The Effect of Blindness in Native Son
Blindness is prevalent all throughout human society and more specifically, all throughout human nature. To be blind can mean a myriad of things. Literally and physically, it means to lack proper vision. When taking that definition to a figurative level, it means to fail to see through the perspectives of other people, or it can also mean to overanalyze and fail to see the true form of a situation. Depending on the scenario, the effects of blindness can either be positive or negative, although it is usually the latter. In Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, the theme of blindness recurs a multitude of times, and all definitions of blindness apply at least once within the book. The vast effects of the varying multitudes of blindness are prominent within the mindsets of the characters of Native Son, and ultimately, it teaches a lesson about society as a whole.Blindness appears repeatedly throughout the book within a variety of characters. The first conspicuous conveyance of blindness is found in Mrs. Dalton. Mrs. Dalton is physically blind and, due to the fact that she is not capable of seeing, she is also figuratively blind as well. In this case, Wright portrays this particular kind of blindness to be a positive attribute. Since Mrs. Dalton cannot see the difference in skin color, she is not biased towards people based on their race. She is very kind to Bigger and even takes interests in what he would like to do with his life. In addition, she even offers to pay for him to go to night school to pursue a proper education for himself. “He had a feeling toward her akin to that which he held toward his mother. The difference in his feelings toward Mrs. Dalton and his mother was that he felt that his mother wanted him to do the things she wanted him to do, and he felt that Mrs. Dalton wanted him to do the things she felt that he should have wanted to do,” (Wright 61). Within the moment that these feelings of warmness ran through Bigger’s thoughts, it appeared as if he was temporarily blind to his racism against whites since Mrs. Dalton was blind to any kind of racism against blacks. This can be ascertained, because Mrs. Dalton was one of the only white characters Bigger ever thought somewhat fondly of. By including these details within the story, Wright proved the point that one is not born with innate racism; prejudice is something that must be developed. If everyone were blind, racism would be nonexistent, for no one would even be able to acknowledge the existence of a race if it cannot be seen.Although a positive side to blindness exists, a negative side coexists as well. Up until the end of the story after Bigger had gotten caught and gone to trial, he was one of the most severely blind out of all the characters. Rather than viewing whites as individuals, he viewed them as a mass of people—one that he ardently hated. He hated even those who were kind to him, like Jan and Mary, because instead of believing that they were kind, he believed that they were mocking him or making some sort of joke out of him. This blindness prevented him from taking the steps towards pursuing opportunities—opportunities for progression and advancement, and opportunities for change in his life, as well as in the lives of others. Instead of taking up on Mrs. Dalton’s offer to go to school and better himself, Bigger turned that opportunity down. In addition, rather than truly befriending Mary and Jan and possibly helping them understand exactly how it feels to be an oppressed African-American, Bigger emotionally ostracized them. Due to his ignorant blindness, Bigger also constructed a wall so high, that it was impossible for anyone to get in or for him to get out, thus preventing any kind of personal progression. It was not until the very end of the novel when Bigger finally realized how it was wrong of him all of his life to view whites as a single mass of evil racists trying to hold him back from pursuing what he wanted, when he could have viewed them as individuals, for there were some individuals who actually wanted to help him advance in life.By incorporating this recurring theme, Wright aimed to perhaps make his readers realize their own wrongs, as well as vividly display one of the true roots of racism and prejudice: blindness—blindness to another person’s feelings and perspective—blindness to empathy—blindness to the fact that the victims are human beings as well. By making Mrs. Dalton physically blind and in turn, figuratively blind to racism as well, Wright proves the point that prejudice against another race is not a valid reason to hate another person, because one should be judged by the character content, not by their physical appearance. If everyone were blind, racism would cease to exist, for no one would be able to judge a person by the color of his or her skin if it cannot be seen. By making Bigger figuratively blind, Wright proved another point: being blind to empathy and to the perspectives of others leads onto dehumanization of the oppressed in the eyes of the oppressor. This is the plain and simple reason of how racism can exist in the first place. When one can view his or her victim to be inferior or less than human, only then can he or she inflict harm upon that victim without feeling remorse.No matter what time or era, literal and figurative blindness will always exist in society. First of all, racism and prejudice still exist in society and undeniably, it always will. Even though the racism has toned down and there is now more tolerance, there are many people out there who are still racist against people of certain races. As of right now, there is much hate and prejudice surrounding Middle Easterners as well as the religion of Islam. Due to what happened on 9/11 and also with the varying terrorist attacks, Americans have jumped the gun and have aimed their hate towards Muslims and Middle Easterners. Yes, the majority of the terrorist attacks were made by Muslims and Middle Easterners, but that does not necessarily mean that all Muslims are evil. There are many who practice the religion peacefully through a different interpretation, and due to the blindness of America, there are numerous people who fail to see that. People should be viewed as individuals, not as a mass. In addition, there is also much prejudice and discrimination against homosexuals due to the blindness of today’s society. People boast about America being a country of freedom and acceptance, but how can one brag about something that is not true? In this modern day and age, gays are still not fully accepted in society, and they are also not allowed to get married in certain states. This is due to the ignorant blindness of American society. These people fail to see through the perspectives of homosexuals, and they fail to see that feelings, along with sexual orientation, is something that is neither controllable nor alterable. It is absolutely sickening to see the levels of closed-mindedness and ignorance rise as the levels of reason and empathy decline towards many of the scenarios occurring within society today. Blindness is an innate part of human nature and will always exist within society. A lot of the time, people do not even realize they are blind, so by depicting the blindness of society along with making blindness a recurring theme within Native Son, Richard Wright succeeded in doing the world a favor. On a figurative level, there are both positive and negative facets of blindness. First, Wright portrayed how blindness could have positive effects by making Mrs. Dalton blind within the story. Since she was physically blind, it ultimately made her blind towards racism as well since she could not see the difference in skin color, thus proving that the color of one’s skin is an invalid justification to judge someone upon. On the other side of the spectrum, Wright also displayed the negative side of blindness: the side that ravenously eats away at one’s humanity. Bigger’s blindness towards whites was a major contributor to his downfall in life. Rather than viewing whites as individuals, he viewed them as a single oppressive mass. On the other hand, racist whites viewed African-Americans as a single inferior mass as well, rather than as individual human beings. When one views another person through such a narrow perspective, it dwindles the empathy he or she has for another person; as empathy is tarnished, it slowly disintegrates the degrees of humanity along with it. By vividly exhibiting such behaviors within Native Son, readers might realize the times that they have been blind. Bigger may have realized his wrongs and opened his eyes too late, but hopefully readers can procure a lesson out of this novel and open their eyes from blindness soon enough to right their wrongs.
