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Free Study Guide-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Book Notes
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Richard Wright overlays a very complex message onto a fairly simple plot. One part of the plot can be analyzed as an ascension from ignorance to enlightenment, with enlightenment not fully attained. The plot could also be seen as a sort of ironic twist on the notion of freedom. When Bigger is out of jail, living the normal life of an African American young man, he is constrained in many ways. When he is in jail and physically constrained, he feels the freest.


Richard Wright's novel Native Son is a didactic novel. It is intended to teach its reader a lesson. The lesson of the novel is the connection between economic and social systems and individual actions and motivations. The novel's primary vision is its clear-sighted depiction of the cause and effect relationship between social conditions and individual actions, the idea that the two cannot be rationally separated, that the only reason they would be separated would be to mask the importance of those conditions and thereby keep them in place. The novel's primary blindness is its inability to see a structure of domination which operates inside the systems which it does recognize it does not see that the domination of men over women parallels the domination of rich over poor, white over black.

Wright clearly shows the important connections between social conditions and individual actions. He undermines the very American idea of rugged individualism, the idea that the economy and the political system are based on one person, one vote.

In his characterization of his protagonist Bigger Thomas, he does not dwell on Bigger's inner-most thoughts, his philosophical speculations, or his romantic musings. Bigger Thomas has very few of these kinds of thoughts. He is too busy responding to the barrage of messages that come to him from all directions that he is worthless and barely human. His mother tells him when he wakes up that she cannot imagine why she even bore him. She expects him to fail her. She offers him only subservience and humility as a method of success in life, but he sees what that method has gotten her. He watches her scrub other people's laundry at home and still scrape by for pennies. He goes outside and sees white young men getting to do all that seems powerful and exciting, flying planes, fighting in wars, winning the most beautiful women. He leads his group of friends, but only in petty crime, too afraid to challenge the power structure that he knows will win out over him.

When he encounters European Americans who want to give him a good job and a spacious and clean room with plenty to eat, he has already been damaged by the deprivation of twenty years of life in utter poverty. He can only feel ashamed in front of them. He feels so threatened by them, by what he has been told in many different ways that they will do to him, that he kills their precious daughter. In running from this crime, he commits a series of heinous acts he burns her body, he rapes his girlfriend, and then he kills his girlfriend, and throws her body away as though it were trash.

In the trial scenes, but also in what leads up to Bigger's crimes, Wright labors to establish that Bigger responded to overwhelming stimuli, that he did not act freely or alone, but under constraint. In a way, the importance of teaching that lesson kept Wright from dealing with what part of the crimes was after all within Bigger's power of responsibility. He must work so hard to prove determinism, that he almost completely neglects to deal with that portion of individual responsibility that remains with people even in the most constrained of circumstances.

The blind spot of the novel is in its inability to see the gender politics at play in the didactic lesson outlined above. Wright clearly sees that the patronizing sexism of white racism has put white women as the epitome of its supposed civilization. The ideology of white womanhood and the ideology of the lustful black savage were promulgated especially in the reconstruction South when white Southerners needed another means of social control than out-and-out slavery. Newspapers and other media set forth the false idea that African American men were sexually attracted to white women. Though very few cases of mixed-race unions were ever documented, hundreds and hundreds of African American men were lynched on the pretense that they looked at, touched, or raped white women.

Wright brings this history to bear on his novel. He plays it out, but he does not upset the stereotypes completely. While Bigger does not rape Mary, he also does not regard her as any more of a person than do those who set her up as the flower of white civilization. He regards her as a symbol of wealth and power. Moreover, he regards her as better than his African American girlfriend. For Bigger, Bessie is nothing more than a warm body. She is company when he needs it, but her ideas and values are not what he wants from her. It is not surprising that both women are discarded as if they were trash. The novel rests on their being killed. Bigger's self-realization is funded by their deaths. In death, as in life, they are subordinated to men.

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Free Study Guide-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Chapter Summary


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