to Max: "Tell…. Tell Mister…. Tell Jan hello…." Jan has tried to make Bigger call him by his first name from Bigger's first day at the Dal-ton's. Bigger hated him for that. The fact that now he can call a white man "Jan" is a big step, from Wright's point of view. That does not mean society recognizes this change and profits from it. On the contrary, society sentences Bigger to death. When one reads Native Son, one must reflect on these contradictions: they are part of the depth of a great novel about the black experience in America.

Source: Margara Averbach, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

Joseph Hynes

In the following excerpt, Hynes discusses how Bigger could have no dreams of his own, only unobtainable aspirations fed to him by white America.

Richard Wright's novel appeared in 1940, just over half a century ago. One of his greatest problems at that time was akin to that of the other more recent black writers [Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin] I have mentioned: how to address both black and white readers while remaining true to his vision and hoping to effect a moral and social change. The faith of any serious writer (or teacher) must be that the emotional-intellectual wallop that follows upon seeing will shove readers out of ignorance and complacency, a little closer to union with other human beings.

Any artist in any medium wants to communicate with some audience, of course. My point at the moment is that black writers have had special difficulty in this regard. In order to touch on the enormity of an audience problem that was much graver in 1940 than it is today, one has only to imagine Wright's straining for a way to attack and appeal to white America, through a white publishing house, even as he sought to attract a potentially much smaller black readership. My own conviction is that his success has contributed a great deal to the gradual evolution of an American readership that now takes minority writers both seriously and in relative stride. He has made his mark, moreover, despite the fact that his reading of American culture was communist. In short, he could hardly have found a tougher task. How did he set about doing it?

For one thing, he focused on Bigger Thomas as his point-of-view character. As a comparatively uneducated eighteen-year-old black on Chicago's South Side in the late nineteen-thirties, Bigger is not up to narrating the story Wright wants to tell. Wright can, however, tell us what Bigger sees, feels, and wants, even if Bigger cannot, and Wright can thereby enable us to see Bigger as emblematic of the racial situation. In short, Bigger's name implies his extension to cover black status in this nation in 1940. We must eventually decide whether things have changed today.

Narrative point of view is not resolved, however, by Wright's showing and telling us Bigger's thoughts and feelings. Wright obviously wanted to put into his book, in addition, a white spokesman for Wright's own views. To this end he created Max, a Jewish communist lawyer affected by the viciousness of Bigger's behavior even as he believes his own communist reading of our society explains such behavior and ought to induce us to overhaul that society. In other words, Wright strives to make this a novel of and for both races by rooting it in a moral, economic, and political ground that the eloquent white, Jewish, communist lawyer—another outsider—tries to explain to an enraged judge and jury as well as to his friend, Bigger Thomas.

Max's effort is not to deny Bigger has killed a white woman and then a black woman, and that he has dismembered the white woman's body to stuff it into a furnace and be rid of it, but is instead to elucidate his own vision of how Bigger became who he is and of how he therefore did what he did. Max is Bigger's white lawyer and Wright's as well. Max tries to explain to whites—judge, jury, read-Page 225  |  Top of Articleers—what Wright's narrator has tried to show us in the character of Bigger. Max gives intellectual shape to what Bigger has experienced and what we know to be the truth of Bigger's life. We buy Max's rationale because we co-readers know he reads Bigger accurately.

Inevitably, in this heavily naturalistic fiction, the jury will have no part of Max's argument and decides to execute Bigger rather than imprison him. This sentence is virtually anticlimactic in its predictability. Indeed, it serves merely to reinforce Bigger's awareness of the black-white split and Max's explanation of that split. Neither the book nor the reader's experience ends with Bigger's being sentenced to death. However, before discussing the ending, I think it profitable to detail something of Bigger's history, to rehearse the experience Max summarizes in vain for the jury. Some such particularizing seems essential if we hope to convey an idea of Richard Wright's America, as well as to reflect on our own national situation more than fifty years later.

Early on, Bigger and his friend Gus speak:

"You know where the white folks live?"

"Yeah," Gus said, pointing eastward. "Over across the 'line' over there on Cottage Grove Avenue."

"Naw; they don't," Bigger said.

"What you mean?" Gus asked, puzzled. "Then, where do they live?"

