Native Son by Richard Wright
Published: 2005, Harper Perennial Modern Classics (Originally 1940)
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Paperback gifted by boyfriend
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I am fairly certain that nothing I write can truly do justice to this raw and emotionally wrenching book, but I shall try. I received Native Son as a gift from my boyfriend. Since I've always been a much bigger reader than he, he wanted me to read something that he enjoyed so that we could discuss it. Now a few years later I've finally gotten around to actually reading it. Sorry for taking so long! Seriously. I wish I hadn't waited so long to read this powerful, moving book on the racial inequalities that continued to resonate in the first half of the twentieth century.
Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas and how his discontent with his life precipitated a downward spiral into infamy. Twenty-year-old Bigger lives in a tiny apartment in an all-black suburb of Chicago with his mother, brother, and sister. His family barely manages to get by, so it falls upon Bigger as the oldest child and man of the household to take a job as the chauffeur for a powerful white family. Besides having no desire to work, Bigger struggles to make sense of his job. Although the Dalton family is well-meaning, taking on young African American men as help whenever possible, giving them a job, a place to stay, money, and education for a better future, this is not how Bigger or most African American men expect to be treated by white people. Mary Dalton and her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone's gestures of friendship and advocacy contribute to Bigger's looming sense of unease. When tragedy strikes, unexpected and unconventional and horrible, Bigger reverts back to basic, more primal instincts. For from his view, it's him against the white people, and he will do whatever it takes to ensure his survival.
Native Son has an incredibly dramatic opening that works well to foreshadow the rest of the novel's events. Bigger's family wakes up to finally see the rat that's been hiding in their apartment for the past few days. As the oldest son, it is Bigger who is responsible for getting rid of the rat, which he does by smashing it with a frying pan. Violence is the only method that Bigger can determine will free his family from the threat of the rat, and, as the story continues, readers see that violence has become a tragic necessity in Bigger's life. Instead of being able to trust others for help or use his words to express his feelings, again and again Bigger finds himself reverting to violent tactics. The novel is quite graphic in many scenes, and those scenes work to show the influence that pure, physical violence has over Bigger's life.
Bigger lashes out precisely because it's one of the few things he can do. He can either accept his impoverished and uneducated lifestyle - with no real chance to keep himself or those he loves from suffering - while the white people continue to live in naive bliss or he can disrupt the naive bliss of his oppressors. As much as the Daltons would like to believe that they're better than most white people in their relationship with blacks, that's simply not the case. The Daltons may give the occasional young black male the opportunity to better his life, but slightly altering a person's economic situation cannot amount to much when socially that person is still viewed as inferior. Although the Daltons and their like are unable to see it, there really is no middle ground for Bigger. Short of a drastic change of opinion, nothing can really stop the cycle of oppression. Wright illustrates this through the fallout related to Bigger's crime and subsequent chase. Innocent workers are being turned out on the streets simply because they happen to have the same skin color as Bigger.
It can be difficult for me to enjoy a novel without feeling any sort of connection or empathy with the protagonist. Bigger is not a likable character by any means. He's cruel, crude, petty, and abrasive. Although this in no way excuses his behavior, much of Bigger's actions are indicative of his strong feelings of oppression. Many times throughout the novel he implies and outright states that he feels forced into corners, and that the only way for him to gain some control over his life is to lash out. The novel is divided into three sections: Fear, Flight, and Fate, and those perfectly mirror the journey that Bigger undergoes, both mentally and physically. Native Son is ultimately not about Bigger, however. Not truly. It's about so much more. About race relations and the continued lack of inequality. About fear. About trying to establish meaning in a life where everything seems meaningless and futile. About despair.
Even with such a difficult protagonist, Wright brings up important issues that need to be discussed. While I in no way disagree with the blame heaped upon Bigger during his hearing, his lawyer Max's speech is one of the most empowering speeches I have read. A person may be more than simply the sum of his parts, but that doesn't mean that those individual parts cease to exist; instead they contribute to a fuller, more complex human. For, after all, how much can we really distance a person from his upbringing and circumstances?
I highly recommend that each person reads this book at least once. While not the easiest read in the world, it is an important one. As I cannot portray Bigger's plight and the (fictional) ramifications it held for an entire race of people nearly as eloquently as Richard Wright does, I thought it best to end my review with some of the novel's more powerful quotes.
"Confidence could only come again now through action so violent that it would make him forget. These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger--like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force. Being this way was a need of his as deep as eating. He was like a strange plant blooming in the day and wilting at night; but the sun that made it bloom and the cold darkness that made it wilt were never seen. It was his own sun and darkness, a private and personal sun and darkness."
"Had he raped her? Yes, he had raped her. Every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. But rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out, whether one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face. He was a long, taut piece of rubber which a thousand white hands had stretched to the snapping point, and when he snapped it was rape. But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day by day. That, too, was rape."
"It was too stark, not redeemed, not made real with the reality that was the warm blood of life. He felt that there was something missing, some road which, if he had once found it, would have led him to a sure and quiet knowledge. But why think of that now? A chance for that was gone forever. He had committed murder twice and had created a new world for himself."