Mary Dalton: A Cause of Bigger’s Torment
In Book One of Richard Wrights novel “Native Son,” Mary Dalton is, to her parents’ disapproval, a member of the Communist movement set in 1930’s Chicago. Mary attempts to achieve her dream of extinguishing the barriers between African-Americans and Caucasians by treating Bigger Thomas in an extremely warm and informal manner. This sparks a sense of bewilderment in Bigger, who is accustomed to being treated inferiorly by the whites, and grows uncertain in how he should behave around her. Mary’s ignorance, naïve nature, and “good intentions” ultimately condemn her to a blazing furnace, metaphorically comparable to her form of “hell,” and her gruesome death proves to haunt Bigger in the form of searing flashbacks throughout the remainder of Book One.Mary Dalton unwittingly induces her own demise in several ways. She brands her first impression on Bigger when she appears in a movie he watches. Her leisure lifestyle is characterized by abundant wealth and squandering, which fills Bigger with “a sense of excitement about his new job.” The fact that she has indirectly persuaded Bigger to accept the job vaguely, yet eventually results in her murder. On a more precise scale, a majority of Mary’s numerous actions also act as tinder that sets alight to her death. For example, she constantly moves within very close proximities of Bigger. He is able to “smell the odor of her hair” and at one point, Mary even has “her face some six inches from his.” Although Miss Dalton feels that these actions exude a welcoming feeling, it inevitably evokes an attraction in Bigger, with Mary being the object of interest. In addition, she also allows herself to become heavily intoxicated by drinking large quantities of rum with her Communist beau, Jan Erlone. When Mary arrives home with Bigger, she cannot reach her bedroom without assistance. Bigger escorts her, which leaves him alone with Mary in her room, presenting a troubling situation. As a result, Mary’s recklessness and overtly inviting manner contributes to her unfortunate fate.Although Mary attempts to help African-Americans, she knows little about them. As a result, she immediately attempts to befriend Bigger just because he is black, not for who he is as an individual. She exemplifies this when she asks Jan if he knows any African-Americans, then states “I want to meet some.” In addition, she attempts to sing their “spirituals” but Bigger secretly acknowledges that it is the wrong tune. Afterwards, she further demonstrates her lack of knowledge when she states that she wants to see a black home and claims that they “must live like we live.” She later generalizes African-Americans by praising that they “have so much emotion.” Although she does not realize it, Mary’s stereotypical view of blacks stems as a form of just what she is trying to combat with Jan-racism. Instead of making Bigger feel equal, she does the opposite, by making him feel more aware of “his black skin.” As a result, Bigger develops a sense of mild contempt, along with fear and confusion, towards Mary and Jan.Although Mary Dalton’s character only briefly appears in the story, she plays a vital role. Her political affiliation with the Communists provides an outlet for escape for Bigger Thomas. Her murder also eternally changes Bigger’s life, and now he is constantly burdened with his crime. However, this provides him with a sense of satisfaction, and he now feels his life has purpose. Bigger’s character transitions from feeling as if his life as an African-American is “just like living in jail” to now having the responsibility as well as the thrill of dodging the consequences of his committed atrocity. In addition, Mary Dalton’s character also provides a focal point for comparison to Bigger. Mary is a rebel who goes against her parents’ wishes by dating a Communist and supporting their cause. However, she feels as if there is little hope in the success of this “revolution” and expresses that she feels “helpless and useless. On the other hand, Bigger rebels against society, and its racial standards. He also feels as if he has no hope as an African-American. Their nonconformist and hopeless personalities eventually clash and yields Mary’s death as a result, emphasizing her effect on Bigger, the main character. In conclusion, the incorporation of Mary Dalton’s character in Richard Wrights, “Native Son,” is essential. Mary’s role in the novel is essential to the development of Bigger Thomas’s character. Her short-comings also shed light upon the difficulty of overcoming racial obstacles in the 1930’s. Although she desperately wanted to help African-Americans, she was simply not educated enough about issues regarding their race and their positions among society. Through Mary Dalton’s character, Richard Wright demonstrates that even if one intends to do well, their attempts are futile where ignorance exists.
In Black and White: Native Son
In his novel “Native Son,” author Richard Wright depicts the struggles of Bigger Thomas, whose life reaches a major turning point after he kills Mary Dalton. The difference between Bigger’s dreams and the “illusion” of reality plays a significant role throughout the novel. Bigger’s dreams and innermost desires symbolize the longing of African Americans as a whole; however, they are oppressed by the reality of their situation. This crisis enhances Richard Wright’s overall message of the novel. His use of this conflicting theme in addition to innocence and brutality and other points of contrast subtly coincide with the central theme of the racial strife experienced between two very different worlds. The fact that Wright compares Bigger’s life to a nightmare or dream during intense moments supports the notion that Bigger’s perception of life lies on the line where reality and illusions merge together. In addition, the coma-like state that Bigger seems to live in is existent from the birth of his crime to his death. For example, when Mrs. Dalton walks in on Bigger alone with Mary, a terror seizes him as though “he were falling from a great height in a dream”(85). When he wakes up the day after Mary’s murder, he remembers as if it was a mere nightmare that he had “killed Mary, had smothered her, had cut her head off and put her body in the fiery furnace” (97). However, the actuality of her death interferes with the live Bigger lives in his dreams. On several occasions an image of Mary’s head “hovered before his eyes” and he even dreams of his own head “lying with black face and half-closed eyes and lips parted with white teeth showing and hair wet with blood” (165). As a result, Bigger’s dreams serve to signify his conscience towards his murder of Mary, in which remorse is scarcely expressed. In addition, as Bigger is in his cell he contemplates that after death he would “sigh at how simple and foolish his dream had been.” This further justifies the notion that Bigger’s life alternates between reality and a “dream.” Bigger’s dreams exist not only internally during sleep, but are expressed externally in the form of his aspirations as well. For example, when he and Gus observe a plane writing in the sky above them, Bigger comments “I could fly a plan if I had a chance” (17). Although he only went to eighth grade, Bigger’s actions in the story prove that he has the capacity to fly an airplane. However, Gus retaliates by saying “if you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school.” These “ifs” dismisses Bigger’s dream as a merely unattainable goal. This proves that his aspiration of becoming a pilot is oppressed by his position in society, diminishing his “chance.” Further supporting Gus’s verdict, when Max asks Bigger what he wanted to do that he was not allowed to, Bigger replies that he wanted to be an aviator, but the school he wanted to attend “kept all the colored boys out” (353). The fact that the white world is so exclusive to Bigger instills a feeling of hostility within him, because he knows he will never be able to experience it. Bigger describes this feeling to Gus as being “on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence.” Nevertheless, Bigger still continues to dream, and he and Gus engage in a game where they “play white.” As they hold back the urge to laugh, they “guffawed, partly at themselves and partly at the vast white world that sprawled and towered in the sun before them” (18). Using the terms “vast,” “sprawled,” and “towered,” Wright’s diction succeeds in creating an image of an overwhelming force against Bigger that reserves the power to distinguish his fantasies from reality. In her essay, “Urban Racism Causes Bigger’s Irrationality,” literary critic Seodial Deena claims that Bigger falls “victim of city politics and the media.” In contrast to the poverty-stricken world of African Americans, the white world is portrayed to have “plenty of food, comfort, privacy, opportunities, money, and fun” (Deena 135). This is evident when Bigger watches The Gay Woman and Trader Horn at the movies. In The Gay Woman, “gleaming sands” and “a stretch of sparkling water” creates a sense of glamour, and ultimately motivates Bigger to take the job. He begins to fantasize whether Mary Dalton was a “hot kind of girl” who “spent lots of money” and perhaps would even pay him not to tell of a “secret sweetheart.” The Gay Woman’s effect of such persuasion is further enhanced when Trader Horn unfolds afterwards. Images of “naked black men and women whirling in wild dances” are portrayed and African-Americans are viewed as uncivilized compared to the wealthy, aristocratic whites. As Bigger watches the film, these images were replaced in his own mind by “white men and women dressed in black and white clothes, laughing, talking, drinking, and dancing.” As a result, Bigger accepts the job because he expects what is portrayed to him by media; however he learns, as Deena claims, “not all that glitters is gold.” The theme of innocence and brutality is visible in several aspects of Native Son. The deaths of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears provide an example for these contrasting points. Literature scholar Steven J. Rubin’s, “Native Son is a Novel of Revolt” explains that Bigger’s murder of Bessie is “simply proof of his new ability to act” because it gives him a sense of “control over his destiny.” Unlike Mary, Bigger deliberately and unnecessarily kills Bessie. In addition, although both deaths are equally brutal, Mary’s death generates uproar while Bessie’s murder is used as mere evidence. Richard Wright’s incorporation of these two deaths in such a manner supports the message of racial prejudice set in 1930’s Chicago. Their murders are also symbolic of how innocence is treated with brutality in numerous conditions throughout the novel. Although Mary has good intentions and claimed to be “on Bigger’s side,” he still kills her and cruelly disposes of her body. Adversely, Wright demonstrates that African-Americans were also brutally treated by white police despite their innocence. In his essay, “How ‘Bigger’ was born” Wright explains that in times of crime in which citizens “are clamoring for police action, squad cars cruise the Black Belt and grab the first Negro boy who seems to be unattached and homeless” (455). Although they are innocent, the day they are picked up by the cops, a silent contract is sealed foreboding their sentence or execution. As a result, public tension is relieved at the expense of the innocent-similar to the killings that relieve tension within Bigger from his external surroundings. In addition, Bigger treats innocence with cruelty due to the sense of shame or helplessness that it instills within him. This can be detected from early on in the novel. When Mrs. Thomas complains of their living conditions briefly after Bigger kills the rat, it is revealed that Bigger “hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them” (10). As a result, he prevents himself from feeling “to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives.” In addition, when Reverend Hammond visits and asks Bigger to accept God, the Reverend made him “feel a sense of guilt deeper than that which even his murder of Mary had made him feel” (284). The innocence and salvation Reverend Hammond tried to preach to Bigger was what he had “killed within himself…even before he had killed Mary” (284). Consequently, Bigger treats the Reverend coldly throughout the remainder of his life. Two opposites on the color spectrum, two opposites in Native Son. Black and white. Through “Native Son” Richard Wright manages to successfully create an accurate portrayal of an African American caught in the gray between these two worlds, through the use of Bigger Thomas. A fruit beared by the society he has been forced to live among, Bigger falls victim to false perceptions of what it means to be on the other side. The muddled line between dreams and realities as well as the cause and effect of innocence and brutality that affected both colors highlights the inequality and racial corruption of 1930’s America. In conclusion, Wright’s central theme of an African American’s role in a white society as well as its involvement in their outcome powerfully radiates through Bigger Thomas.
