Review of Native
Son, by Richard Wright
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/31/07
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, violates two of the basic tenets of modern MFA dogma. The first is that it starts off very slowly, then builds up a powerful narrative steam (although not of the simplistic plot-driven variety), and the second is that it is a tale that overwhelmingly ‘tells’ what is happening, rather than ‘showing’, which violates all the simplistic MFA workshop prohibitions against same. Yet, it is a great novel- despite some flaws in length and occasional descriptive lapses into banality, because, by its end, and the courtroom speeches for and against the protagonist- a killer and rapist named Bigger Thomas, your average reader is wholly involved in the vortical scenario. And this scenario wholly undercuts the thesis that this book is about life as a black man. Instead, it is about life in America in the late 1930s, during the wane of the Great Depression, and just before the start of World War Two. In a sense, this book is an black urban counterpart to John Steinbeck’s rural white The Grapes Of Wrath, even if it’s a tad lesser of a work, much as Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter covers similar psychological ground as Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, even though the former’s protagonist is a Southern adult white male, and the latter’s an adolescent New York female. When first released (in expurgated form; the unexpurgated version did not see daylight for over fifty years), it was a bestseller, with over 300,000 hard copies sold, and Wright immediately became a black icon and spokesman, but neither stage nor film versions of the tale have ever had the impact that the book did. A 1951 film version, made in Argentina, and starring a fortysomething non-actor Wright as Bigger, was ridiculed critically across the globe.
The novel, written in the third person omniscient- thus almost all ‘telling,’ is divided into three long chapters, or ‘Books,’ as in the older literary sense. Book One is called Fear, and is the least interesting of the three, although that is a relative term. An alarm clock sounds on a Saturday morning, and the second sentence does not augur well: ‘An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room’ Fortunately, things get significantly better, just from a mere literary stylist’s point of view. Bigger (whose name connotes both ‘nigger’ and the fact that the character eventually does grow) is wakened by his mom. He is twenty, black, and lives in a small one room apartment in South Side Chicago with her and two siblings, Buddy and Vera. It is winter and cold in the apartment. The first early ‘scene’ in the book comes when the two boys have to capture and kill a vicious rat. This is an iconic urban experience for the poor, and immediately throws one into the brutal world Bigger inhabits. Even his mother thinks he’s crazy and lazy, and doubts whether he’ll take the job as a chauffer for some rich white folks, lest the government ‘relief’, a precursor to welfare, be cut off. Bigger listens to her putdowns, yet seethes with anger against them and their expectations of him, despite his place as a black man in white society.
Bigger prepares for his job interview with the millionaire, Mr. Henry Dalton, whose company owns the slum they live in. Wright deftly portrays all of Bigger’s inner fears and doubts, such as feeling a job is merely White America’s way of subduing and taming black men. This is a nice way of showing that the in vogue attitude amongst current hip-hoppers, that education is a way of ‘acting white’, is not a new phenomenon. In these sly and subtle ways, Wright shows that his take on America, then and now, was apt and prescient. He then rages at a poster put up for a man named Buckley, running for State’s Attorney, goes to a movie, and looks for his pal, with a scheme to rob Blum’s Delicatessen, owned by a white man; which would break a taboo of robbing only from blacks, whose victimization rates low on the Chicago Police’s scale of investigation. But, the others chicken out. Vera passes by and warns him against further crime, lest he go to prison now, not just reform school. Bigger ignores her, and meets with another pal, Gus, and the two boys mock the way white people talk- in the movies, President Roosevelt, and a big banker like J.P. Morgan. Bigger envies both a skywriting plane and a pigeon, because both can fly. At first, these seem like trite metaphors, but since the tale is so internalized, and Bigger is an uneducated kid, the lapse into the trite is psychologically justifiable, and works.