Bigger doubled his fist and struck his Solar plexus.

"Right down here in my stomach," he said.

While it is true that Cottage Grove Avenue separates black and white neighborhoods in this novel, Bigger's point is Wright's larger one. Bigger—who represents frustrated, aspiring American blacks in Wright's view—feels white values and expectations right were he lives. He would like to fly an airplane, go to college, have a good job, but is conditioned to see things literally in black and white. In fact the book's symbols reinforce Bigger's view. In the Thomas tenement rooms, Bigger corners an enormous black rat and crushes it to death—a useful sign not only of the way Bigger himself sees a black maniac, but also of the way black turns against black, and of the fate that lies in store for the eventually cornered Bigger.

Fighting breaks out among the black youths. They are afraid to rob a white merchant but not necessarily a black one. Night and coal and darkness figure prominently, especially in contrast to the prosperous white Dalton family "across the 'line,'" who are associated with sun, snow, white hair and clothing, and even a white cat. Nearly everyone is unable to see the world they live in, and Mrs. Dalton, for all her philanthropic spirit, is literally blind. Max, Jan Erlone (another communist), and Bigger feel and know accurately. The rest operate in the dark and foster the refusal to perceive.

As I have mentioned, the terms of this book are basically naturalistic, meaning that any struggle to change things by appealing to people's freedom to choose must conquer what comes across as a decidedly deterministic culture. The whites own the property and know how to keep and augment it. They rent slums to blacks at absurd rates and resist making such dwellings livable. To ease their consciences, in those instances where consciences act up, the whites behave philanthropically by being kind to their black domestics and contributing generously to beneficent societies or scholarship funds for aspiring blacks they regard as deserving of a boost.

But no basic change is contemplated, and any suggestion of genuine human proximity between the races is shunned and feared. The city-wide search for Bigger is presented as a struggle between this escaped "nigger" and "ape" who has dared to violate a white woman and the collectively outraged white social forces—police, courts, press—determined to blot out this intruder and preserve white territorial claims. The hunters care about white values, not about the value of human life. The press plays up Bigger's fatal encounter with Mary Dalton, which we know to have been accidental homicide, but never expresses interest in Bigger's having murdered Bessie, his black girlfriend. Obviously, Bessie does not interest the whites. As long as blacks stay in their psychological place, carry out their chores, and go back across Cottage Grove Avenue after a day's work, all is well. But any alteration of this pattern is threatening.

As for the blacks, they are acutely conscious of the need to maintain an undeclared apartheid. Bigger's mother prays for heavenly consolation in the next life and pleads with her children to show respect to the whites, who own everything, and for whom blacks work. Her son Bigger's psychology, the basis for Wright's novel, shows him torn between hatred and envy felt for whites, on one hand, and contempt for himself for being the black man whom he sees the whites judging and putting in his place. When Jan and Mary attempt to befriend him and enter into his world by asking him to join them Page 226  |  Top of Articlein a restaurant on his side of Cottage Grove Avenue, Bigger knows the humiliation of being laughed at by his friends for presuming to bring these white folks on a slumming tour. As a result he hates both himself and these whites even more intensely. He is conditioned to want what whites have, but because he is acutely aware of how he is evaluated by them, he is ashamed of wanting a "white" life and loathes himself even more profoundly.

This psychology emerges with an almost wrenching irony when Bigger and his friend Jack attend a neighborhood double feature. The first movie, called The Gay Woman, portrays a rich young white woman abandoning a career of adventurous infidelity with her lover in order to return contritely to her business-driven, mill-owning husband when she realizes his life is threatened by a bomb-throwing communist. Bigger is so smitten with the woman's beauty, with the glamour and ornate trappings of her existence, that he is thoroughly sympathetic to what he supposes her life to offer and is accordingly opposed to the young communist. All he sees is that if he takes the Dalton job he may meet some such beautiful white woman and come in for sexual adventure and economic opportunity. He is swayed completely by this Hollywood version of good white capitalism and bad "red" communism.

