Native Son Essay, Research Paper
Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, stirred up a real controversy by shocking the sensibilities of both black and white America. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is from the lowest ring of society, and Wright does not blend him with any of the romantic elements common to literary heroes. Bigger is what one expects him to be because of the social conditions in which he lives: he is sullen, frightened, violent, hateful, and resentful. He is the product of the condemnation the ?white? society has brought upon him. He is a ?native son.?
Native Son opens with an act of violence. The alarm clock abruptly awakens Bigger and his family to their miserable reality–a rat-infested, one bedroom apartment in the urban ghetto of Chicago. Bigger’s battle with the rat reveals his capacity for brutality. He crushes the rat’s head after he has killed it with a skillet. Bigger represents a persuasive racial stereotype of black men–violent, criminal, and cowardly. The powerful, racist white majority considers his personality a “natural” characteristic of his race. However, Wright shows how Bigger’s consciousness is in fact shaped by his environment. Bigger was not born a violent criminal, but became one in the unforgiving world of racism and poverty in American society.
Bigger’s entire existence is a prison. His crowded, rat-infested apartment is only one of his “prison cells.” He is imprisoned in the urban ghetto by racist rental policies. His own consciousness is a prison. His entire life is filled by a sense of failure, inadequacy, and most importantly, unyielding fear. Racist white society, his mother, and even Bigger himself all believe that he is destined to meet a bad end. His relentless conviction of an impending awful fate demonstrates that Bigger feels a nearly complete lack of control over his life. He is permitted access only to menial jobs, substandard housing, substandard food. Basically, white society permits him no choice but a substandard life.
Gus and Bigger play-act at being “white.” They alternately play at being a general, J.P. Morgan and President. Gus and Bigger act out a skit in which the President wants to keep the “niggers” under control. They associate whiteness with the power, wealth, and authority to deny them control over their own lives. Bigger hates and fears “whiteness.” Therefore, he has a latent desire to do violence to the force that oppresses him. Backed into a corner, he is primed to lash out at the very force that restrains him through fear. Buckley’s campaign poster states the message that Bigger believes is written all over his very existence: “You Can’t Win. His poster foreshadows Bigger’s inevitable, losing confrontation with white authority.
Bigger is alienated in the most profound sense. He is alienated from the middle-class comforts of white society, alienated from his family, his friends, and ultimately, himself by his overwhelming sense of impotent shame and frustration. He cannot bear to feel the full range of his rage and misery, so he resorts to self-deception. The hopelessness of this social reality threatens to utterly destroy him. Bigger has no solidarity with his family, because their misery only accentuates his helplessness to alleviate it. He has no solidarity with his friends. His fear and theirs perpetually keep their relations full of tension and barely suppressed anger. He has no sense of solidarity based on race except the same companionship based on misery that he has with his family. He even robs other black people–who are almost certainly poor as well–because he is too afraid to break a dangerous social taboo by robbing a white man. Racism has conditioned not only Bigger’s relationship with white, but his relationship with other members of his race as well.
Wright wants to show that, considering the conditions of Bigger’s existence, his violent personality and his criminal behavior are not surprising. Bigger wants to feel like a human being with a free, independent will. Crime is one avenue to obtain money without submitting to white authority by taking the menial jobs assigned to him. His overwhelming sense of fear arises from his feeling of impotence in the face of an unnamed, impending doom. Crime is an act of rebellion, an affirmation of his independent will to act against the voice of social authority. Violence and crime are the only things Bigger feels he can use to declare his individual will as a human being. In “Fate,” Wright explicitly develops the debate between free will and determinism. Neither Jan nor Bigger’s lawyer Boris A. Max condemn Bigger. They believe that, oppressed by a racist society, he had no choice but to murder. However, Bigger will not concede that his actions were predestined. In fact, the moment that defines Bigger as a free man is the murder itself; he discovers that his actions have liberated him from his passive acceptance of fate. Bigger admits killing Mary and is sentenced to death.