Bigger again tries to persuade some pals into robbing the deli, but fails. They go to see some films, one with rich white women who take multiple lovers and a Communist who is a mad bomber. The second film shows blacks in Africa. Bigger thinks that rich white folk are better than poor white folk, for they treat blacks better than poor whites- another observation as true today as it was then. He then heads for his interview, and gets the job as a chauffer, by acting deferential and ignorant; a fact that Bigger despises. Mr. Dalton is a typical rich bastard, even though he supports the NAACP, and his daughter Mary is a guilty white liberal (of the pre-PC PC sort) who flirts with Communism and trade unionism, led by her beau Jan Erlone, who insists on their being nice and decent to Bigger. Bigger instantly dislikes- even hates, her and thinks she is trying to pit him against her father. Mrs. Dalton is blind, literally, yet is a symbol of the blindness all the characters- black and white, have toward each other- be it Mr. Dalton’s racial real estate profiteering an guilty largess, or Bigger’s own loathing of his black pals. Then there is the family maid, Peggy- an Irishwoman, whom he also feels condescends to him. Bigger will earn $25 a week- a good sum in those days, and on his first night on the job, to drive Mary to her university, he is constantly being approached by Mary and Jan about Communism, given pamphlets, and forced to eat at a restaurant, Ernie’s Kitchen Shack, they make him take them to. They even have him eat with them. After he is forced to sit between the two, as Jan drives, he drops Jan off, and takes Mary home. The next morning she is headed to Detroit, on a train. She is drunk, and he has to help her up to her bedroom. Once there, he kisses the drunk Mary, who responds. He gropes her breasts. Then, the blind Mrs. Dalton comes in, and to hide the fact of his being there, lest be accused of ‘rape,’ he accidentally smothers Mary with a pillow, just so she won’t mention his presence there. Mrs. Dalton can smell the liquor on Mary’s breath and assumes she’s dead drunk.
Bigger panics, puts her body in a trunk, and in the basement furnace tosses her in, cutting off her head so she will fit. Bigger decides he will take Mary’s trunk to the station in the morning, as if nothing occurred. He hopes they will blame Jan, the Communist. He then takes some of Mary’s money and heads to his mother’s apartment. What Wright deftly sketches is the fact that, in their zeal for openmindedness, both Jan and Mary endanger Bigger to the outside world, and thus inspire a rage within him. Yet, despite their seeming openmindedness, both Mary and Jan refer to Bigger and blacks as ‘the other,’ just as all whites in Bigger’s world do. She says of blacks that ‘they’re human,’ but never ‘we’re human.’ There is always an implicit division, with whites in a superior role. Yet, Bigger does not get off fancy free. By delving into his lust for Mary’s body, from sitting next to her in the car to groping her breasts, Wright suggests that Bigger a) is a typical human heterosexual male with all the same reactions as any other male to an attractive female yet b) paradoxically an example of the stereotype of sex-hungry males trolling for white women. Also, as Wright graphically describes Bigger’s almost sadistic pleasure at decapitating Mary’s corpse, readers sense that the protagonist is not all virtuous, and is really one of literature’s great anti-heroes, even though, technically he is not a cold blooded murderer yet; merely an accidental killer.
The second book is Flight. It is Sunday morning, and Bigger wakes and recalls Mary’s death. This section starts more quickly than the first, and is a brilliant interior distillation of Bigger’s mindset, as he attempts to use white people’s racism against them, to cover his ‘guilt.’ At first he wants to toss away Jan’s Communist agitprop, but then thinks they can be used to blame Jan for the killing. They have titles like Race Prejudice On Trial and The Negro Question In The United States. There are moments in the rest of the book where the Communist party is sympathetically portrayed. And for Right Wingers who constantly try to bash Left Wingers’ early support for Communism, this book is a must read, for there was a clear division between the idealistic, Civil Rights supporting Communists of America and the Bolshevik radicals of Stalinist Russia, who were antithetical to all of the American CP’s credos.
Bigger’s mom challenges what time he got in, and Bigger loathes the apartment, thinking what a shame it is to live like this. He also takes a dim sort of pride in killing Mary, as it was something he did all by himself. He then shows off the wad of money from Mary’s purse to his pals, and takes a streetcar to the Dalton’s. He wonders if any white folk suspect he’s a killer. He feels that ‘white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force.’ Thus, he rationalizes all of his actions, even sympathizing with the Axis powers, for they demonstrated power, something he lacked. Here is another great example of Wright illustrating why minority groups who are oppressed often turn to systems that are every bit as bad as the one that oppresses them because that system does not oppress them, just some other group. This explains the motives behind American groups like the White Power Movement, the Black Panthers and Black Muslims, as well as modern Islamic terror groups globally.
