A Critical Perspective: Richard Wright’s Native SonRichard Wright marked the beginning of a new era in black fiction. He was one ofthe first American writers of his time to confront his readers with the effects of racism.
Wright had a way of telling his reader about his own life through his writing. He is bestknown for his novel, Native Son, which is deeply rooted in his personal life and the timesin which he lived. This paper will discuss this outstanding American writer, his highlyacclaimed novel, Native Son, and how his life influenced his writing. Richard Nathaniel Wright, was born on September 4, 1908 in Roxie, Mississippi.
His father was a sharecropper and his mother a schoolteacher. In search for betteremployment his father moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, hisfather worked as a night porter in a hotel and his mother worked as a cook for aCaucasian family. Shortly after their move to Memphis, Wright’s father deserted hisfamily. His mother then tried to find any work she could find to support her family.
Then,at the age of seven his mother became ill and was unable to financially support her family. As a result, the family had to move to Jackson, Mississippi to live with relatives. Wrightremained in Jackson until 1925 (Walker, 13). In 1925, Wright left Jackson and headed as far as his money could take him, andthat was Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis was the exact same city in which his father hadtaken his family to find a better life and where he abandoned them. Wright’s first trip toMemphis ended in disappointment, desertion, and deprivation. While there Wright foundwork as a messenger for an optical company. He lived in Memphis for approximatelytwo years. During that time, he witnessed the deep and violent South which eventuallywould permanently scar him for life.
Margaret Walker wrote:I am convinced that the best of Richard Wright’s fiction grew out of thefirst nineteen years of his life. All he ever wrote of great strength andterrifying beauty must be understood in this light. His subjects and themes,his folk references and history, his characters and places come from theSouth of his childhood and adolescence. His morbid interest inviolence-lynching, rape, and murder-goes back to the murky twilight of asouthern past. Out of this racial nightmare marked with racial suffering,poverty, religious fanaticism and sexual confusion emerge the five longstories in Uncle Tom’s Children. (Walker 43)The violent impression of Southern racism marked Wright’s personality and literature.
Asa result, he would spend his entire life struggling to express the importance for men toreject the stereotypic notions of race, class, creed, or any other prejudice and to accepthuman value that honor the human spirit and release intelligence. It was Wright’s firstnineteen years in the South that opened up his most powerful and passionate writingIn 1927, at the age of nineteen Wright migrated to Chicago, Illinois. In Chicago,Wright found a job a as Post Office Clerk and at the same time he continued toself-educate himself by reading books, magazines, and newspapers. While in Chicago hebecame interested in Communism Issues. The interest came as a result of his concern withthe social roots of racial oppression. In 1932, Wright joined the Communist party.
Hewas a party activist in Chicago and New York. Wright’s involvement with the Communistparty became the subject of most of his fiction writings. After he broke away from theparty his writings were centered around it. Wright’s years in Chicago are often consideredhis maturation years, which were years of growing maturity and preparing for anWright’s career as a writer basically began in the 1930’s. In 1930, he wrote hisfirst novel, Lawd Today. His novel, Lawd Today, however was not published until afterhis death.
His first published work was, Uncle Tom’s Children: Five Long Stories, whichconsists of stories that attack the racial discrimination and bigotry that Wright encounteredas a youth. Throughout Wright’s career he published many outstanding works. Amonghis works included: five novels, two autobiographies, two books of short stories, fournonfiction books and one collection of essays. Wright’s major influence began when heRichard Wright’s most notable and highly acclaimed novel is Native Son. Richard Wright contemplated for a while before he decided to write a novel in which aNegro, Bigger Thomas, would become a symbolic figure of American life. The novel isdivided into sections entitled: fear, flight, and fate.
Each section is used as a way to chartthe changes in the main character’s, Bigger Thomas, mind. Native Son, is the story of,Bigger Thomas, a poor young black man who had misinterpreted myths and stereotypesabout the racist society in which he lived and accidentally murders a wealthy whitewomen. At the novel’s end, Bigger must face the consequences of his actions, and isimprisoned and sentenced to death. Native Son is “considered both a psychologicalmelodrama and protest novel, that candidly exposes the pent-up hatred and bitterness ofthe oppressed black American.
