Richard Wright’s Native Son is an exceptional example of dynamic, participatory literature. Rather than allowing the reader to effortlessly absorb the words on the page, Wright undermines the passivity and comfort we often expect when reading. Both the content of the novel and Wright’s literary style provoke and disturb, immersing the reader in a dense psychological terrain that is simultaneously intimate and larger-than-life.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Native Son follows the life of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living in squalor with his mother and siblings. Bigger’s mother holds him accountable for the welfare of the family, but his ability to work towards a stable life seems perpetually hindered. He can’t overcome his poverty because he can’t get a job that pays well, and he can’t get a decent job because of his lack of education and limited social mobility. He is also imprisoned by the sense that, as an African-American man, his mere existence has been criminalized: “There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong.”
Bigger’s sense of internal captivity is palpable, and each time he is reminded of all the things and opportunities that are off limits to him he is overcome with shame and anger. But there seems to be some hope for Bigger and his family. Mr. Dalton, a wealthy white man, offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur. The job brings Bigger a momentary sense of relief. However, his hopefulness is soon destabilized by an overwhelming fear that something will happen to ruin the situation.
After Bigger accidentally kills Mr. Dalton’s daughter, everything begins to disintegrate. Though his crime was accidental, Bigger is convinced his actions have sealed his fate and cemented his identity as a callous criminal. He hides Mary Dalton’s body and frantically destroys the evidence of his crime. He also plots to incriminate Mary’s boyfriend, a known Communist named Jan Erlone.
Bigger’s plan to exploit the public’s fear and suspicion of Communism is an interesting development, one that reveals Bigger’s creativity and capacity for manipulation. The white men investigating Mary’s disappearance repeatedly underestimate Bigger. They consider him meek, ignorant, and subservient, when in reality he is engaged in complicated subterfuge. Bigger even devises a strategy for extorting money from the Daltons, leaving a ransom letter instructing them to pay for their daughter’s return.
Eventually, Mary’s body is discovered and the evidence begins to stack up against Bigger. After his grisly capture, the novel becomes more sociological, illustrating the ways in which the legal system and the press immediately label Bigger a “monster” and blame him for crimes he had nothing to do with. Wright does not apologize for what Bigger has done, nor does he make the reader pity Bigger. However, he does successfully explore and contextualize one man’s marginalization and criminal behavior. Wright makes Bigger an iconic character by illuminating the complex relationship between his internal perspective and the macro level forces which have shaped his life and development.
The fascinating interaction between intimate descriptions of Bigger’s life and Wright’s sociological commentary gives Native Son its power and momentum. Bigger’s fate is tragic, and his story is gripping. However, the power of his character is that he is both an individual and a metonymic entity, representing systemic experiences and emotions that are often silenced or erased.
Native Son’s layered revelations transform the reader’s perspective of the world. On a philosophical level, Wright’s novel is an intricate exploration of how personal choice is determined by conditioning and socialization. It is also a harrowing depiction of how race, fear, and power operate in the United States.