At the Daltons’, Mary’s missing status is alarming, and Bigger plays dumb. Then he meets the Private Eye that Dalton has hired- Mr. Britten. He immediately suspects Bigger, and grills him, ‘tricking’ the youth with claims of Communist sympathies. Yet, Bigger feels power, in that they will now all have to believe what he says. This is a first in his life. Bigger incriminates Jan, and shows Dalton and Britten the Communist pamphlets. Dalton apologizes for Britten’s naked bigotry (at one point the man grills Peggy and asks, of Bigger, ‘When he talks, does he wave his hands around a lot, like he’s been around a lot of Jews?), and things seem to be going Bigger’s way. He pretends he was just doing as two white folk, Jan and Mary, ordered him to do. He feigns fear over losing his job. Jan is brought to manse and questioned. Britten feels he’s hiding, and Jan does not understand why Bigger’s lying about them. Later, he confronts Bigger in the streets, but Bigger chases him off with a gun. He then devises a scheme to further incriminate Jan and the Reds, by faking a hostage note, with a demand for ten thousand dollars and no police involvement. Bigger’s girlfriend Bessie Mears, the only person to guess that he killed Mary, refuses to go along with the coverup.
When Bigger plants the note, Dalton demands that Jan be released, but he refuses, and has witnesses to contradict Bigger’s claims. Meanwhile the press is in a feeding frenzy, and sense a great story in the ignorant black boy being pressured by the Communists to cross racial boundaries. This is in keeping with the whole mindset the whites in the tale, benevolent and malevolent, have toward blacks- that they are primitives, incapable of being left alone. Yet, for a while, he is in control of the reality others believe in. Then, while Dalton, Britten, and Bigger are being questioned in the basement, the furnace where Bigger dumped Mary’s body, starts smoking, and when Bigger and some reporters try to dissipate it, Mary’s bones are discovered. Bigger panics and sneaks away into the blizzard- an apt symbol of the overwhelming forces of white raining down upon him. A manhunt begins. Bigger rushes to Bessie’s, and the two flee to an empty tenement. She starts resenting him. As his anger rises, he rapes Bessie, then brains her with a brick as she sleeps. He then dumps her down the airshaft but forgets that she has Mary’s money with her. He had left it with her for safekeeping. The next morning the papers blare his guilt as a rapist and murderer, all true- but for Bessie, not Mary. The cops have cordoned off large parts of the city and are searching building by building for him. Politicians and police are whipping up a lynch mob mentality. Yet, they believe that Communists are also involved, for they still feel Bigger incapable of such a scheme. Whites start vandalizing black properties. Bigger overhears two blacks debating the ‘Bigger Thomas’ mess, with one man siding with him and another against him. The next morning, Bigger is surrounded, gets in a shootout with cops, then is hosed out, half-frozen, as whites demand they kill the ‘black ape.’
The final Book is called Fate, and it is mainly a series of legal orations, with a few scenes of Bigger being visited by holy men, Jan Erlone, and his lawyer, Mr. Boris Max. Bigger contemplates suicide. Newspapers are loaded with racial stereotyping of him as an abnormal, subhuman monster. Then there are claims against the whole black race. Bigger realizes that the killings are less about him and more about the nation, as a whole. Yet, Jan- despite his killing Mary and blaming him, reaches out to Bigger with friendship. Bigger feels that, ‘The word had become flesh. For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him.’ Then, when Max the lawyer is plotting strategy, Buckley, the State Attorney from the poster drops in. He tangles with Max. Then Mr. Dalton comes and states that he and Mrs. Dalton will not let Bigger’s crime make them hate blacks. He even claims he donated twelve ping pong tables to a black charity. The utter absurdity of Dalton’s obliviousness to the reality of the racial situation, even in the face of his daughter’s death, makes the reader pity, if not despise, such weak willed and hypocritical men as Dalton, who, in court, later admits he has not the backbone to break the city’s racial real estate redlining policies. Even Bigger finds Dalton’s ‘largess’ laughable, and feels that there is no afterlife once he’s executed.
Max plans to plead Not Guilty for Bigger. An important aspect often overlooked in the book is how the evidence of Bigger’s far more evil crime of raping and murdering Bessie is merely an afterthought the authorities use to highlight the accidental death of Mary. In the courtroom, Max changes his mind, and pleads Bigger Guilty, although he does so to enter the mitigating evidence of Bigger’s life and the effects of racism that caused the killings of Mary and Bessie to occur. Buckley objects, and parades dozens of witnesses through the court, even though it is all superfluous with a plea of Guilty. That the judge allows such grandstanding emphasizes that Bigger has no chance. Max orates long and brilliantly, albeit futilely, in Bigger’s defense. His claim is basically that oppression stunted Bigger’s growth as a human being, and that white society’s racism, lack of education for blacks, and segregation, are all factors in the rage that Bigger felt in his killing. Max argues that executing Bigger would not solve anything, and even a life in prison, wearing a number, would at least give Bigger an identity that society has denied him all his life. While laced with some naïve assumptions, to say the least, the oration by Max is a brilliant bit of writing, and the literary highlight of the novel, as well a distillation of the fragmentary impulses and epiphanies Bigger has felt throughout the book. It is not, as many critics claim, mere Commie agitprop, for Max never calls for social revolution, merely awareness and a dire need for amelioration. Bigger does not understand all Max is saying, but feels a kinship with Max’s efforts for him.
