Fat Books & Thin Women

Classic Read: Richard Wright’s Native Son

My most recent excuse for not studying for the GRE, Native Son by Richard Wright, far surpassed my expectations. I had a vague notion that it would be an “idea” novel, which it was, and I’m not a fan of political or religious or ethical philosophies that have been cloaked in fiction. Wright is expressing certain ideas about the limitations of blacks in America in the 1930s, the lack of agency or possibility in their lives, but his skill as a writer prevents Bigger Thomas from ever seeming a pawn to his plot. This is all the more amazing to me because, at end, Bigger’s place in society as a whole is as nothing more than a pawn, without the ability to shift the inevitable direction of his life.

Native Son takes place in 1930’s Chicago. The novel deals almost exclusively with the 20-year-old Bigger Thomas and how he is led, or pushed, to accidentally murdering a white woman, then his girlfriend. The novel ends after Bigger’s trial, but I’m not giving anything away by telling you that – from the start, there’s little question about how Bigger’s story will end. For me, the novel’s interest lies in Bigger’s reactions to and thoughts on what happens to him (for even when he’s taking real, definite action, as when he murders his girlfriend, he seems to be acting not entirely of his own volition) rather than in the plot itself.

From novel’s start, Bigger is by all accounts a no account, involved in petty crime and living off the welfare his family receives, until he’s pushed to take a job as a chauffeur for the Dalton family. Early on, Wright describes him as something of an emotional drifter:

As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone. The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled. That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared. (44)

From Wikipedia

The story of Native Son is, in large part, of how Bigger comes to be responsible to someone, however briefly; that is, how he comes for a few brief moments to become really present in that feared world. As he thinks repeatedly after murdering the white woman, Mary Dalton, he felt really alive after killing her. The pages in which Wright describes Bigger’s attempts to dispose of the body, shifting from idea to idea until he finally settles on stuffing her body in a furnace, cutting her head off, with newspaper to catch the blood, because she won’t fold in small enough, is so grotesque as to snap the reader out of the sleepwalk of the novel’s first eighty pages.

Bigger doesn’t seem proud of the act of murder itself; in fact, he is disconnected from what he’s done. As is noted at his trial, he never expresses regret for killing Mary Dalton, presumably because the murder wasn’t committed with any intent, but rather accidentally, the result of his fear at being discovered in her room late at night. (Of course, up until the murder, Bigger behaves pretty honorably, if uncomfortably, towards Mary Dalton.)

Bigger does, though, take pride and strength in the knowledge of the murder he’s committed. Suddenly, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he knows something that no one around him knows, he has some power over the world that he has shied from for his twenty years:

Because he could go now, run off if he wanted to and leave it all behind, he felt a certain sense of power, a power born of latent capacity to live. He was conscious of this quiet, warm, clean, rich house, this room with this bed so soft, the wealthy white people moving in luxury to all sides of him, whites living in a smugness, a security, a certainty that he had never known. The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score. (155)

Bigger ends up running after the remains of Mary’s body are discovered in the Dalton home’s furnace, but not before involving his girlfriend Bessie to the degree that she must go with him. In the reader’s mind, in Bigger’s mind, there’s no real doubt that he’s going to murder Bessie too. As he’s getting Bessie from her apartment, after running from the Dalton home, Bigger thinks of how he will have to “settle things with her” so as to remove himself from danger:

He thought of it calmly, as if the decision were being handed down to him by some logic not his own, over which he had no control, but which he had to obey. (215)

The real sorrow of Bigger’s life is that the only meaning he can find in his twenty years comes from these two murders. At two moments, propelled not by his own power (really sensed for the first time only after he murders Mary) but by some greater force, or “’like another man stepped inside of my skin and started acting for me….’” (326), Bigger commits the crimes by which the world will come to define him, by which he will come to define himself.

Wright does a few things in this novel that particularly impress me.

  • The bulk of the action, from Bigger’s taking the job with the Daltons to his capture after murdering both Mary and Bessie, takes place over just a couple days. And more, much of the “action” takes place inside Bigger’s head. But it never gets boring.
  • Bigger isn’t a sympathetic character, but he is an interesting one… which is interesting to me because Bigger himself identifies his major, defining actions as ones that he didn’t have total control over. And while Bigger’s individuality is never strongly declared, he at no point seems like a flat character, there to play out the ills of the world. How did Wright manage to make a character by which he addresses many of the social problems brought up in the novel, without making Bigger as a person read false? Wish I knew.
  • At times Wright juxtaposes the image the world has of Bigger with the image Bigger has of himself. These images are very different: the world alternately describes Bigger as a shy black boy uncomfortable around his white employers, and as a bloodthirsty, remorseless killer, while Bigger himself is neither of these two things, nor even in the middle of these two extremes. He’s a conflicted character for sure, and it can be interesting and sometimes surprising to see how the actions that play out of those inner conflicts appear to the characters who don’t have intimate access to his thoughts.

The novel’s ultimately a sad one, not because of the murders, but because of the final sense that there was no other way things could have been. Living in that world of 1930’s Chicago, there was no way Bigger could have reacted to the pressures and influences on him other than the way he did. Sadder perhaps than those two murders is that although his crimes seem more the result of outside pressures than of any intention of Bigger’s, they are the defining moments of his life, not just as the world sees him, but as he sees himself.

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. (225)



i just started reading this book, so it’s kind of funny that i discovered your reading blog today.

it sounds a little like ‘crime and punishment’, which also takes place over the course of a few days; actually, it sounds a lot like ‘crime and punishment’, but of course in a different country with different social classes and with different goals on the part of the author.

Comment by mike keane

[…] Jennifer Haigh – The Condition (10/10/10) Dennis Lehane – Shutter Island (10/8/10) Richard Wright – Native Son (10/5/10) Jonathan Franzen – Freedom (9/29/10) F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Beautiful […]

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