Native Fear: Richard Wright’s Native Son
Fear is a common emotional thread woven deep within the fabric of mankind. It drives our actions, dictates our beliefs and sometimes, as in the case of Bigger Thomas, mandates the type of person we become. An old adage states that the single greatest source of human fear is the unknown; we are most afraid of what we cannot predict given our limited ability of foresight. Bigger Thomas was a gross exception to this theory. What Bigger was most scared of, more than anything in the world, was the inexorable certainty of his future. Bigger feared that as a young black male living on Chicago’s South Side his life course was inalterable. For this, he dreaded his own fate: the inevitable outcome of a life constrained by social forces determined by a billowing and intangible oppressor. The tragedy of Bigger was a three-part progression. Imprisoned by a congenital situation, set on a rigid pathway and thrust into an awful fate, Bigger was born with the very death sentence he would officially receive twenty years later. The Great White Force In the novel’s introduction, Wright called Bigger a “dispossessed and disinherited man” who “live[d] amid the greatest possible plenty on earth” yet was locked within a separate, dystopic substratum of society (xx). Wright wanted the reader to experience what he called “No Man’s Land”—the impassable gap between Bigger’s “stunted place in life” and the America in which he existed but could never live (xxiv). Free will never applied to Bigger Thomas. His every move and every thought were determined by the stifling society in which he lived. “He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking: it colored life and dictated the terms of death” (307). As a result, Bigger’s frustration was two-fold: he could neither attain the desired resources of American culture nor locate a tangible source of the blockade. White oppression pervaded the whole of society evasively and enigmatically. “To Bigger and his kind, white people were not really people; they were sort of a great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark” (109). Bigger described the pressures of this “great natural force” as both external and internal. Its effects threatened from the outside world and were imbued within the farthest-reaching corners of his soul. For Bigger, white people did not reside in the immaculate mansions of the likes of Mary Dalton. Instead, they lived deep in the pit of his stomach. “Every time I think of ‘em, I feel ‘em,” he told Gus (24). At each moment of Bigger’s life he was acutely aware of who he was and who he was not, the little he had and the lot he lacked. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat … We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail (23). And in many ways, Bigger’s life was a lot like living in jail. Though he had the freedom to live, it was only within certain constrained parameters. He enjoyed some sovereignty over his own actions, but the large-scale course of his life was already chosen for him. Highway to Hell Set on this pathway, Bigger was trapped by a situation he could not escape. His fear resulted from the realization that he was on one-way track to a future which he dreaded at every moment of every day. As the novel progressed, Bigger became hyperaware of this predicament. 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 glowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force. (31)Externally, Bigger’s intense fear of life’s certainty—and his own inability to do anything about it—translated directly into his characteristic anger and rage. He was unmistakably hostile at home because he realized his family’s struggles were irreparable, yet he was “powerless” to help them in their suffering. Bigger knew that “the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair” (13). Bigger believed his mother evaded the fear he suffered by blinding herself from the reality of the world. Her life, he argued, “had a center, a core, an axis, a heart which he needed but could never have unless he laid his head upon a pillow of humility and gave up his hope of living in the world. And he would never do that” (238). Bigger disdained his mother for finding complacency in a life he saw as empty and meaningless, yet he also realized the narrow scope of their options as black Americans. Even when Bigger was granted the opportunity to work in the Dalton’s home—a “good” job by his mother’s standards—he remained dissatisfied and angry. “It maddened him to think that he did not have a wider choice of action” (16). In fact, Bigger’s entire adult life was defined by the pull he felt between acts of deviance and acts of convention. He could join his friends and rob a local black vendor or he could accept a “respectable” job as the Dalton’s driver. It did not matter in the end. Nothing did. All of Bigger’s choices inevitably led to the same outcome, and no decision he made along the way could alter his path. The red-lettered poster that hung high above the Black Belt read: “If you break the law, you can’t win.” But perhaps more obvious to the residents of the area was the unwritten message that pervaded their entire lives: “If you don’t break the law, you still can’t win.” Destination Death Row Bigger knew he was destined to die a victim of an America few would recognize as the beloved country touted for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For this, he suffered mental and emotional anguish every day of his life. He often uttered that he felt “like something awful [was] going to happen to [him]” (25). Furthermore, Bigger said the murder of Mary Dalton “seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something life this” (101). The death of Bessie was no different. “It must be this way,” Bigger said. “This is the way it had to be” (222). Bigger’s friend Gus, much like his mother, scoffed at his apocalyptic paranoia. He advised Bigger to “quit thinking about it” before he went “nuts” (25). But Bigger’s obsessive fear of the future strained every fiber of his being until the crime embedded in his head was manifested in reality. After killing Mary, Bigger was at peace. “He felt he could control himself now” (102). The whole thing came to him in the form of a powerful and simple feeling; there was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted and never be caught at it (102).Bigger felt empowered by this unique vision. Unlike his friends and family, he had a rare ability to step outside his own situation and see its reality. He refused to live on empty hope and voluntary ignorance. He no longer feared the future, for the future was here. The murder of Mary Dalton was his destiny—and he began to embrace it as such. “It was a kind of eagerness he felt, a confidence, a fullness, a freedom; his whole life was caught up in a supreme and meaningful act” (111). In his act of destruction, Bigger accomplished something significant, something that mattered. Bigger finally “had destiny in his grasp.” Through the death of another, he had granted himself a life and “created a new world for himself” (226). And within this world, he was not floating freely amid the omnipresent stress of his oppressors. Ironically, the very crimes that eventually imprisoned Bigger “made him feel free for the first time in his life” (255). For the first time in his life he moved consciously between two sharply defined poles: he was moving away from the threatening penalty of death, from the death-like times that brought him that tightness and hotness in his chest; and he was moving toward that sense of fullness he has so often but inadequately felt in magazines and movies (141).Bigger felt he was in control because he was allowed to author his own story. The detectives working on the case wanted Bigger to “draw the picture” of what happened the night Mary Dalton disappeared—“and he would draw it like he wanted it” (149). Bigger’s sense of self had long been a social construction, but now he finally had the power to sketch his own identity. For Bigger, the autonomy was an epic breakthrough. Once Bigger became a suspect, however, his fleeting period of confidence was replaced by a familiar and insurmountable fear. “Somehow something had happened and now things were out of his hands” (204). As the detectives uncovered Mary’s earring and bone fragments, “the old feeling” that Bigger had known all his life returned in an instant (206). Bigger’s future was as it had always been—predetermined. “[Y]ou whipped before you born,” he later told his altruistic attorney, Max. “They kill you before you die” (327). As the case centered on Bigger, the media began to control Bigger’s life through sensationalistic newspaper articles that described who he was and what he did. Bigger voraciously read each story, himself believing the half-truths embedded within the tiny print. His destiny was inked each and every morning for all to see. The media blitz was a return to a life he knew all too well, though never on a scale this palpable. The newspapers formed the mouthpiece of the “great natural force” Bigger had been running from his entire life. One report claimed the “conditioning of Negroes” was crucial in order to have them “pay deference” to white people. “We have found that the injection of an element of constant fear has aided us greatly in handling the problem,” it read (261). Max would argue that this fear was not the answer to the “problem” of Black Americans. It was the very source. “I’m defending this boy because I’m convinced that men like you made him what he is” (271). The hate and fear which we have inspired in him, woven by our civilization into the very structure of his consciousness, into his blood and bones, into the hourly functioning of his personality, have become justification of his existence (367).American society had set Bigger on a dastardly course from which there was no escape. It was this systematic and institutionalized torture—this awareness of the inevitable—that caused Bigger to live in constant fear and anger. “He was living, only as he knew how, and as we have forced him to live” (366). For Bigger, the American Dream was just a tease. He was disillusioned because the fundamental principles of his society were meaningless and functioned solely as bait for conformity to the status quo. Bigger was frustrated, scared and belligerent because his access to the bountiful opportunities of America was stymied by the color of his skin. The American Dream was a chance birthright—and Bigger was “just unlucky, a man born for dark doom, an obscene joke happening amid a colossal din of siren screams and white faces and circling lances of light under a cold and silken sky” (256).Source: Wright, Richard. Native Son. Harper Perennial: New York. 1940.