Predictably, Bigger is sentenced to death, and Max fails to get a pardon from the Governor. Max expounds more of his philosophy, but is taken aback when Bigger proclaims that, while he did not want to kill, something within compelled him. This vitality, he feels, must be a good thing. Max is horrified, but Bigger says goodbye, and asks him to say hello to Jan. This is a small, but important side note, for early on, when Jan first met Bigger, he insisted that Bigger call him by his first name, not the obsequious ‘Suh.’ Now, nearing death, Bigger is free to see white people on an eye to eye level. Although, to that point, it is Max who is the least blind character in the novel, by its end, it is clear that Bigger has likely surpassed even Max in that regard. The steel of the prison bars clang shut, as Max leaves, much as the alarm clock clanged open the novel.
By the book’s end, Bigger is a fully realized human being, even if that
full realization includes coming to terms with his own evil impulses. Many
critics have missed this crucial point. Bigger does not go to his death with
despair and fear, as the usually cogent James Baldwin misassesses in Everybody’s
Protest Novel, nor has he been swallowed by hatred. While clearly a classic
anti-hero, Bigger Thomas is not a tragic figure, for the essence of tragedy is a
fall from grace. The whole point of Native Son is that Bigger, and Black
America, have never known grace, and it is this lack, not a fall from it, that
is behind the mechanics of the whole plot. That critics, great and obscure, have
so constantly misread such a basic thing about the central character of this
classic work says as much about the state of reading in America as the book says
of race relations.
Yet, as Max’s peroration makes clear, neither he nor the
novel are arguing for determinism and against free will, yet another misreading
of the book some critics claim. Bigger has choices, and some free will, but the
ignorance and oppression of his society limits those choices. Bigger, in effect,
has only a few choices between varying states of misery, and a slim possibility
of ignorant semi-bliss. Yet, even though much of the novel is an interior probe
of Bigger’s life and inner workings, many critics overlook that all of the
novel is an outside look at the interior of then contemporaneous white society.
While the book clearly and plainly shies away from Bigger’s interior angsts
for long stretches, there is not a sentence in the book that bears no relation
to the white world about him. Wright even emphasizes this point when Bigger’s
attempted escape from Chicago is stymied by an all-encompassing blizzard. This
fact also makes some of the silly claims by black critics, that Native Son
is itself ‘racist,’ an absurdity, for the book’s very title plays with the
idea of the Native Son- a term denoting a representative of a nation, which, in
terms or privilege and power, has always been a white male in America. That
Wright subverts this by identifying Bigger with the term, thereby blurring the
racial codifying, implicitly and explicitly, shows that the book is critiquing
something far larger than the main character at its center. The fact that Bigger
is not an altar boy is also not Wright’s racial self-loathing manifesting
itself, but his best tool to turn outward and force readers to see how Bigger
became Bigger, as Wright neatly explains in the book’s Introduction, How
‘Bigger’ Was Born. Were Bigger a shuffling Stepin Fetchit, the novel’s
claims against white society would seem quaint, if not silly. Interestingly, in
that Introduction, Wright explains how his earlier book, Uncle Tom’s
Children, caused many readers to weep and pity his characters, and how, with
Native Son, he strove to avoid that (and succeeded), as readers are left
lacking any apotheosis or epiphany. Instead, they are left disgusted and
frustrated- not narratively, but humanly.
