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Why “Native Son” Totally Stresses Me Out

Some characters frustrate me to no end. They seem so likeable. You want to cheer for them. But then they make such stupid, stupid decisions.

Bigger Thomas from Native Son is a perfect example. Without going in-depth into plot, I’ll just say that the first half of this novel, though highly entertaining, has me thoroughly frustrated.

Bigger makes one stupid decision, then complicates things by making another stupid decision to cover up his first stupid decision. He then follows up those decisions by making three or four more stupid decisions. It’s stupid on top of stupid on top of stupid. And that’s a lot of stupid.

But in the middle of all that stupid, Bigger comes to a self-realization:

He felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this. It was no longer a matter of dumb wonder as to what would happen to him and his black skin; he knew now. The hidden meaning of his life–a meaning which others did not see and which he had always tried to hide–had spilled out. No; it was no accident, and he would never say that it was. There was in him a kind of terrified pride in feeling and thinking that some day he would be able to say publicly that he had done it. It was as though he had an obscure but deep debt to fulfill himself in accepting the deed. … Things were becoming clear; he would know how to act from now on. The thing to do was just act like others acted, live like they lived, and while they were not looking, do what you wanted.

Now, that last sentence is quite intelligent in a manipulative kind of way. But, to get to this point, Bigger has done a lot of amazingly dumb stuff, which started with accidentally killing a girl.

I’m not sure if Richard Wright wants me to feel compassion for Bigger at this point–considering the context of Bigger’s situation–but I don’t. Not just because he made a mistake, but because of the gruesome, brutal nature in which he covers up that mistake and continues to cover up that mistake.

I’ve been told he’s a compassionate character, and I’ll grow to feel for him. I hope that happens–because at this point, man, I am frustrated.

Have you ever felt that way about a character?

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Blair #

    There was a pony protagonist is a book I recently read that made me feel EXACTLY this way. I just can’t recall the title…. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

    February 16, 2012
    • Did my one-year-old recommend it in his reading tips?

      Like

      February 16, 2012
  2. It’s part of the challenge of writing fictional characters that do terrible things but who we want the reader to “like” enough to stay with, to get pulled in, and at the higher levels, see the “humanity,” I guess. I’ve never read Native Son, but it sounds like you’re on your way to at least appreciating Wright’s approach with Bigger, even if you still don’t completely dig it.

    Like

    February 16, 2012
    • Exactly. I kind of want to “cheer” for him but then I remember the awful stuff he’s done and I’m torn. Moral dilemmas.

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      February 16, 2012
  3. Lori #

    I think you’ll discover by the end of the novel the hypothesis Richard Wright was proposing. “Decisions” that appear “stupid” are not actually decisions at all, and far from stupid they are a natural course of action. The paragraph you quoted from Bigger is one of the largest statements so far in the book, explaining Mr. Wright’s plot and Bigger’s lack of, shall we dare to say free will in his situation. Richard Wright very successfully makes the reader feel SO uncomfortable with Bigger’s actions – for a reason.

    Like

    February 16, 2012
  4. And this is why I couldn’t STAND Native Son. Once he made that second stupid decision after the first and started the domino effect of stupid decision after stupid decision, I just stopped caring about him. I felt zero compassion. I think most of the people in my class felt the same way I did (we had to read this junior year of high school) but the teacher kept insisting he was a tragic figure or something. I didn’t see it. I just thought he was dumb and, when it came down to it, pretty cruel (considering what he does to his girlfriend!). Panicking is not a legitimate excuse to kill people. Just sayin’.

    Like

    February 16, 2012
    • I also couldn’t get over the girlfriend thing. After that happened I lost all interest in this book. The only reason I kept reading is because I had to for class. I never felt sympathetic for Bigger–sure, he was an oppressed black male that faced a lot of prejudice, but he took it out exclusively on WOMEN (i.e. people who were NOT oppressing him, and were arguably just as oppressed).

      Like

      February 16, 2012
      • THIS.

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        February 16, 2012
      • Great points. Not only was Bessie a woman, she was an African American woman who faced the same, if not worse, treatment than him.

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        February 16, 2012
  5. I feel this way about Cathy in “Wuthering Heights.” After a while she is just mean, self-centered and stupid. There is nothing great about her character. Her daughter is a better person that she is with the ability to show compassion to others. suffice it to say, I am never reading that book again if I can help it.

    Like

    February 16, 2012
    • Not many of the characters in Wuthering Heights are likeable…but after a while it was just funny to me to read about their ridiculous antics.

      Like

      February 16, 2012
      • Then you can have my copy of the book.

        Like

        February 16, 2012
      • I’ve actually already got two myself (one I used in high school and wrote all over because we were required to annotate, and one I bought about a year ago when I decided to read again), but thanks! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m sure there are plenty of used bookstores out there who would be happy to take it off your hands…and there’s always the outdoor fireplace option (which was the fate of several of my school books and papers at the end of high school) if it makes you that angry…

        Like

        February 16, 2012
  6. Yeah, I don’t consider Bigger an empathetic character. This is part of the reason why I think the book fails in it’s goal. However, I did enjoy the “chase” parts of the novel.

    Like

    February 16, 2012

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