” (Stine 415). The first section of Native Son, is entitled Fear. In this portion of the book, we areintroduced to the main character, Bigger Thomas, who is a full-blown juvenile delinquent. Throughout the first section, he is ruled by images he is unable to control.
Bigger is hiredby Mr. Dalton to be his live-in chauffeur. Bigger’s first task is to drive Mr. Dalton’sdaughter, Mary to a lecture at the university. On their way to the lecture, Mary tellsBigger that they are not going to the lecture and to go pick up Jan. Jan Erlone is Mary’scommunist lover.
Throughout the night, Bigger is frightened by Mary’s and Jan’sinsistence to treat him as an equal. Bigger has this reaction because he isn’t used to beingtreated equally by someone of the opposite race. At the end of the night, Mary is drunk,and after driving her home he must carry her up to her room. When Mary’s mother, whois blind, enters Mary’s room, Bigger accidentally smothers Mary while trying to keep herfrom telling her mother that he is in the room. Bigger tries to cover up Mary’s death byburning her body in a furnace.
Bigger then creates a scheme to extort money from herparents by pretending to have kidnapped her. Bigger does that by trying to pen the blameon Jan, because he is a member of the Communist party (Wright). The second section of Native Son is entitled Flight. In the beginning of this bookMary’s bones are discovered by Britten, the police detective. At this point, Bigger is onthe run from the authorities. While on the run, Bigger brings his girlfriend, Bessie, along.
Bigger didn’t want to take any chances leaving her, since she was the only person whoknew about the murder of Mary. However, Bigger ends up killing Bessie, because hethinks she will slow him down. Eventually, he is captured by the police and has to face theconsequences of his actions (Wright). The third section of Native Son is titled Fate. At the beginning of this section, wesee Bigger awaiting his destiny, which is death. At this point he has lost all hope and isready to accept the consequences.
While in jail, Bigger is visited by Rev. Hammond, hismother’s pastor. Rev Hammond tries to get Bigger to see that the only thing he can donow is trust God. Even though, Bigger isn’t interested in what Rev. Hammond has to say,he accepts the cross that he gives him to wear around his neck.
Bigger’s mother comes tothe jail to see him, but embarrasses him by the way she begs Mrs. Dalton not to let her sondie. Also, in this section of the book we are introduced to Buckeley, the state’sprosecuting attorney, and Boris Max, Bigger’s lawyer. Bigger is highly intimidated byBuckeley, who only sees him as a sub-human being and is only out to get him. Max,Bigger’s lawyer, has little contact with him during the trial and fails in his defense forBigger. At the of the story, Bigger stands alone and must accept the life he has made forhimself.
Also, before his death Bigger says, “What I killed for must’ve been good!” and “Ididn’t want to kill . . . But what I killed for I am!”Native Son is a landmark novel that created important new directions in literature. Native Son was the first novel written by a black American writer achieve widespreadcritical and popular success. Many critics hailed the novel as a penetrating indictment ofracial persecution.
For example, James Baldwin called Native Son, “the most powerfuland celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America. Also, Irving Howe commented: “A blow at the white man, the novel forced him torecognize himself as an oppressor. A blow at the black man, the novel forced him torecognize the cost of his submission. ”(Stine 415)However, some critics faulted the bookfor a lack of realism, claiming that its vision of American life was overdrawn and unfair.
For example, David Cohn described Native Son as “ a blinding and corrosive study inhate. ” Another critic, Clifton Fadiman wrote: “ Wright is too explicit. He says manythings over and over again. His characterization of upper-class whites are paper-thin andconfess unfamiliarity. I think he overdoes his melodrama from time to time.
He is not afinished writer. But the two absolute necessities of the first-rate novelist passion andintelligence-are in him. ” (Butler 12)Richard Wright was one of the first writers of his time to confront readers with thedehumanizing effects of racism. Most of his stories are centered around withdrawn,impoverished, black men who have been denied freedom and personal identity.