Richard Wright’s Native Son: Fiction or Truth?
Understanding the mindset and motivations of Richard Wright while writing Native Son proves to be important in understanding the effect of the novel on society. “Wright… was caught up in a hideous present moment, the Great Depression years and the Chicago black ghetto, when it was an achievement to survive, and when the Communist Party seemed to offer him an undreamed of freedom, an unqualified social acceptance” (McCarthy 100). This knowledge may clarify many aspects of this novel including the condition of the main character, Bigger Thomas. Wright’s “burning sense of the degraded image of the Negro in American life drove him in every book to reproduce an image of the Negro in his most brutalized condition” (McCarthy 101). Such was the case for Bigger. Forced to share a small one-room apartment in the “Black Belt” with his mother, brother and sister, Bigger felt trapped most of his life with the knowledge that “they keep us bottled up here like wild animals” (Wright 249). The conditions Wright endured led him to write the story of Bigger Thomas while the similar conditions Bigger endured led him to murder.Bigger is “thrown by an accidental murder into a position where he had sensed a possible order and meaning in his relations with the people about him; having accepted moral guilt and responsibility for that murder because it had made him feel free for the first time in his life” (Wright 274). Murder, for Bigger, was what literature was for Wright. Harold T. McCarthy explains that literature was “instrumental in enabling [Wright] to become a person wholly different from the being predicated in his environment” (99). Wright was looking for an outlet from the suffering imposed on him by society. He created this same need in Bigger, and the end result was murder. Through Bigger’s feelings of freedom, Wright also was able to feel free from the burdens of his environment.The root of this freedom felt by Bigger, and in turn by Wright, stemmed from the desire to rise above the harsh conditions forced upon him. Robert Butler refers to the text “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” when he describes, “Bigger was modeled in certain ways on five black men from [Wright’s] childhood and adolescence in Mississippi who were rebellious lawbreakers whom he both admired and feared. Each was the product of an unjust social system, and Wright envied their ability to lash out against a segregated world that frustrated many of their most human impulses” (555). Not one for violence himself, Wright turned to literature in protest to his world. It was not enough to just create a fictional story about a black man finding freedom in an unjust world. According to Robert Butler, Wright “weighted Native Son in ‘public,’ historically verifiable events that provided the novel with an authority and resonance it otherwise would not have possessed” (563). Wright hints at such “historically verifiable events” with dialogue between Bessie and Bigger:”You remember hearing people talk about Loeb and Leopold.” “Oh!””The ones who killed the boy and then tried to get money from the boy’s family… (Wright 136)Robert Butler explains the significance of these boys, clarifying Wright’s allusion to them in Bigger’s story. “For just as Loeb and Leopold had committed what most people at the time believed was a horrible new crime that reflected the anarchy and amorality of modern life, Bigger is presented by Wright as a new kind of literary figure whose story illustrates in a bold and lucid way the central problems of American history and modern culture” (Butler 559).Butler discusses the importance of comparisons between the events that take place in Native Son with the Loeb and Leopold case, specifically the legal strategies used by Darrow, Loeb and Leopold’s attorney, with Bigger’s communist defense, Max. Examining Butler’s comparison helps illuminate the true impact of Native Son on society. Butler points out how “Max and Darrow premise their legal strategies on strongly deterministic grounds, arguing that the crimes committed were produced by unhealthy social environments that emotionally distorted their clients and stunted their human development” (557). As part of Bigger’s defense, Max explains to the judge:But to him it was not murder. If it was murder, then what was the motive…there was no motive as you and I understand motives within the scope of our laws today. The truth is, this boy did not kill… what Bigger Thomas did… was but a tiny aspect of what he had been doing all his life long! He was living, only as he knew how, and as we have forced him to live. (Wright 400)Similarly, according to Butler, Darrow argued, “his clients acted as mentally diseased young men mechanically driven by misshapen social impulses” (558). Wright drew from the Loeb and Leopold case not by coincidence. Knowledge that Bigger’s legal defense is based upon real life events creates a greater impact; driving the issues to heart stronger than a fictional case alone might be able to do.While Bigger’s story seems to focus solely on the condition of the oppressed black man, there is an even greater impact in comparing his situation to that of Loeb and Leopold. It is important to note that Loeb and Leopold came from very different backgrounds than Wright or Bigger. In a sense, Loeb and Leopold, wealthy white boys, had more in common with Mary Dalton than Bigger Tomas. Even with this knowledge, Wright’s use of these boys as a source still provides a dramatic impact of his story. Butler explains:By thus connecting Bigger with two other men from vastly different social and economic circumstances, Wright makes an important point about capitalism in America, namely that it corrupted and alienated all levels of society, regardless of race and class. As a Marxist and a Communist, Wright asserted that materialism and selfishness had infected modern society from top to bottom, producing a deep alienation and moral vacuum that threatened modern civilization with anarchy and violence. Just as Mary Dalton and Bigger Thomas are finally shown as more alike than different as two “crazy” young people who cannot relate to the empty world that they have inherited and try to find meaning in rebellious acts of breaking taboos of many kinds, so too are Loeb, Leopold, and Bigger tragically alike as victims of similarly dehumanizing environments. (Butler 561)It may at first appear that Wright set out to speak against racism in America. But as Butler points out, “terrifying violence and anarchy, for Wright, knew no racial or national limits but infected society on all levels” (562).Max touches on this issue in a final conversation with Bigger after he has been condemned to death:Bigger, the people who hate you feel just as you feel, only they’re on the other side of the fence. You’re black, but that’s only part of it. You’re being black… makes it easy for them to single you out… And the rich people don’t want to change things; they’ll lose too much. But deep down in them they feel like you feel, Bigger, and in order to keep what they’ve got, they make themselves believe that men who work are not quite human. They do like you did, Bigger, when you refused to feel sorry for Mary. But on both sides men want to live; men are fighting for life. Who will win? Well, the side that feels life the most, the side with the most humanity and the most men. (Wright 428)Rooting the story of Bigger in real life events allows Wright to address many social issues with greater impact. As a Marxist, Wright believed the social environment in America was disabling to everyone. But as a black man, Wright had an even stronger message to deliver through Bigger Thomas. “As the ironic juxtaposition of Bigger’s narrative with the story of Loeb and Leopold narrative has surely demonstrated, Bigger is a ‘native son’ in the sense that he… is a product of a diseased American social environment, but unlike them, he is not fully a ‘native son’ because he enjoys no second chances and no protections of law and privilege that Wright perceived to be the birthright of wealthy white people (Butler 565).The message underlying Bigger’s story is greater than the plight of the black man. The story of Bigger, for Wright, is one that can befall anyone. As a nation, America has progressed through many movements and oppressions. “At any given moment in a culture, there may be a dominant discourse, or a swirl of competing discourses; there may be a decaying discourse held by one segment of a culture, but under attack and falling apart; and a rising discourse, gaining adherents. There may well be, in reality, as many discourses as there are people- or even more, since some of us change our minds often, or haven’t made up our minds on many things” (Lynn 134). It is the finicky nature of humanity that calls for the need of literature such as Native Son. The impact made by such literature can help the progression of needed “rising discourse.” Understanding the motivations behind such literature can make the impact of stories like Bigger’s even more relevant. Works CitedButler, Robert. “The Loeb and Leopold Case: A Neglected Source for Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’.” African American Review 39 (2006): 555-567.Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. University of South Carolina: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.McCarthy, Harold T. “Richard Wright: The Expatriate as Native Son.” American Literature 44 (1972): 97-117.Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.