So involved is he in his daydreaming, in fact, that he misses out on Trader Horn, the second feature, which of course is at least marginally about black African "roots," as distinct from black history, the development of the slave trade. The narrator of the novel describes men and women freely and happily dancing in Africa, and the movie shows Horn's belatedly coming to love Africa and its people. What happened after that we know because we are reading Wright's novel—even if we somehow failed to notice the American black's condition before we read this book.

The point is that Bigger misses this second film completely because he is so blinded by the Hollywood propaganda of the first movie. Instinctively, he accepts the white producer's simple-minded political and social reading of good and evil, a version imbibed as automatically by this black man as by the mass audience of whites. Wright is obviously interested in having us think about why the communist might want to kill the capitalist, but all Bigger sees is the silk-and-satin erotic fantasy conjured by capitalistic white society.

When Bigger subsequently picks a fight with Gus, he does so because he is afraid of failing if the black group goes through with their plan to rob a white merchant, but also because he feels robbery and other violence are just that behavior of which whites always accuse blacks, and because he doesn't want to ruin his chances of winning the Dalton job now that The Gay Woman has infatuated him with the possibilities that might flow from his involvement with whites. Thus, Wright does a grimly beautiful job of showing that the only values to be seen as worthwhile and good are white values.

Not to want what whites have renders one unworthy and subhuman (a "gorilla" is Jack's word). Yet to dare to reach across that "line" is tantamount to suicide. This is the psychological bind Bigger experiences. It is demonstrated vividly by his surrealistic dream, in which he sees himself trapped by his pursuers. To repel them he decapitates himself and throws his head at them. Bigger has no words for this nightmare, but Wright is making manifest Bigger's impossible simultaneous needs to fight off the whites and to express his self-loathing death wish.

Let us return to the courtroom at this point, to Max's appeal before the jury, now that we have briefly examined Bigger's psychology. What this white lawyer tells the white jury is that Bigger is the creature of white America, that he represented a whole category of human beings nurtured from literal slavery to virtual slavery, that he is one of us, the native son of Wright's title. Max works to persuade the courtroom that Bigger and his fellow blacks cannot be expected to live by the code now being broadcast, printed, and ambiguously touted as virtuous, civilized, decent American. Rather, Max asserts, Bigger has been so conditioned to regard himself and his race as inferior and subservient that it took his acts of violence to instill in him a feeling of life, creativity, and freedom—as if for the first time he had taken control of his actions and done something on his own, irrespective of what the dominant whites might expect or condone.

Max's argument we know to be true, for we are privy to that feeling of exhilaration he is talking about. Bigger does experience a sense of release and personal worthiness after taking Mary's life—however unintentionally—and disposing of her body. Max is perfectly ready to agree that according to white values such an attitude is perverse, but he wants his listeners (and Wright's readers) to understand that such an attitude is quite under-Page 227  |  Top of Articlestandable in the kind of native son white society has shaped. Max emphasizes that a careful reading of black and white psychologies will clarify Big-ger's behavior and should lead to a sentence of imprisonment rather that execution.

In developing his argument Max hangs psychology on the terms of guilt, fear, and hate. He points out that the Daltons, for all their good-heartedness, and indeed because of it, typify white guilt at the way whites keep blacks down and build fortunes by employing blacks and shunting them off to white-owned slums at the end of the working day. By corollary, his thesis holds that whites therefore hate themselves for this behavior and likewise hate and fear the oppressed persons whose existence sustains white guilt and who may sometime rebel against such treatment and thereby overturn the social arrangement that both supports and punishes whites.

Looking to the blacks, Max then argues that guilt fills them because they are trained to see themselves as inherently less than white, which means less than human. Guilt intensifies, then, when they contemplate improving their lot by approaching whiteness. Yet they are simultaneously conditioned to believe whiteness holds all worth, at least on earth. Blacks are accordingly filled with hatred for their unworthy selves and for their white enemy. Finally, blacks fear whites but also fear their own potential for turning violent.

Such are the American scene and psyche as Max reads things. As readers, we must accept his argument as valid for Bigger, whom we have lived with throughout the narrative. The very condition Max describes obviously assures a white jury's refusal to attend to his words, and guarantees Big-ger's execution. He cannot be imprisoned as a permanent reminder of white involvement in creating him and the racial schema Max outlines. Bigger must be obliterated to prove Max is wrong and white authority is right and good.