Much ofhis fiction came from his own impoverished childhood in the South and his early adulthoodin the segregated communities of Chicago. In Wright’s writing he often embracedcommunism, black nationalism and existentialism. At the center of all his work were theinsistence on the purity of the individual imagination, but it is often tempered by his visionof black people’s collective destiny. Evelyn Gross Avery wrote: The writer most frequently credited with making the Negro “visible” isRichard Wright. .
. Offering historical and sociological, as well aspsychological insights into the American character, Wright examines therebel, his behavior and motivations, his background. Products of alower-class black environment, Wright’s rebels are well acquainted withhunger, disease, poverty. They learn quickly from frightened mothers andbeaten fathers not to expect much from America.
Their dreams of powerare undercut by the reality of Jim Crow and more subtle discrimination. Ambition is discouraged; impotency reinforced. All entrances and exits areblocked. Trapped, Wright’s black man may choose to suffer his fatepassively; he may reluctantly accept his status as a victim.
But not forlong. Wright’s victims are generally minor characters or else they evolveRichard Wright, is considered a naturalist writer. By naturalist we mean hiswriting is defined through his own experiences. Naturalistic fiction provided Wright witha means by which he could better see himself and his work.
Wright considers hisnaturalism as just another version of American realism. Wright’s attraction to naturalismcomes from his instinctive recognition that his own life as an American black man was soclosely reflected in naturalistic fiction. The use of naturalism was useful to Wright in anumber of ways. First, it gave him a literary style that was a useful tool for honestlyprobing into the world around him. Also, he was able to use his naturalistic style toobjectively record his own experience without distorting it to suit conventional moralityand standard literary tastes.
Critics debate whether Wright’s Native Son is fullynaturalistic in style and vision. Although, “Bigger is initially portrayed as a naturalisticvictim caught in an environmental trap, but becomes a new kind of black hero when hedevelops the psychological resources necessary to understand his and master hisenvironment. ” (Bloom 65)An example of Wright’s naturalism writing is showed throughBigger’s thoughts after he kills Bessie. He closed his eyes, longing for a sleep that would not come.
During the last two days and nights he had live so fast and hard that it wasan effort to keep it all real in his mind. So close had danger and deathcome that he could not feel that it was he who had undergone it all. And,yet, out of all, over and above all that had happened, impalpable but real,there remained to him a queer sense of power. He had done this.
He hadbrought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the mostmeaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly anddeeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blindeyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of hisactions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear andHe had killed twice, but in a true sense it was not the first time hehad ever killed. He had killed many times before, but only during the lasttwo days had this impulse assumed the form of actual killing. Blind angerhad come often and he had either gone behind his curtain or wall, or hadquarreled and fought.
And yet, whether in running away or in fighting, hehad felt the need of the clean satisfaction of facing this thing in all itfullness, of fighting it out in the wind and sunlight, in front of those whosehate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him offinto a corner of the city to rot and die, they could turn to him, as Mary hadthat night in the car, and say: “I’d like to know how your people live. ”But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love andwhat did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew andsomething he felt; something the world gave him and something he himselfhad; something spread out in front of him and something spread out inback; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had two worlds,though and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, beentogether; never had he felt a sense of wholeness(277-278). Throughout the years Richard Wright’s writings has effected and influenced manypeople all across the world. Richard Wright will continue to be known as the most highlyacclaimed writer of his time.
Through his writings, Wright allows his readers to visualizewhat his life was like. Wright told the story of his life through his writing. His novel,Native Son, will remain on reading lists now and for years to come. I hope that this paperhas broaden your view on Richard Wright and his novel Native Son.
Bibliography:WORKS CITEDButler, Robert. Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: TwaynePublishers, 1991. Joyce, Anne Joyce. “The Tragic Hero. ” Modern Critical Interpretation.
ed. HaroldBloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Metzger, Linda. “Richard Wright. ” Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches fromContemporary Authors.
New York: Gale Research, 1989. “Richard Wright. ” African American Writers. ed. Valerie Smith.
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. “Richard Wright. ” Contemporary Literary Criticism. ed. Jean C.
Stine. Michigan: GaleResearch Company, 1984. Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genuis.
New York: Amistad Press, Inc. ,1988. Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1993.