Bigger is also not a tool for Wright to use as a shill for
Communistic beliefs, as Right Wing critics have claimed- for Wright’s
portraits of Mary and Jan are hardly flattering, and almost as vituperative as
that of Mr. Britten, nor is it a text for bleeding heart nor guilty white
liberalism, as the portrait of Mr. Dalton confirms. Nor does Wright ever deny
Bigger’s criminal guilt: he should be executed (but for Bessie’s, not
Mary’s, death). He merely explains it, and the book is that best explication,
as great art often is. And explication is not mitigation, for even Bigger admits
his guilt, via the prism of the all-seeing eye of the Dalton’s cat, who
witnesses part of Mary’s demise. One of the most interesting things about
Wright’s book is how he gets the reader to actually root for a bad guy- a
rapist and killer, unlike, say, Evan S. Connell, who fails to do in The
Diary Of A Rapist. This is because Connell’s technique of small diary
entries limits the point of view of his unreliable narrator- the rapist Earl
Summerfield, which necessitates his not portraying fully his own predicament
because the character simply can or will not. By contrast, Wright’s book,
written in an omniscient mode, swoops in and out of several character’s minds
and circumstances, and allows a reader to parallax events to arrive at a firmer
grasp of ‘what really happened.’ Furthermore, Connell is unable to
fundamentally grasp the mind of a criminal, or the concept of evil, instead
relying on the worst narrative clichés imaginable, including middle class white
fantasies of what a ‘criminal mind’ is really like, whereas Wright’s book
reads as if a simple description of everyday reality, thus heightening its power
in depicting Bigger’s subsumption in evil.
With that in mind, I should note that I knew dozens of Bigger
Thomases in my youth, black and otherwise, and, realistically, the book’s
character had perhaps only three paths to salvation from his plight, as sketched
in the narrative- 1) blind luck- that he might win a lottery (back then The
Irish Sweepstakes were the best hope) or get a vast inheritance, 2) becoming
a pawn of the Communists, who would use him to advance their own political
cause, or 3) giving in to the delusive folly of his mother’s and preacher’s
delusive Christianity, and hope for a better life in death. Of course, none of
this would help him in the time frame the novel depicts; and therein are the
horns upon which Bigger is hung bared.
Fortunately, the art of the book does not hang on such
delimited horns, for it is a work of art, not a mere screed nor mere didactic
novel. It is far too deep, rich, and broad a work to simply state that is a
‘protest novel.’ The book even explicitly references and contrasts
Bigger’s ‘case’ with the real life Chicago area Leopold and Loeb thrill
killers case (subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope). The very ending
of the book, with its realism, is the antithesis of didactic art:
‘Good-bye, Mr. Max.’
Max walked down the corridor.
Max paused, but did not look.
‘Tell…Tell Mister…Tell Jan hello…’
‘All right, Bigger.’
He still held on to the bars. Then he smiled a faint, wry, bitter smile.
He heard the ring of steel as a far door clanged shut.
Note, not only is there no hint of weepy-eyed liberalism, but
Wright inverts the tired death row cliché of the prisoner walking to his death,
with his back toward us, for we see the living Max heading toward his own doom
in a flawed society, which hates him- a Jew, almost as much as it does the black
Bigger. Even until the last, Wright never stops with the sotto voce critiques of
America, then or now, and it is these many and deft social comments that really
draw a reader in. And the novel is not ignorant of gender politics, as some
latterday Feminist critics have railed, for a simple reading of Max’s lengthy
dissertation in court (and the whole book, for that matter) disproves that, as
the two dead women are both shown to be independent women who stand up for their
beliefs. It is only Bigger who is ignorant of such things, and as bad critics
often do, they impute the flaws of a memorable character upon the character’s
creator or the work at large. Think of how many times Mark Twain and The
Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn have been labeled racist, when what the
critic really means is that the character of Huck is racist.
All of these points, and more- too lengthy to detail in a
mere review, prove that the book is far beyond its most strident and ignorant
critics’ claims, and is still as relevant (sadly) today, as ever; in the
delusions that the poor are fed- be it of race, then, or war, today. It is no
coincidence that, upon the eve of World War Two, Bigger dreams of a career in
the military, as a flyboy, even as his race denied that possibility. It is also
relevant in the ways that society delimits many of its citizens via poverty, in
the way crimes are seized upon by politicians, the media, and authority figures
to boost their careers, or even in how little everyday people, no matter their
sex nor color, truly understand themselves. In the end, the biggest thing that
Bigger Thomas admits is his fear of the act of cogitation, for with that comes realization,
in every sense of the word, including of the self. And that is likely the reason
so many readers misunderstand it- for how many can grasp what they lack? It is
also why so many critics likely misinterpret such a challenging and great work
as Native Son.
Think. Read. Then think again. Then repeat.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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