The novel Native Son was published by Richard Wright in 1940. The book represents the tragedy of Bigger Thomas, a black boy raised in the Chicago slums during the great depression. Wright uses symbolism extensively in the novel. There is even symbolic meaning behind the titles of each of the three parts of the novel. It is symbolism that allows Wright to explain the entire novel in the first few pages. Even though symbols are widely used in the novel, there are only three that are very important. The three most important symbols are the black rat, blindness, and the kitchenette.
One of the major symbols in Native Son is the black at in the first chapter of the novel. The rat symbolizes the fate, feelings, and actions of the main character. The parallels between the rat and Bigger Thomas are unmistakable. The black rat is seen as an invader and is killed. The same eventually happens to Bigger later in the novel (Lee 50). Robert Lee argues that the black rat is symbolic of several things. According to Lee, one symbolic function of the black rat is that it sets up a motif that resonates throughout the novel.
The rat points forward to the figure Bigger himself will become, the part-real, part-fantasy denizen of a grotesque counter Darwinian world in which uman life-his own, Marys, Bessies-seems to evolve backward into rodent predation and death. Whether in pursuit or the pursued, Bigger becomes damned either way, just as he victimizes others while doubling as both his own and societys victim. These inner meanings of the novel also lie behind Wrights three-part partition of fear, flight, and fate (Lee 51).Order now
Secondly, the rat is symbolic of the terrified helplessness of the Thomas family and Biggers response to it: The rats belly pulsed with fear. Bigger advanced a step and the rat emitted a long thin song of defiance. Bigger crushes the rat utterly and, in triumphant bravado, launts the bloody corpse in his sisters face, enjoying her terror. Lee recognizes the significance of this episode of fear, rage, and violent action. He states that the entire novel is an extension, with the roles inverted of this chilling metaphor (Lee 58).
Finally, the killing of the rat is symbolic of Biggers attempt to assert himself as someone important. Lee argues that Bigger actually hated his family. He hated them because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help or protect them. The killing of the rat represents, perhaps, Biggers one chance to protect his other and younger siblings as the patriarch of the Thomas family (Lee 68). Edward Margolies views blindness, which affects everyone throughout the novel, as the most important symbol. He believes that Wright uses blindness to illustrate the relationship between the races.
His symbolic use of blindness illustrates how blind whites are to the humanity and existence of black people. Whites prefer to think of blacks in easily stereotypical images-in images of brute beast, or happy minstrel. They are incapable of viewing blacks as having sensitivity and intelligence. Even well meaning people like the Daltons re blind to the suffering of blacks. The Daltons lavish millions of dollars on black colleges and welfare organizations-while at the same time they continue to support a rigid caste system that is responsible for black degradation in the first place (Margolies 45).
To support his belief, Margolies illustrates how this symbolic blindness affects all of the characters. Bigger is blind to the realities of black life as well as to the humanity of whites. Bigger vaguely discerns the white enemy as white tides, icy white walls, and looming white mountains. He is therefore unable to accept Jans offer of riendship, because he blindly regards all whites as symbols of oppression. Mary, Jan, and Max are just as blind to the humanity of blacks as the others-even though they presumably want to enlist blacks as equals in their cause.
For Mary and Jan, Bigger is an abstraction- a symbol of exploitation rather than someone whose feelings they have ever tried to understand. Mrs. Daltons blindness is symbolic of the blindness of the white liberal philanthropic community (Margolies 50). Margolies believes that in all cases but Mrs. Daltons, blindness is psychosomatic. Like others, however, Mrs. Dalton has a spiritual handicap as well as a physical one. She and her husband, as Max points out, cannot see the malevolent condition, which they serve and perpetuate. Similarly, Mary and Jan cannot see the emptiness of their charity.
At different points in the novel Bessie is blinded by tears and fright, while Bigger is blinded by snow, light and rage. In the presence of Jan and Max he feels transparent and invisible. At the end of the novel Max groped for his hat like a blind man. The two abstract conceptions, love and justice, which inform Native Son are also traditionally blind (Margolies 52). Finally, Margolies argues that only one person, Bigger vercomes this symbolic blindness. Bigger gains a kind of sight in the novel. The sight Bigger gains is distorted though.
It is made up of images that appear when one holds a magnifying glass close to the face, and then moves it further and further away from ones eyes until the picture reflected in the glass comes in at once clearly and upside down. Bigger begins the story seeing everything in a haze. The sight, which he eventually achieves, is in sharp focus, but out of whack (Margolies 55). Dan McCall differs from both Lee and Margolies. McCall argues that the most powerful symbol Wright uses in Native Son is the kitchenette. He views the opening scene as symbolic of how people driven so closely together are driven violently apart.
The kitchenette throws desperate and unhappy people into an unbearable closeness of association, thereby increasing latent friction, giving birth to never-ending quarrels of recrimination, accusation, and vindictiveness, producing warped personalities. The full recognition of how the kitchenette forms Biggers sensibility-or how it deprived him of one- is what makes this symbol so important (McCall 3). McCall points to the kitchenette as the reason why Bigger thought the way he did. The kitchenette constantly eminded Bigger that he is black, and that is how he is supposed to live.
The kitchenette is responsible for making Bigger black crazy. He is incapable of nonracial thought. His obsession produces what McCall calls the state of exaggeration. This state of exaggeration serves to show the emotional intensity with which Bigger attacks ordinary, daily problems (McCall 5). This state of exaggeration is clearly seen in the kitchenette, argues McCall. It is seen in the overwhelming fear of being looked at that the Thomas family has. On the first page of Native Son, when people get out of bed, the first words are Turn your head so I can get dressed.
Day after day in the ghetto that is the call to society; and on the second day of Wrights novel, Vera repeats the line Turn your head so I can get dressed. Even when one is dressed, the fear and horror of being seen continues (McCall 6). McCall argues that Wrights point is to show that for those urban slum dwellers the folk culture was swallowed in unbearable closeness. This emptiness and fear of being looked at Bigger carries with him all day long. The scene which begins the book is present at the very center of the crime where Bigger is hysterical at not being able to get the entire human form into a tight place.
He has to cut off the head. Biggers head, his sensibility, was cut off in the kitchenette (McCall 7). Without the use of symbolism, Native Son would not have had the impact it did. Bigger Thomas symbolizes the truth about the relationship between blacks and whites. Native Son had a huge impact in America because it exposed the horrible truth about that relationship. Bigger Thomas symbolically represents the consequences of a relationship based on abuse, inequality, and fear. However, in order to understand Bigger Thomas, one first must understand the symbolism behind the black rat, the kitchenette, and the element of blindness.