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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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AUTHOR'S STYLE

Richard Wright favors short, simple, blunt sentences that help maintain the quick narrative pace of the novel, at least in the first two books. For example, consider the following passage: "He licked his lips; he was thirsty. He looked at his watch; it was ten past eight. He would go to the kitchen and get a drink of water and then drive the car out of the garage." Wright's imagery is often brutal and elemental, as in his frequently repeated references to fire and snow and Mary's bloody head.

Though the style is similar to that of much of the detective fiction of Wright's day, some readers find it perfectly suited to a novel told from the point of view of an uneducated youth, driven by overpowering feelings of fear, shame, and hate. Even the novel's cliches (stale or overused phrases or expressions like "...he had his destiny in his grasp") may fit a central character who gets his information about the larger world from the cliche-ridden mass media.

Wright worked within the literary tradition known as naturalism. The naturalists wanted to compile social data in such a way as to give a scientific explanation for their characters' behavior. But Wright goes beyond merely presenting social data. At times Native Son seems more like a nightmare than like social science. Note that Wright was also attracted to the horror and detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

One of Wright's stated goals was to make readers "feel" the heat of the Daltons' furnace and the cold of a Chicago winter. But he also makes the cold and heat symbols of the external forces aligned against Bigger and of the powerful emotions raging within him. Other patterns of imagery that appear throughout the novel include beasts (the rat, Bigger as a hunted animal, Bigger portrayed in the newspapers as a gorilla); suffocation (the fire being choked out by the accumulated ashes, Bigger's own feelings of suffocating confinement); blindness (Mrs. Dalton's literal blindness, the other characters' figurative blindness); staring (Bigger staring at Vera, Mary and Jan staring at Bigger, the cat staring at Bigger after the murder); walls (the wall of the Thomases' apartment and of Bigger's jail cell, the "looming white walls" of Jan and Mary in the car).


POINT OF VIEW

The third-person narrator of Native Son is neither objective nor omniscient (all-knowing). Almost throughout the novel, he sees through the eyes of Bigger Thomas. He is aware of Bigger's thoughts and feelings, but he sees other characters only from the outside. This point of view has several consequences. For example, some readers think the novel's white characters are less fully developed than the black characters. But they argue that this discrepancy stems from Bigger's greater understanding of his fellow blacks. Likewise, the novel uses stylistic cliches (stale or overused expressions like, "...he had his destiny in his grasp") that may be justified as being the terms in which Bigger understands his world. And, though some readers think that Jan would have been more believable if Wright had shown his internal conflicts, Wright could not have done so without abandoning the focus on Bigger.

Perhaps the major effect of narrating Native Son from Bigger's point of view is to allow you to sympathize with a character who might otherwise seem repugnant. You understand what Bigger is going through, even if no one else around him does. But you should not automatically assume that Bigger's outlook is that of Richard Wright. In fact, one of the major controversies about Native Son is whether Wright approved of Bigger or condemned him.

Wright is not completely consistent in his determination to adhere to Bigger's point of view. The greatest lapse is found in Book Three, where Wright presents all of Max's speech to the judge, even though he says that Bigger could only understand Max's tone of voice, not his words. And Wright occasionally uses more sophisticated words and phrases than Bigger would have been likely to use. For example, he has Bigger "looking wistfully upon the dark face of ancient waters upon which some spirit had breathed and created him."

FORM AND STRUCTURE

Native Son is divided into three books, titled "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate." The absence of chapter divisions or flashbacks helps maintain the novel's rapid narrative pace. It also emphasizes the turning points that occur at the end of each book. In each book, the circumstances of Bigger's life change, and in each book his attitude toward life changes too.

As its title suggests, Book One portrays a fearful Bigger. His fear leads him to three violent confrontations, each more consequential than the one before. After killing the rat, he leaves home for the pool hall, where he almost kills his friend Gus. The confrontation at the pool hall helps him decide to take the job at the Daltons. But the day ends in his murder of Mary Dalton. The murder of Mary is the climax of Book One. Bigger resolves the crisis created by Mary's death when he decides to burn her body and turn suspicion upon Jan.

In Book Two, Bigger's "Flight" has double meaning. At first the killing of Mary takes away his fear. He feels a sense of power and freedom that he has never felt before. Although he had wanted to fly as an aviator and thereby escape his confining life, killing Mary is as close as he has ever come to escaping. But the second part of Book Two sees him fleeing rather than flying. The book's climax is the discovery of Mary's bones. The crisis created by that discovery is resolved when Bigger falls from his rooftop perch and the police capture him.

The first two books are more similar to each other than either is to the third. While "Fear" and "Flight" focus on the gruesome events of a murder story, "Fate" emphasizes a combination of social analysis, philosophical and political argument, and Bigger's internal reflections. The first two books relate many dramatic events, but Book Three contains more talk and thought than external action. The climax of Book Three is the judge's rejection of Max's arguments and the death sentence he pronounces upon Bigger. Bigger must then decide how to approach his impending death. That decision is the final resolution of both Book Three and the novel as a whole.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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