However, the book does not end in the courtroom. Rather, it ends with discussion between Max and Bigger in a jail cell on the eve of Bigger's execution. Bigger, who has not understood Max's public presentation, asks him to put the matter more clearly. Bigger wants to know himself before he dies. Max at first dodges this appeal, seeing it as futile, and would prefer simply to carry any last messages Bigger may want to convey. But when Bigger persists, Max takes him to the window and points to the buildings in the Loop. Max explains that the people who own the buildings may have doubts about the rightness of the dream that impelled them to build those properties, but they will do whatever is necessary to retain their property and acquire more. Max's meaning is that the capitalistic system created Bigger and will kill him for threatening it.

Bigger, however, thinks Max is assuring him that whites kill to get and create what they want, just as he killed to protect himself and create for himself the only experience of freedom he had ever known. For Bigger, then, his communist friend's parting lesson has the effect of making Bigger think he is just like the whites, at least in possessing an acquisitive drive and the determination to protect his gains from all competition. Thus Max fails to reach the jury and likewise fails to reach his client and friend. Bigger dies with a smile having felt that in the end he, too, is in some sense white and that all humans are one in following the capitalistic spirit. Max is crushed; Bigger is as happy as such a situation enables him to be….

My modest advice is to read Native Son, make political decisions based not exclusively on the "me" principle, think about what makes for a good life, as distinct from a fat one, for all people…. Readers who derive sane conclusions from a study of Richard Wright will have taken a large human stride and will indirectly honor a powerful book after half a century and millions of lifetimes.

Source: Joseph Hynes, "Native Son Fifty Years Later," in Cimarron Review, January, 1993, pp. 91-97.

Hilary Holladay

In the following excerpt, Holladay dissects the motivations behind Max and his faulty defense of Bigger Thomas.

Boris Max's speech defending Bigger Thomas in Native Son has been called [by James Baldwin in "Many Thousands Gone," Notes of a Native Son, Dial, 1963] "one of the most desperate performances in American fiction." By the time Max arrives on the scene late in Richard Wright's novel, Bigger has already been sentenced to death by the white mobs who hate and fear him for killing Mary Dalton. We have little reason to expect that Max's oratory will reverse Bigger's apparent fate. Max, however, seems to feel otherwise. Brought into the case by Jan Erlone, Mary's fantastically forgiving boyfriend, Max sees Bigger not as the brutal, apelike murderer portrayed by the prosecutor but as a living symbol of black oppression. His closing speech is a long, impassioned appeal to the judge. But it is not a sound argument. Not only is the Page 228  |  Top of Articlespeech "desperate"; it is riddled with flaws. Max, in effect, is verbally propelling Bigger toward the electric chair.

Though critics [such as John Reilly in his "Afterword" to Native Son, 1966] often see Max as Wright's two-dimensional attempt to "assimilate the dogma" of the Communist Party into his novel, I view him differently. He is not simply, as Keneth Kinnamon believes [in his book The Emergence of Richard Wright, 1972] an "authorial mouthpiece" espousing communist ideology. Nor can we say definitively [as Dorothy Redden does in her essay "Richard Wright and Native Son: Not Guilty," Bigger Thomas, edited by Harold Bloom, 1990] that he is "clearly intended to be the most intelligent and humane person in the book." On close inspection, Max emerges as a troubling character, more complex than a cardboard communist but much less heroic than the exalted tone of his speech suggests.

Max is suspect from the beginning. Wright describes him in almost the same terms he uses to describe Mary Dalton's father, who is "a tall, lean, white-haired man." Similarly, Max has "a head strange and white, with silver hair and a lean white face," and he, too, is tall. Max's whiteness does not bode well: White-haired white men, blind white women in white clothes, white cats, white buildings, and white snow invariably presage discomfiture and desperation for Bigger. Max's name, furthermore, implies that he may not be Bigger's best advocate. His last name is one letter removed from "Marx," and, as Max tells the prosecutor, Buckley, "If you had not dragged the name of the Communist Party into this murder, I'd not be here." He comes to the case, then, as an ideologue. He embodies a doctrine disliked and rejected by most of his courtroom audience, and he is Jewish. The prejudices the audience feels toward Max will not aid Bigger's cause.