The Fall from Light to Darkness: Spiritual Impoverishment and the Deadening of the Soul in Richard Wright’s Native Son
A preacher enters the cell of a young man condemned by all before the trial has even begun, and begins powerfully exhorting the young man to give himself to the Lord Jesus and be redeemed. And yet this young man, standing at the very edge of death, cannot bring himself to find salvation in the religion offered to him, cannot find hope in the cross laid round his neck. Bigger Thomas, the fallen protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son, has spent a lifetime in the spiritually deadening climate of 1930s Chicago, and for him religion offers very little. The nihilism pervasive in black life that has so encrusted his soul has been an ever-growing force through the years, first noted in W.E.B. DuBois’ writings, and, many decades later, powerfully argued for in Cornel West’s Race Matters. All three authors are aware of the power that black religious life once held; to uplift the spirit, to enable the individual to find love, self-worth, and personal dignity in a world that sought to deprive them of each. All three authors are also aware of the growing spiritual impoverishment that has struck black American life, contributing in no small part to the conditions so poignantly portrayed in Native Son.
The importance of spiritual fulfillment as a method of social and cultural salvation in black Americans cannot be underscored clearly enough. In the days of slavery, writes DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, “[the Negro preacher] early appeared on the plantation and found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people” (p. 159). The preacher fulfilled a crucial function – uplifting the people, offering them alternatives to despair in a life that seemed to offer little else, and providing them with a crucial structure, the church, upon which to build morals, strengthen family life, and find a cultural point of coherence upon which to rest. West describes the importance that such institutions held for black Americans under such conditions of oppression: “Traditions for black surviving and thriving under usually adverse New World conditions were major barriers against the nihilistic threat. These traditions consist primarily of black religious and civic institutions that sustained familial and communal networks of support” (p. 24). It is important to emphasize the value that these institutions held for black Americans, the crucial role they filled in providing an outlet in which to find faith, culture, pride, and a sense of history and tradition in order to understand why the result of the gradual decay of these institutions was so tragic.
At the time of DuBois’ writing, at the turn of the century, he described a subtle shift occurring in black religious life. Although the black church was still quite clearly the center of black social life (p. 157), Du Bois writes that another “type” of black American was emerging, one who was unable to find hope in religion, bitterly watching as his rights were trampled and his hopes crushed. “The one type of Negro stands almost ready to curse God and die…the [other] is wedded to ideals remote, whimsical” (p. 165). Even at this early date the harsh reality of post-slavery Black life in America was creeping in, and the value of religion as salvation was beginning to falter.
Cornel West, in Race Matters, is speaking from a vantage point many decades after DuBois, and argues strongly that the spiritual impoverishment hinted at in The Souls of Black Folk has grown to its present state, where nihilism is so pervasive that it has resulted in many Blacks in a deadening of the soul and a self-destructive disposition easily turned against others.
“A pervasive spiritual impoverishment grows. The collapse of meaning in life – the eclipse of hope and absence of love of self and others, the breakdown of family and neighborhood bonds – leads to the…[creation] of rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks – family, friends, school – that sustain some sense of purpose in life. We have witnessed the collapse of the spiritual communities that in the past helped Americans face despair, disease, and death and that transmit through the generations dignity and decency, excellence and elegance” (p. 9-10).
West writes that the forefathers of black Americans were able to prevent this growing nihilism through the creation of “buffers”: Religious and civic institutions which served, through the provision of a social outlet and the maintenance of community and family ties, to hold back the sense of worthlessness that could easily have, and according to West seems to have, pervaded black life. West writes, “The genius of our black foremothers and forefathers was to create powerful buffers to ward off the nihilistic threat, to equip black folk with cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness” (p. 23). Now, as those institutions gradually fall away, spiritual deprivation results, with disastrous consequences. Criminal behavior in young black men, “is a threat that feeds on poverty and shattered cultural institutions and grows more powerful as the armors to ward against it are weakened” (p. 25). The poverty, discrimination, educational inadequacies and other forces which combined seem almost inevitably to produce criminal tendencies are amplified as the social institutions which once protected against them are gradually worn down.
It seems unquestionable that the conditions in which Bigger Thomas exists are exactly the sort which West describes as breeding spiritual impoverishment. Nihilism, writes West, is, “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world” (pp. 22-23). Native Son opens with a scene in which Bigger experiences all three of these key components that combine to produce a nihilistic outlook. “Bigger, honest,” his mother screams at him, “you the most no-countest man I ever seen in all my life!” (p. 9). “We wouldn’t have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you” (p. 8). Bigger’s mother can offer him no clear evidence of her love, yet makes very apparent her disappointment in his ability to care for the family and lift them out of their poverty-stricken situation. The lovelessness and hopelessness Bigger feels from his family combine to produce in him a sense of utter meaninglessness: “He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair…He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else” (p. 10). The conditions of his life are exactly those which Cornel West describes as breeding criminal behavior in the absence of some spiritual outlet to provide hope and meaning.
Although Bigger was introduced to religion at some level as a child, recalling, “familiar [religious] images which his mother had given him when he was a child at her knee” (p. 283), religion never played a major role in his life, and its influence did not extend beyond early childhood. Bigger recalls that all religious impulses he once felt “he had suppressed and sought to shunt from his life” (p. 283). He recalls attending church as a child, but as he grew older he came to realize that the reality of his life was such that he found it impossible to find solace in God. It seemed unimportant, and served a almost laughably futile purpose in a life in which other things – from survival to the ability to acquire material items – took primary importance. When questioned why he stopped going to church, Bigger replies: “I didn’t like it. There was nothing in it. Aw, all they did was sing and shout and pray all the time. And it didn’t get ’em nothing. All the colored folks do that, but it don’t get them nothing. The white folks got everything” (p. 355). West attributes a great deal of the spiritual impoverishment he perceives amongst young black men to be the result of a market society in which the acquisition of material items has taken utmost importance. “The result [of spiritual impoverishment] is lives of what we might call ‘random nows,’ of fortuitous and fleeting moments preoccupied with ‘getting over’ – with acquiring pleasure, property and power by any means necessary…Post-modern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness” (p. 10). The objective of Bigger’s life was not religion or spiritual salvation, but the acquisition of material things, a natural desire given the American tendency towards pleasure and power and his own disadvantaged condition. In West’s view, the pervasive spiritual degradation directly results in criminal behavior in young black men, as there is no realistic and effective force present to stem the desire for pleasure and power that is endorsed by American society.
In such a poverty-stricken environment, with no church to serve as a center of his social and spiritual life, Bigger has no real outlet save for the pool hall he frequents with his friends – certainly no spiritual panacea, indeed, little more than a breeding ground for criminal schemes. With no safe haven, no spiritual outlet set up in Bigger’s life to serve as an interlude in his day, shielding him from the negative influences of his poverty-stricken, emotionally inadequate life, Bigger feels that a life of crime was almost inevitable. When asked by his lawyer if he ever thought that he would one day find himself locked in jail for murder, Bigger replies, “To tell the truth, Mr. Max, it seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair. Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this just had to be” (p. 358). Even Bigger’s own mother felt the inevitability of his course in life: “[T]he gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, boy. Just remember that” (p. 9). Every day of his life, every day spent roaming the streets, lounging in movie houses, hanging around the pool hall, with little else to do and nowhere to escape the poverty and misery that was his life, led Bigger to what he viewed as an inevitable end. For Bigger, there was no escape for the life that he had been destined to lead from the moment of his conception.
