When it appeared in 1940, Native Son was without precedent in American literature. Previous African American writing, including Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), had treated blacks as passive and innocent victims of racism suffering their lot in dignified silence. As Wright said of his own earlier work, the reading audience could escape into the self-indulgence of pity on reading such work rather than truly face the hard facts of racism. In Bigger Thomas, Wright created a character who was neither a passive sufferer nor an innocent victim. Instead, Wright reminded Americans of the full cost of bigotry in social and human terms by dramatizing the deep anger, hate, and fear that many blacks felt.
Years after Native Son’s appearance, James Baldwin would assert that every black person carries some degree of Bigger Thomas within him- or herself. Perhaps so, and it is to Wright’s credit that he was the first American writer to bring those feelings into the open. Readers are reminded that Bigger is a “native son,” and his experience is quintessentially a part of the American experience. On the psychological, the sociological, and the philosophical levels, Wright explores the most disturbing implications of what it means to be African American.
The basic tone of Wright’s psychological treatment of Bigger is set in the opening scene in which Bigger and Buddy battle the rat. Here is a symbolic paradigm for the entire novel in which Bigger, like the rat, will be hunted and destroyed. The rat, it must be understood, operates entirely at the instinctual level, and its viciousness is in response to fear. Recalling that “Fear” is the title of the first section of the novel, as “Flight” is of the second, suggests that Bigger, too, is a creature motivated by fear and acting instinctively. This is demonstrably true of his killing Mary Dalton while avoiding detection, and it shows up even earlier in the fight with Gus. Fearful of outside forces, particularly white people, Bigger is equally fearful of the repressed anger within himself, as his several comments referring to his concern that he is destined to commit some terrible act indicate. Thus, in at least the first two sections of the novel, Bigger, before and after the murder, is operating at an instinctual level, and it is against this background that his development takes place.
Bigger’s psychological state is an obvious result of the sociological conditions prevailing in the novel. As Bigger dramatizes the anger and pain of his race, the Daltons effectively represent the ruling white power structure. It is to Wright’s credit that he does not give way to the temptation to create villains, but makes these whites generous, liberal, and humanitarian. It is ironic that even while giving a “chance” to Bigger and helping in ghetto programs, the Daltons are reaping the proceeds of ghetto housing. Appropriately, Wright uses the metaphor of blindness to characterize the attitude of the Daltons here, as he will later, to account for Max’s failure to comprehend Bigger. Bigger, too, is described as blind, because, in this world of Native Son, there is no real possibility of people seeing one another in clear human perspective. All the characters respond to one another as symbols rather than as people.
Wright’s use of the polarities of black and white symbolism is not limited to the literal and racial levels of the novel. The entire world of Native Son, as the story unfolds, is increasingly polarized into a symbolic black-white dichotomy. Especially during part 2, the snow that buries the city under a cold and hostile blanket of white becomes a more complicated manifestation of the white symbolism than that limited to the sociological level. At the same time, not only does Bigger escape into the black ghetto in search of safety and security, he also seeks out the black interiors of abandoned buildings to hide from both the freezing snow and the death-dealing white mob. Finally, Bigger’s flight ends when he is spread out against the white snow as though he were being crucified.
It is not probable that Wright had heard of European existentialism when he wrote Native Son, so it is all the more remarkable that this novel should so clearly demonstrate concepts that anticipate Wright’s embracing of existentialist philosophy when he went to Europe in the late 1940’s. Though Bigger very obviously commits the first murder without premeditation, he quickly comes to the realization that somehow the act is the sum of his entire life. Rather than repudiating responsibility for his crime, or seeing himself as a victim of circumstances, either of which would be understandable, Bigger consciously and deliberately affirms the killing as the most creative act of his life. Whereas before he was in the position of constantly reacting—like the rat—he now sees himself as having responsibility for his own fate. Further, the world that before had seemed frighteningly ambiguous is now clearly revealed to him. For the first time in his life, Bigger has a positive sense of his own identity and a concrete knowledge of how he relates to the world around him. Ironically, Max’s case that Bigger is a victim of society threatens to deprive Bigger of the identity he has purchased at such terrible cost to himself, but, facing death at the end of the novel, he reaffirms his belief that he killed for something, and he faces death with the courage born of his one creative moment.
Wright’s novel is not without faults, particularly the tedious final section in which Max argues a doctrinaire Marxist interpretation of Bigger’s crime. Apparently, however, Wright himself could not fully accept this view, since Bigger’s reaffirmation of responsibility contradicts Max’s deterministic justification. In the final analysis, Bigger’s insistence upon responsibility for his act demonstrates the human potential for freedom of act and will and asserts human possibility in contrast to the Marxist vision of people as animals trapped in a world they cannot control.
Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old black man, lives in Chicago’s South Side ghetto with his long-suffering mother, his younger sister Vera, and his younger brother Buddy. Unemployed, Bigger hangs out with his pals; they occasionally commit petty crimes to get spending money and prove their manhood. Bigger expresses his pent-up feelings mainly through violence.
Bigger gets a chance for a better life when the Daltons, a family of rich white liberals, hire him as a chauffeur. Disaster strikes on his first night on the job. He carries the Daltons’ drunken daughter, Mary, to her bedroom, where, to prevent being caught, he accidentally smothers her with a pillow. He burns Mary’s body in the furnace, then conceives a kidnap scheme for which he recruits the help of his alcoholic girlfriend, Bessie. When Mary’s bones are discovered, Bigger kills Bessie to keep her quiet.
Bigger is soon apprehended and put on trial for his crimes. His white, communist lawyer, Boris Max, battles a racist prosecutor, Buckley. Connecting Mary’s death with Dalton ownership of the slums that bred Bigger, Max projects Bigger’s case as a paradigm of black revolution, with future armies of Biggers swarming out of the ghettos. Bigger, however, makes a pathetic revolutionary model, and Max himself is no more convincing than the other stereotyped whites. What does persuade is the novel’s depiction of black frustration: Wright’s portrayal of Bigger has a gripping intensity that recalls Dostoevski’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
Emanuel, James. “Fever and Feeling: Notes on the Imagery in Native Son.” Negro Digest 18, no. 2 (December, 1968): 16-24. Identifies and examines clusters of images and symbols present in the novel. Concludes that Wright uses this sprawling network of images to deepen the reader’s understanding of Bigger and Bigger’s feelings about himself and his environment.
Felgar, Robert. “The Kingdom of the Beast: The Landscape of Native Son.” CLA Journal 17 (March, 1974): 333-337. Enlightening, important discussion of the novel’s depiction of society as a jungle. Convincingly contends that animal imagery pervades the novel and posits that the book’s many beast images objectify white society’s stereotypical conception of the African American world.
Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. New Essays on “Native Son.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Presents a thorough examination of the genesis and background of Native Son. Kinnamon analyzes Wright’s own essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” along with letters, notes, manuscripts, and galley and page proofs to show how external forces influenced the writing of the novel.
Magistrale, Tony. “From St. Petersburg to Chicago: Wright’s Crime and Punishment.” Comparative Literature Studies 23, no. 1 (Spring, 1986): 59-70. Argues that, in composing Native Son, Wright was greatly influenced by Fyodor Dostoevski’s novel Crime and Punishment (1966). Pinpoints and analyzes in detail a number of significant similarities between the two novels. Convincing and informative in its treatment of the novel’s debt to the Dostoevski classic.
Nagel, James. “Images of Vision in Native Son.” University Review 35 (December, 1969): 109-115. Perceptive, highly instructive analysis of Wright’s use of sight and blindness in the novel. Argues that blindness is the novel’s controlling image and that it functions throughout the book as a metaphor for white America’s racial myopia. Remains, even after its initial publication in 1969, one of the most insightful articles ever written on the novel.
Siegel, Paul N. “The Conclusion of Richard Wright’s Native Son.” PMLA 89, no. 3 (May, 1974): 517-523. Detailed, illuminating interpretation of book 3 of the novel. Sets out to refute the frequently advanced criticism that book 3 is the novel’s weakest section. Maintains that the lengthy trial that concludes the novel, far from being repetitious and anticlimactic as many critics have claimed, is an integral part of the book’s artistry and message.
Skerrett, Joseph T., Jr. “Composing Bigger: Wright and the Making of Native Son.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Offers an illuminating analysis of the biographical aspects of Native Son. Skerrett argues convincingly that Richard Wright and Bigger Thomas share many attributes.
Williams, John A. The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Provides a solid biography for the general reader. Williams places Wright in his historical context both at home and abroad, giving a sense of the man and his times.
Wright, Richard. Early Novels: Lawd Today! Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son. Vol. 2 in Works. Edited by Arnold Rampersad. New York: Library of America, 1991. Reinstates significant cuts that were made in Lawd Today! and Native Son. The volume, however, also deserves attention for its detailed chronology, which reads like an excellent biography.
Wright, Richard. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.” In Native Son, by Richard Wright. Reprint. New York: Perennial Library, 1987. Details the genesis of Native Son. The author describes five Bigger Thomases, dating back to his childhood. Wright is his own best critic.