Max's first name provides another clue to his personality:"Boris Max" may be recast as "Bore is Max." He is almost always referred to as Max or Mr. Max, but his full name, with its punning revelation, often seems more apt during his seventeen-page speech, which is part secular sermon and part filibuster. If the pun seems unlikely, consider the wordplay in the other characters' names. "Bigger Thomas" harks back to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom and Wright's own Big Boy in "Big Boy Leaves Home"; it also [remarks Kinnamon] evokes "nigger" and "big nigger." And when Bigger says he is not worth the effort being put into his trial. Max brings him up short: "Well, this thing's bigger than you, son." Max himself is "bigger" or more powerful than his client if his name is read as an abbreviation for "maximum." "Dalton" also has ironic resonance; Daltonism is a form of color blindness [as noted by Kinnamon]. Suffice it to say that Wright probably did not select the name "Boris" at random.

The prosecutor, however, far from boring his audience, knows just how to fuel the fires of outrage. He has rounded up sixty witnesses, including fifteen newspaper reporters and virtually all of Bigger's acquaintances. Because the Dalton murder case centers around the ghastly fate of a beautiful young woman, the trial cannot be drawn out long enough for the perversely fascinated spectators and newspaper readers. Buckley gives the people exactly what they crave: all the key players in a horrifying spectacle. Max, for his part, would do well to bolster his defense by bringing in psychiatrists, social workers, and character witnesses. But he complains that the time he had to prepare his case was "pitifully brief " and declines to call any witnesses. Without reliable authorities to back him up, he must depend on his own rhetorical skills to carry his argument. These skills are not good enough.

Max's speech is often evasive. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about himself, perhaps because he feels the need to justify the guilty plea he has entered on Bigger's behalf. Sometimes his argument sounds like a sleepless man's late-night soliloquy. After stating that he is "not insensible" to the burden the guilty plea places on the judge, Max pontificates:

But, under the circumstances, what else could I have done? Night after night, I have lain without sleep, trying to think of a way to picture to you and to the world the causes and reasons why this Negro boy sits here a self-confessed murderer. How can I, I asked myself, make the picture of what has happened to this boy show plain and powerful upon a screen of sober reason, when a thousand newspaper and magazine artists have already drawn it in lurid ink upon a million sheets of public print? Dare I, deeply mindful of this boy's background and race, put his fate in the hands of a jury (not of his peers, but of an alien and hostile race!) whose minds are already conditioned by the press of the nation; a press which has already reached a decision as to his guilt, and in countless editorials suggested the measure of his punishment?

Far from garnering sympathy for Bigger or Max, this aside suggests, first of all, that Max has deep-seated doubts about his ability to defend Page 229  |  Top of ArticleBigger. He feels that the odds are against him, and he does not expect to win the case. This excerpt also reveals Max's condescending attitude toward his audience. The judge, a member of the "alien and hostile race," may not take kindly to Max's characterization. Since Max, too, is white, the slur on white people implies that Max believes he alone is a superior specimen, capable of rising above racial prejudice. But his own repeated references to the twenty-year-old Bigger as a "boy" contain a hint of racism: While the word might portray Bigger as a youth incapable of comprehending murder, the rest of Max's defense hinges on Bigger's adult reactions to a life and heritage of racial oppression. Finally, the excerpt is one of many examples of Max's overblown rhetoric. He says in many words what could be said in a few; he says things that probably should not be said at all. Whatever else he is, Max is a ham who enjoys being in the spotlight.