When the preacher enters Bigger’s cell, through a moving sermon about Creation entreating him to look to God for salvation, Bigger is momentarily seized with an understanding of the place religion could fill in his soul. As the preacher begins to talk, the images, “[sprawl] before his eyes and [seize] his emotions in a spell of awe and wonder” (p. 283). Here we see the potential that religion had to serve as a saving force in Bigger’s life, if only it had been more accessible to him. He rejects its offer of hope, however, “kill[ing] within himself the preacher’s haunting picture of life even before he had killed Mary; that had been his first murder” (p. 284). It was his rejection of religion that was the first step down the path that led him, finally, to the death chamber. He is aware of the potential religion has to fill a spiritual void, but he recognizes as well that religion was something that disappeared from his life many years ago for a multitude of reasons, and thus no longer has the power to save him, even if he were to accept it.
Although Bigger tries to find salvation in the preacher’s words, he is ultimately unable to accept religion, even in his last few days of life. The preacher is unable to reach Bigger because even though he may want to accept the gift of religion, his soul has been so deadened by the conditions of his life that he is unable to. Wright writes, “To those who wanted to kill him he was not human, not included in that picture of Creation; and that was why he had killed it. To live, he had created a new world for himself, and for that he was to die” (p. 285). After a lifetime of bearing witness to the poverty, degradation and inadequacy that was his life, Bigger had come to believe that religion was for a different sort of person, the kind of person included in the picture of Creation, not those like him. A traumatic experience with photographers sparks in Bigger a recognition of the way in which he is viewed by many whites: The photo depicts Bigger as an animal, “his back against a wall, his teeth bared in a snarl” (p. 336). Bigger knew that to many, he was viewed as less than human, and was excluded from the religion that they took solace in. Wright explains, “He feared and hated the preacher because the preacher had told him to bow down…but his pride would not let him do that” (p. 311). In order to keep some vestige of pride alive, he turned away from religion, condemning himself to a life of spiritual as well as physical poverty, and ultimately leading him to his tragic fate.
The cross that Bigger allowed the priest to hang around his neck symbolized an acquiescence, a small acceptance of the possibility of spiritual salvation, but even that small hope was destroyed by Bigger’s final understanding of his total exclusion from the spiritual life that others enjoyed. Shortly afterwards the experience with the photographer, he sees a burning cross atop a building, and realizes that the cross is a symbol of white disgust for him: “That cross was not the cross of Christ, but the cross of the Klu Klux Klan” (p. 338). The cross around his neck, he realizes, allies him with a religion that only seeks to reject him, a religion that views him as an outsider. Wright states, “He had a cross of salvation round his throat and they were burning one to tell him that they hated him!” (p. 338). The burning cross, to Bigger, is a symbol of white supremacy, and, beyond that, a symbol of his exclusion from religion.
Not only did Bigger realize that religion was forbidden to him, but further, that it served as a method by which whites could try to control him. When asked by Mr. Max why he did not turn to the church, Bigger replies that he “didn’t want that kind of happiness. The white folks like for us to be religious, then they can do what they want to with us” (p. 356). Bigger feels that religion serves as a mere tool by which whites seek to pacify blacks, turning their eyes from the truth of the conditions in which they live.
In truth, Bugger desires the safety and hope that religion offers, but his life, the “psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in black America” (West p. 20) has produced in him a nihilism that slowly degrades his ability to find a meaningful social or spiritual outlet. Religion could not be to him what he wished it to be, and so he was unable to accept the possibility of salvation even as he stood condemned to death.
An understanding of the hopelessness and spiritual and physical poverty of Bigger’s life may seem to excuse his criminal behavior. Indeed, Cornel West writes that “Post-modern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness. This culture engulfs all of us – yet its impact on the disadvantaged is devastating, resulting in extreme violence in everyday life” (p. 10). The purpose of understanding the effects that such conditions can have on an individual is not to excuse their actions, but to see why such actions were produced in order to instigate change. As the religious, social, and cultural institutions which once served in part to protect against the nihilistic threat are worn down, the black community is at greater risk. One must acknowledge the factors which contribute to the tragic effects portrayed in Wrights’ Native Son, not to excuse the behavior, but only, as Mr. Max explains, to understand why the crime existed before the event itself.
DuBois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. USA: Penguin Books.
West, Cornel. (1994). Race Matters. USA: Vintage Books.
Wright, Richard. (1940). Native Son. USA: HarperCollins.
Evaluation of Native Son by Richard Wright
Essay Prompt:Writers often highlight the values of a culture or society by using characters who are alienated from that culture or society because of gender, race, class or creed. Discuss Bigger Thomas as such a character and show how his alienation reveals the surrounding society’s assumptions and moral values.Essay:In Richard Wright’s breakthrough novel, Native Son, Wright introduces a figure familiar to 1930s 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 Thomas strikes out in a futile attempt to transgress the boundaries and limits of his position. Through the estrangement of Bigger Thomas, many of the values and morals of the culture in which he lived are brought to light.Immediately in this novel the revealing of these societal assumptions takes place.”Was what he had heard about rich white people really true? Was he going to work for people like you saw in the movies…?”This passage from Book One appears as Bigger sits in the movie theater, thinking about the possibilities for his new job as the Daltons’ chauffeur. He has just seen the newsreel about Mary and has decided that he might find more to like about the job than he initially suspects. Here we see just how little contact Bigger has had with white people and therefore how impossible it is for him to conceive of them in realistic terms. We also see the importance of popular culture in determining societal attitudes, as Bigger is only able to imagine the Daltons’ lives by drawing upon movies that portray rich white people. The movie screen shows a scene of black savages dancing in a jungle, which Bigger covers up in his mind with an imagined scene of an elegant white cocktail party. Wright juxtaposes these sharply contrasting images to indicate the extent to which Bigger’s and America’s attitudes about whites and blacks are determined by popular culture. This popular culture inundates the America of Wright’s time with imagery that depicts blacks as savages and whites as cultured and sophisticated millionaires.Furthermore, in the novel Wright shows the common misconceptions and discriminating thoughts of society towards the communist party.'”Listen, Bigger,” said Britten. “Did you see this guy [Jan] act in any way out of the ordinary? I mean, sort of nervous, say? Just what did he talk about?”He talked about Communists….””Did he ask you to join?””He gave me that stuff to read.””Come on. Tell us some of the things he said.”Bigger knew the things that white folks hated to hear Negroes ask for; and he knew that these were the things the Reds were always asking for.’In this passage from Book Two, in which Britten questions Bigger about Mary’s disappearance, we see Bigger’s astute ability to deflect suspicion away from himself by playing upon white prejudice against blacks and communists. Bigger assumes a slow-witted, subservient attitude and then uses this attitude to cast subtle suspicion upon the innocent Jan. Bigger utterly outsmarts the whites by telling them exactly what they want to hear, saying that, on the night of Mary’s disappearance, Jan was talking about these “things the Reds were always asking for.” Bigger knows that simply associating Jan with communist rhetoric will make Jan appear guilty in the minds of his white listeners, even though they already know Jan to be an avowed communist. Bigger uses his long experience with racial prejudice shrewdly, manipulating the prejudices of his white questioners. This passage suggests that, had Mary’s bones not been discovered in the furnace, Bigger may have gotten away with his crime completely. All thanks to the prejudices surrounding communism.Bigger Thomas is not a traditional hero by any means. However, Wright forces us to enter into Bigger’s mind and to understand the devastating effects of the social conditions in which he was raised. Bigger was not born a violent criminal. As illustrated in the novel, Bigger Thomas is a “native son”: a product of American culture and the violence and racism that suffuse it.
Settings and Their Importance: The White Tiger and Native Son
When writing The White Tiger and Native Son, Aravind Adiga and Richard Wright utilized setting to influence the plot of the novels, by having the stories of their characters happen in very regulated and controlling societies. Their extreme conditions push the protagonists to want to break out of the cycle they’re in and the only way to achieve that, in their opinion, is by doing negative actions and extreme crime. While Balram Halwai is successfully escaping the “Rooster Coop” of Indian society, Bigger Thomas is struggling through the racist community of Chicago during the 1930s.
The White Tiger shapes a visual representation of corruption in Indian society. Electoral fraud is a common practice in India; it is expected of the rich landowners or business owners to give the Great Socialist either money or fingerprints of the people who work for them. The impecunious population doesn’t have a fair say in what goes on in the nation, even though the country is considered democratic. The people are coerced into following the instructions of their bosses: “There was an election coming up, and the tea shop owner had already sold us. He had sold our fingerprints – the inky fingerprints which the illiterate person makes on the ballot paper to indicate his vote. . . he had got a good price for each one of us from the Great Socialist’s party” (Adiga 81).