Furthermore, Max is so intent on generalizing about black oppression that he barely mentions the most convincing—and accurate—defense available to him. Instead of arguing that Bigger smothered Mary solely by accident, he portrays his client as "a self-confessed murderer" and the perpetrator of "one of the darkest crimes in our memory." As if these descriptions were not damning enough, he later rages nonsensically: "The truth is, this boy did not kill! Oh, yes; Mary Dalton is dead. Bigger Thomas smothered her to death. Bessie Mears is dead. Bigger Thomas battered her with a brick in an abandoned building. But did he murder? Did he kill?" It seems as if Max is inciting his opposition to riot, but he appears oblivious to the incendiary possibilities of his rhetoric. He reminds the judge and everyone else that Bigger not only killed Mary but savagely murdered Bessie as well. And then he expects his appalled audience to agree that Bigger's behavior "was an act of creation!" Furthermore, "[h]e was impelled toward murder as much through the thirst for excitement, exultation, and elation as he was through fear! It was his way of living!" If Max is indeed "one of the best lawyers" working for the Communist Party in Chicago, as Jan Erlone has said, then the party is in trouble. Buckley's outraged response is inevitable: "And the defense would have us believe that this was an act of creation! It is a wonder that God in heaven did not drown out his lying voice with a thunderous 'NO!'" Max, however, seems blind to the ways in which he is destroying his own case. Although he puts on a show of passionate commitment to Bigger, his faulty argument undercuts his purpose.

Although Max appears to believe that philosophizing is his strong suit, he does not flesh out his philosophical claims well enough to make them convincing. For example, his assertion that Bigger's crimes were creative acts reflects a Nietzschean ideology. In Nietzsche's essay "'Good and Evil,' 'Good and Bad,'" in On the Genealogy of Morals, the discussion of the relationship between oppressors and oppressed supports Max's seemingly outlandish claim. The powerless members of society, Nietzsche writes, define themselves by striking out against those who wield power. Their defining, or "creative," acts enable them to label themselves "good" in contrast to their oppressors, whom they perceive as an omnipotent "evil." This kind of creation is reactionary, springing from a deeply ingrained hatred of the ruling class. Such a paradigm may apply to Bigger and his situation, but Max does not prepare his audience for a Nietzschean revelation. Out of context, his claim that Bigger murdered others to create himself hardly inspires sympathy. The judge, unless he has a Nietzschean bent of his own, is unlikely to fill in the gaps Max leaves in his argument. Whatever logic underpins his claim, it does little good if it remains unarticulated.

Max's argument is further weakened by a series of logical fallacies. Several examples will illustrate the point. First, in assuming that Bigger's crimes followed naturally from his perceptions of a hostile world ("This is the case of a man's mistaking a whole race of men as a part of the natural structure of the universe and of his acting toward them accordingly."), Max is guilty of a post hoc, or "doubtful cause," fallacy. He is unable to prove that coming of age in a racist society caused Bigger to act as he did. Without defense witnesses or testimony from Bigger himself, the judge has nothing to go on but Max's word in this instance. And, as in his allusions to Nietzsche, Max omits the crucial connections in his argument. He admits that he speaks "in general terms"—but these terms do not substantiate his claim.

Max also uses the fallacy known as "two wrongs make a right." Instead of focusing his discussion on Bigger, he lashes out at other people whom he considers wrongdoers. This, of course, does not lessen Bigger's crimes. Having rhetorically asked who is responsible for the mob raging outside, he answers:

The State's Attorney knows, for he promised the Loop bankers that if he were re-elected demonstrations for relief would be stopped! The Governor of the state knows, for he has pledged the Manufactur-Page 230  |  Top of Articleers' Association that he would use troops against workers who went out on strike! The Mayor knows, for he told the merchants of the city that the budget would be cut down, that no new taxes would be imposed to satisfy the clamor of the masses of the needy!

The prosecutor, the governor, and the mayor may well be scheming—even crooked—politicians, but they are not on trial. Since he is speaking in a court of law, Max's unsubstantiated accusations are dangerously disrespectful as well as illogical. The attack, which occurs early in his speech, does not strengthen his defense of Bigger, nor is it likely to endear him to the judge, who also holds political office.

But Max makes an even greater mistake in lashing out at the Daltons, the object of sympathy in the courtroom and throughout the city. He does not seem to realize that his attack on Mary's parents is obtuse to the point of being cruel:

The Thomas family got poor and the Dalton family got rich. And Mr. Dalton, a decent man, tried to salve his feelings by giving money. But, my friend, gold was not enough! Corpses cannot be bribed! Say to yourself, Mr. Dalton, "I offered my daughter as a burnt sacrifice and it was not enough to push back into its grave this thing that haunts me."

And to Mrs. Dalton, I say: "Your philanthropy was as tragically blind as your sightless eyes!"