Because most of the poor population are illiterate, due to the fact that they are either taken out of school early or simply do not have any money to pay for a school, it is easier for the educated people in power to overrule and manipulate those in social classes below them. The government takes advantage of such poor educational situations in the country by giving money to the business owners to regulate the elections, because the business owners only care about receiving money to sustain their families. Such actions performed by the government lead to the cycle of corruption and poverty becoming unbreakable because no change can be made when the same people hold the position of power.
Adiga creates a strong contrast between the wealthy people of India and the poor people who live in the so called “Rooster Coop” and work for the rich their whole life: India’s caste system. While the rich swim in their plethora of wealth with luxury residences, huge shopping malls and personal drivers; the working class suffer from extreme poverty where the only thing they can rely on is their water buffalo and giving birth to a lot of children in order for them to work and bring some cash to the family for food: “ At the doorway to my house, you’ll see the most important member of my family. The water buffalo. . . She was the dictator of our house!” (Adiga 17). Balram’s family not only cherishes the buffalo because it is the Holy symbol of India, but also because it is their main resource of money. The more milk the buffalo produces, the more money the family receives. With that comes a high risk of losing everything they rely on, which could very well lead to death from starvation.
Location plays an important role in the Balram’s character development and mind set. As Balram is taken out of school, he is forced to work in the Tea Shop in order to obtain additional income for the family. He observes the lives of other people in poverty and realizes that if he doesn’t change something, then he will follow his family’s footsteps and stay in this poverty for the rest of his life. Balram is certain that when he leaves the Darkness to travel away and work in the Light he will escape the poverty and have a better life for himself and for his family. But when he gets to New Delhi, his dreams do not exceed his reality. What he is witnessing is the opposite of what he imagined: “These people were building homes for the rich, but they lived in tents covered with blue tarpaulin sheets, and partitioned into lanes by lines of sewage. It was even worse than Laxmangarh” (Adiga 222). For Balram, it always seemed that big cities bring people success and wealth, when in actuality, poor stay poor and rich stay rich no matter if they are in Laxmangarh or New Delhi.
Bigger from Native Son faces a social discrimination in his community which forces him to commit extreme actions in order to express his anger towards racism. Movies and newspapers suppress Bigger’s image of himself and makes him believe in white superiority: “Here are the daughters of the rich taking sunbaths in the sands of Florida! This little collection of debutantes represents over four billion dollars of America’s wealth and over fifty of America’s leading families. . .” (Wright 31). The Pop culture always illustrates the beautiful white people who are rich and happy. By telling the amount of money that the white people live with, makes Bigger feel crushed and weak because he could never compete with them. White people are also portrayed as being highly educated and good at managing finance, which would be an acceptable reality for Bigger: “Those were smart people; they know how to get hold of money, millions of it” (Wright 33). Pop culture makes him believe that because of his skin color he will never possess large amount of money or have a job with high payment.
Bigger’s whole life is spent living in poverty along with every other black person in Chicago. South Side is a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Chicago. Black people are forced to live there because they cannot afford to rent or buy any other home, or the white landlords are not willing to rent it out to a black person. This leads to horrible conditions among the households: overcrowding, not enough natural resources such as water and gas and lack of privacy: “He crawled back to the chimney, seeing before his eyes an image of the room of five people, all of them blackly naked in the strong sunlight, see through a sweaty pane: the man and woman moving jerkily in the tight embrace, and the three children watching” (Wright 247). He had to get away from seeing little, naked kids watch their parents have sex, because he knows that it is not something little kids should see but they have no other solution for their conditions that they’re in. Such a situation resembles Bigger’s own childhood, because he experienced the same kind of constricting scenario. This situation makes Bigger even more angry at the white population, because he knows it is because of them that the black people are segregated and forced to comply to living in conditions that they live in.
As Bigger changes his locations and social settings, his mindset changes with them. The Daltons’ house was an extreme shock to him after seeing the luxurious, powerful life that those white people were living, which in turn made him feel very self conscious and even more pressured and insecure about his race,On the smooth walls were several paintings whose nature he tried to make out, but failed. He would have liked to examine them, but dared not. Then he listened; a faint sound of piano music floated to him from somewhere. He was sitting in a white home; dim lights burned round him; strange objects challenged him; and he was feeling angry and uncomfortable. (Wright 45) When he is present in house of white people he is so afraid of what white people can do to him that he dares not to do anything to anger them or get punished for. His feeling of anger comes from his feelings of unfairness towards segregation, yet he does not change his behavior when he is surrounded by the whites. Instead he acts submissive like the rest of the black population. That leads to him feeling uncomfortable with himself and the location he is at. The frozen rooftop on which Bigger was captured near the end of the novel serves as a metaphor for his inability to go any further and the only option he has is to surrender to the police as he entraps himself at the rooftop and made the police job easier: “Dizzily, he drew back. This was the end. There were no more roofs over which to run and dodge.” (Wright 265) It serves as metaphor because the scene figuratively compares Bigger’s inability to move forward in life as well as literally not being able to move due to hunger and coldness. The freezing temperature and snow were the setting that was set up to work against Bigger and only made his situation worse.
Setting not only sets the mood for a novel, it makes the characters who they are and affects them and their decisions, which entirely influences the progression of the plot in the novel. Both Balram and Bigger were pushed by the society around them to act the way they did and because of their location and surroundings, the outcome for each character turned out to be extremely different. While Balram became rich and successful entrepreneur because his society enable him to hide out in the crowd since million Indian men look exactly like him, Bigger was captured and sentenced to death because he was isolated in his society as he was of a different skin color.
Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger: A Novel. New York: Free, 2008. Print
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper & Bros., 1940. Print
Bigger Than Society: Existentialism in Native Son
Existentialism emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. Contrarily, environmental determinism suggests that society shapes individuals, allowing for little personal motive. In Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, a young black man named Bigger is faced with constant fear from oppressive societal tendencies, yet is inclined to define himself by his actions in order to find identity. An existential sense of morality elicits behavior which opposes societal norms, while natural moral code results in conformity. Although Bigger is the product of an oppressive, fear stricken society, his fundamental need for self determined identity prompts him to embrace his actions.
Wright suggests throughout the novel that ingrained societal tendencies determine Bigger’s existence and behavior, implying that environmental determinism supersedes and corrupts his free will. Max, Bigger’s communist lawyer, insists that society has instilled fear in blacks and stripped them of their individuality: “they are powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces” (390). Through this Communist perspective, Max argues that white society is to blame for Bigger’s fear, which ultimately results in his hateful behavior and crimes. These social forces are the result of a universal desire for power and superiority, which comes at the expense of blacks’ pride and individualism. Rather, blacks become “powerless pawns,” dispensable pieces of a social game, seen by whites merely as leverage to elevate their own social standing. Bigger is conditioned to hate himself and fear whites from a young age, as shame defines and controls him: “They made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him, one holding his hand and the other smiling. He felt he had no physical existence at all right then; he was something to be hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin” (67). Bigger is the product of a degenerate, oppressive society which promotes self-hatred and ultimately causes him to commit the crimes that he does. Living in constant fear, he is born with this “badge of shame” into a world in which he can never win, belittled and degraded by a fear mongering white society.
While society may be at fault for Bigger’s behavior, he is compelled to subsequently take accountability for his actions in order to establish individualism and his own identity. Claiming personal motive, Bigger embraces and defines himself by his actions: “What I kill for I am . . . When a man kills, it’s for something” (429). Rather than blame societal tendencies for his faults, Bigger adopts a mentality of intentionality to establish individual identity. Claiming that he kills “for something,” Bigger convinces himself that his actions were justified, manifesting this existential ideal to his reality. However, he does not realize that the “something” that he kills for is the deep fear and hate that he has always lived in. Instead of blaming society for his transgressions, Bigger says that he is what he kills for, defining himself by actions that most people would be ashamed of. Adopting this mentality of accountability, Bigger “felt that he had his destiny in his grasp” (156). Now that he does not allow himself to be controlled by society, he feels responsible for his own future and past. Bigger decides to disregard what others think, separating himself from society by fully accepting his actions and their significance: “He had done this. He had brought this all about. 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” (239). Bigger has lived his whole life constantly shaped by the fear and hate that society has instilled in him. However, he sheds his previous self conscious mindset in order to rid himself of this fear. Wright utilizes this shift to existentialism in order to exhibit Bigger’s desire for identity. Ultimately, Bigger takes responsibility for his actions to escape the social constraints and stereotypes which had always made him feel inferior and worthless.
Bigger adopts an existential view of morality in order to justify his actions and embrace his individuality. Shedding society’s standard view of morality, he creates his own system of ethics based on feeling and intuition in order to justify his actions and identity. He exhibits this by refusing to go to church, saying that “there is nothing in it,” and that “it don’t get ‘em nothing” (339). Church provides security and identity for all of the other black characters in the book, yet Bigger creates an existential view of morality rather than conforming to his peers’ views. He finds identity not in forgiveness and hope, but rather in the certainty and comfort that he committed the acts of murder with his own free will and conscience, and that he is not confined by anybody’s standards. Furthering his commitment to living in the present, Bigger decides that he wants to “be happy in this world, not out of it” (339). Taking full accountability for his own actions, he does not want to be wiped of his sins, for he embraces them. With this, Bigger justifies his actions by creating his own set of morals, one that does not align with society’s. While Bigger may truly be the product of a twisted, racist society, his fundamental need for identity and individualism compels him to fully embrace actions which most would be ashamed of. Richard Wright contrasts existentialism with naturalism and environmental determinism in order to expose the effects of a racist society as well as the essential human need for identity. Ultimately, Native Son reveals that the natural human desire for power and superiority often comes at the expense of others and furthers the reign of hate in the world.
A Postcolonial Psychoanalysis of Determinism in Native Son
Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, exemplifies classic, African-American literature that raises serious questions about how deeply racial oppression damages Blacks. Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism exposes how racism subjects Blacks to the impotence assumed under determinism by denying nearly any confirmation of free will. Wright’s narrative depicts the psychological and existential struggle of adolescent, black youth to feel any sense of agency in life because the institution of racial oppression impinges upon their psychological development; consequently, a strong-willed, black man may prove incapable of accepting a reality devoid of agency and dangerously struggle to create agency where there is none.
According to Dobie, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory differed from Freudian theory most significantly in that “Freud’s concept of the unconscious as a force that determines our actions and beliefs shook the long-held ideal that we are beings who can control our own destinies” while Lacan asserted that the unconscious was not some peripheral force acting upon the conscious self but, rather, the core of the self—“the nucleus of our being” (Dobie 69). Freud’s theory considered the unconscious to be peripheral, not central. The significance of this theoretical difference is that Freudian theory technically supports the philosophical doctrine of determinism whereas Lacanian theory challenges that notion without necessarily advocating existentialism.
In Native Son, one can argue that there are no characters who truly exercise free will; instead, there are simply those who live with a sense of agency and those who do not. Agency does not suggest free will, though, in the sense that it is merely the capacity to act, not the authority to act in any way one pleases. This distinction manifests in the protagonist’s observation of a plane in the sky early in “Book One” of the text. The protagonist, Bigger, draws the attention of his friend, Gus, to the plane. “’Them white boys sure can fly,’ Gus said. ‘Yeah,’ Bigger said, wistfully. ‘They get a chance to do everything’” (Wright 20). The implicature in Bigger’s statement suggests envy of Whites’ agency but not free will; in the latter case, Bigger’s last word would more appropriately have been “anything,” as opposed to “everything.” In either case, though, what is most pronounced is Bigger’s cognizance of a personal lack of agency. Lack is something with which Lacan says infants come to terms during the transition from the Imaginary Order to the Symbolic Order. “When the infant realizes it is not connected to that which serves its needs, when it recognizes the Other and its own other, it begins to enter the Symbolic Order” (Dobie 71). This occurs when the infant begins to recognize difference, identifying Other—everything outside of the self—and subsequently identifying its own other, which is the external image one mistakes for an internal identity. Lacan believed the “self” to be an illusory identity, and his theory purports this to be the case for everyone; however, within the context of racial oppression, it is only a damaging reality for the oppressed group. Everyone unconsciously manipulates themselves into accepting external images for internal identities, but as a result, only the subalterns accept problematic images for internal identities because the powerful group creates those external images for the subalterns in the process of othering them.
In Native Son, postcolonial literary criticism refers to Whites as the colonizers and Blacks as the subalterns or, more specifically, colonial subjects. Bigger and everyone with whom he is capable of identifying are subjected to Eurocentrism and, thus, plagued by a sense of cultural displacement. The problematic, external images they accept from Whites who other them cause them to see themselves the way Whites see them, which is a crisis of identity that, more than anything else, robs them of any possible sense of agency. Determinism becomes their only possible reality because their beings are limited to what Whites declare them to be. This is exemplified later in the same, aforementioned conversation between Bigger and Gus: “‘Maybe they right in not wanting us to fly,’ Bigger said. ‘’Cause if I took a plane up I’d take a couple of bombs along and drop ‘em as sure as hell’” (Wright 21). Bigger sarcastically expresses a sentiment that many Blacks may very well believe on an unconscious level, which is the idea that Whites have othered Blacks accurately. Wright uses Bigger to epitomize a sort of worst-case scenario apropos of what Whites’ psychological colonization of Blacks can yield. Bigger is actually the exception that proves the rule. All the African Americans around him in the text accept the problematic, external images Whites impose upon them, and they assimilate under the auspices of the Symbolic Order. Bigger is clearly different from everyone else around him, though. He is the only one who is depicted as being psychologically unstable—plagued by a severe anxiety comprised of rage and fear: Bigger watched Jack closely; he knew that the situation was one in which Jack’s word would be decisive. Bigger was afraid of Gus, because he knew that Gus would not hold out if Jack said yes. […] the fear that Gus would really go made the muscles of Bigger’s stomach tighten; he was hot all over. He felt as if he wanted to sneeze and could not; only it was more nervous than wanting to sneeze. He grew hotter, tighter; his nerves were taut and his teeth were on edge. He felt that something would soon snap within him. (Wright 31) Everyone calmly weighs his options in the excerpt above while Bigger’s anxiety level steadily rises in response to his own thoughts.
Bigger’s unique struggle stems from his being such an inordinately strong-willed individual. Being strong-willed becomes a tragic flaw because it keeps him from assimilating the way those around him do. More than anything, a strong will seeks agency, and Bigger is constantly exhibiting a yearn for some sense of agency. This struggle is arguably Bigger’s attempted regression to the Real Order—“a psychological state characterized by unity and completeness”—in which he could believe himself to be one with all things and perceive no distinction between self and Other, providing the ultimate sense of security on the basis of there being no existing entities to threaten him. Many such examples relate to a seemingly idiosyncratic thought he frequently has when faced with situations he does not like in which he simply waves his hand (or performs some other equally arbitrary action) to remove the situation from existence, so to speak. More than this, though, Bigger’s reaction to his first murder highlights agency as the true object of his desire: Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that […] He had killed many times before, only on those other times there had been no handy victim or circumstance to make visible his will to kill. […] He felt that all his life had been leading to something like this. […] It was as though he had an obscure but deep debt to fulfil [sic] to himself in accepting the deed.” (Wright 132). He felt he owed credit to himself for the sake of satiating his thirst for agency because this was something he felt his will had accomplished. Paradoxically, though, this same excerpt also illustrates determinism at play since he was aware of his life being guided to this outcome, which explains why his alleged satisfaction was so ephemeral, requiring him to kill again later in the novel; he had not actually achieved any real agency.
Under a postcolonial psychoanalytic lens, Native Son attempts to quantify the depth of the damage resulting from racial oppression. The text shows psychological ramifications and depicts Eurocentrism as the conduit through which said ramifications are channeled. The work shows the convergence of an inherently strong will with cultural colonization’s suppression of agency to explain the cause of Black criminalization. Whites socially construct the monster in the text, proving that “the fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man” (Hawthorne).
Works Cited Dobie
Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. 4th ed. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2015. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Purdue University. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940. Print.