These comments are another example of the "two-wrongs-make-a-right" fallacy. Max does not stand to gain anything by accusing the Daltons of complicity in Bigger's crimes. While they may not be as well-intentioned toward blacks as they say they are, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are no more on trial than the mayor of Chicago is. Further, they are in mourning, and it is unrealistic of Max to expect the judge or any of his listeners to see the aging couple as guilt-ridden schemers.

The "slippery slope" fallacy is at the crux of Max's argument. He insists that sentencing Bigger to death is tantamount to starting an open war between the races:

The surest way to make certain that there will be more such murders is to kill this boy. In your rage and guilt, make thousands of other black men and women feel that the barriers are tighter and higher! Kill him and swell the tide of pent-up lava that will some day break loose, not in a single, blundering, accidental, individual crime, but in a wild cataract of emotion that will brook no control.

But Bigger's death will not necessarily lead to more violence in Chicago's Black Belt or elsewhere. In fact, Bigger's death in the electric chair may come as something of a relief, even to those who don't despise him. Bessie Mears's friends and family, though they do not appear in the novel, would probably be glad to see Bigger die. He has murdered one of his own race, after all. Blacks have as much reason as whites do to fear him.

At the close of his speech, Max declares: "With every atom of my being, I beg this in order that not only may this black boy live, but that we ourselves may not die!" The statement implies that all of American society will collapse if Bigger is put to death. Though personally convinced that Bigger's fate is momentous enough to rock civilization, Max has no sound basis for this claim. In Max's eyes, Bigger is a symbol of all the oppression blacks have suffered since they first arrived in America, but in most other people's eyes, Bigger is a self-confessed murderer, an object of terror. And it is the judge's responsibility to decide the man's fate, not a symbol's. Max's illogical hyperbole does not effectively further his case. His inability—or refusal—to make sound connections between his generalizations and Bigger's own experience ultimately undermines his argument

In spite of his generalizations, self-doubts, long-winded tangents, and logical fallacies, Max might still win his case if he could characterize Bigger Thomas as a flesh-and-blood man, not a symbol to be inflated like a balloon and floated over white people's heads. He makes a start on this late in his speech when he suggests that life in prison "would be the first recognition of his personality [Bigger] has ever had." But overall, Max's defense amounts to little more than an extended exercise in convoluted philosophizing and moralistic finger-pointing. His patronizing air does not help his case, either. We can imagine the judge gritting his teeth as Max informs him: "There are times, Your Honor, when reality bears features of such an impellingly moral complexion that it is impossible to follow the hewn path of expediency." Max is so caught up in his own windy rhetoric, in fact, that he ignores two glaringly obvious means of winning the case: pleading not guilty or pleading insane. The former plea would place the burden of proof on the prosecution, and the latter would at least give him the opportunity to recast Bigger's crimes in a different light.

By making Bigger plead guilty, Max puts himself center-stage, and his own hubris takes over. The length of his speech and its rambling content suggest that Max has wanted to tell off the world for a long time. He picks the wrong occasion to do so. The judge cannot be faulted for sentencing Big-Page 231  |  Top of Articleger to death: One man's diatribe does not blot out two dead women, sixty witnesses for the prosecution, and a city full of outraged citizens.

Buckley, despite being an almost absurdly abrasive, racist figure, knows how to play the legal game much better than his opponent does. In his opening statement, Buckley announces, long before Max's speech, "There is no room here for evasive, theoretical, or fanciful interpretations of the law." He is right. And Max, [as Dorothy Redden suggests] hardly "the author's spokesman for the truth," is wrong to assume the role of an angry prophet when his client desperately needs a levelheaded lawyer.

The question remains: How does this interpretation of Max alter our reading of Native Son? Put briefly, when we view Max as a subversive presence destroying whatever slim chance Bigger has to survive, book three becomes an even darker denouement to the action in books one and two. Max, like the Daltons, attempts to assuage his own conscience by championing Bigger. In the end, he fails himself as well as his client. Perhaps in Bigger's final facial expression, "a faint, wry, bitter smile," we see his recognition of this failure. Max, too, is guilty, but only Bigger will die.

Source: Hilary Holladay, "Native Son's Guilty Man," in The CEA Critic, Winter, 1992, pp. 30-36.

Sources

James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone," in Partisan Review, Vol. XVIII, 1955, pp. 665-80.

David Bradley, "On Rereading Native Son," in The New York Times, December 7, 1986, pp. 68-79.

Robert Butler, Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero, Twayne Publishers, 1991, 132 p.

Ralph Ellison, "The World and the Jug," in New Leader, Vol. XLVI, December 9, 1963, pp. 22-6.

Hilary Holladay, "Native Son's Guilty Man," in The CEA Critic, Winter, 1992, pp. 30-6.

Irving Howe, "Black Boys and Native Sons," in A World More Attractive, Horizon Press, 1963, pp. 98-110.

Joseph Hynes, "Native Son Fifty Years Later," in Cimarron Review, January, 1993, pp. 91-97.

Maria K. Mootry, "Bitches, Whores, and Woman Haters: Archetypes and Typologies in the Art of Richard Wright," in Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer, Prentice Hall, 1984.

Charles Poore, review in the New York Times, March 1, 1940, p. 19.

Theodore Solotaroff, "The Integration of Bigger Thomas" (1964), in his The Red Hot Vacuum & Other Pieces on the Writings of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 122-32.

For Further Study

Richard Abcarian, Negro American Literature, Wadworth, California, 1970.

A fundamental commentary on African American literature, its roots, and importance in the canon. There is a significant discussion of Richard Wright's novel.

Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, Cambridge, 1954.

A fundamental source to understand the problem of prejudice and racism in general and concepts such as visibility and difference.

James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone," in Partisan Review, Vol. XVIII, 1955, pp. 665-80.

Baldwin argues that "protest" novels, like Native Son, do little to advance the cause of racial justice in America.

James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, Dell, 1961.

Baldwin's essays about African Americans and Black literature. Some of them include references to his mentor, Richard Wright, whom he later rejected.

Russel Carl Brignans, "Richard Wright: An Introduction to The Man and His Works," University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, p. 147.

Brignans posits that Bigger Thomas was a precursor of the existentialist hero more closely associated with French literature.

Arthur Davis and Michael W. Peplow, Anthology of Negro American Literature, Holt, New York, 1975.

A collection of critical essays on African American literature, including Richard Wright's texts, plus a very clear and interesting introduction.

Ralph Ellison, "The World and the Jug," in New Leader, Vol. XLVI, December 9, 1963, pp. 22-6.

Ellison believes Native Son has an aesthetically narrow view of the black experience in America because it is filtered through a sociopath, Bigger Thomas.

Leslie Fiedler, "Negro and Jew: Encounter in America," in No! In Thunder, Stein and Day, New York, 1972.

This article investigates the relationships between Jews and African Americans in the United States. Useful to understand the relationship between Bigger and Jan.

Katherine Fishburn, Richard Wright's Hero: The Faces of a Rebel-Victim, Scarecrow Press, 1977.

Fishburn declares that Bigger is an anti-hero whose quest for freedom leads to his ultimate alienation from the world.

Irving Howe, "Black Boys and Native Sons," in A World More Attractive, Horizon Press, 1963, pp. 98-110.

Defending Wright against Ellison and Baldwin, Howe asserts that Native Son continues the tradition of black protest through literature and takes that protest to a higher level.

Page 232  |  Top of Article

Dale McLemore, Racial and Ethnic Relations in America, Boston, 1980.

An advanced study of the subject of ethnic relations in the United States with a large section devoted to African Americans and a discussion of cultural versus racial differences.

Maria K. Mootry, "Bitches, Whores, and Woman Haters: Archetypes and Typologies in the Art of Richard Wright," in Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer, Prentice Hall, 1984.

Mootry asserts that Bigger is unable to see women as human beings who have the same rights to expression as he does. Consequently, this restricted view makes his self-destruction a foregone conclusion.

Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Picador, 1992.

This work contains the ideas of the Noble Prize winner about African American literature: its roots, purposes, and future.

Charles Poore, review in the New York Times, March 1, 1940, p. 19.

Poore sums up the excitement surrounding the release of Native Son.

Louis Tremaine, "The Dissociated Sensibility of Bigger Thomas in Native Son" in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 63-76.

Tremaine views Bigger as a man hungering for self-expression even though he knows that expression is denied him.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2592000023