Book #37: Native Son
Part of the challenge of trying to neatly review any book is attempting to understand the context around which the author wrote the story.
With Native Son by Richard Wright, I’m not sure if I’ve had a more difficult time understanding all the forces at play during the context in which this novel is set—in 1930s Chicago.
When Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old African American boy, accidentally kills a rich white girl—the daughter of his new employer—all hell breaks loose in Chicago. But not only did Bigger murder, the manner in which he covers up the accidental murder is even more alarming than the murder itself.
He goes on the run, commits another murder to cover up his first murder, and just totally loses his mind. Riots break out across the city. To whites, Bigger is a “black ape” who they want to hang and kill. To blacks, Bigger is an embarrassment because now all of them are having to pay for his crimes. It’s an ugly, ugly scene.
Native Son is a highly-charged emotional novel, and Richard Wright throws you down into the middle of it all. Some of the details of Bigger’s crimes are gruesome. The emotions of the victims’ parents are heartbreaking. The emotions of Bigger’s family—especially his mother—are heartbreaking.
So while the emotion and racial tension of the novel might seem like more than enough drama, Richard Wright also throws in the communist angle—a growing political trend in the 1930s. Racism, communism, elitism—Native Son has it all.
The book is broken up in to three sections ( Fear, Flight, and Fate ). During the first two sections, I thought Native Son might be a top 5, maybe even top 3, novel in my highly subjective and totally meaningless rankings.
The first two-thirds of the book had action, treachery, deceit, manipulation. Bigger was the misunderstood black man who made a mistake, who then tries to cover up his mistake by making even stupider mistakes. He’s not an empathetic protagonist, but he’s still a strong protagonist.
But who are the “good guys” here? Is it the white, racist cops? The overeager, exploitative news media? The mob of people who would’ve delightfully killed Bigger before he even committed a crime? Not hardly.
It’s bad guys versus bad guys.
But all of that provides good tension, a good story. I felt like, in the middle of all the blind racist hate, Bigger might somehow find redemption. I was waiting for redemption—for someone to see the light.
Then, Richard Wright introduced me to the third part of Native Son—the part in which his communist heroes step in to try and save the day. I almost threw up in my mouth several times during this section of the novel.
The crux of the story—at least from how I interpret Richard Wright’s point of view—is that Bigger could not be held to blame for his crimes. Because of his background, because of the way in which he had been treated all of his life—horribly, no doubt—he couldn’t be held to the same standards as other men.
Basically, Bigger Thomas did not have free will. He was a creation of society in which he lived. As his communist lawyer, Boris Max, says:
He was living, only as he knew how, and as we have forced him to live. The actions that resulted in the death of those two women were as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one’s eyes. It was an act of creation!
As an ardent supporter of free will, as someone who believes we all hold personal responsibility for every decision we make, no matter how crappy our backgrounds, I find the explanations for Bigger’s actions nauseating. Wright, himself a member of the Communist Party, was certainly working his philosophies into this novel.
If we are all just pawns of the society in which we grow up in, how would we ever break out of that society? Why isn’t everyone from the ghetto a murderer and everyone on the rich side of town a racist?
How would we have ever progressed past the 1930s? With Wright’s mindset, how would you explain Martin Luther King, Jr?
Again, here I am, confronted with a book that brings a lot of emotion out of me, a book with an ending that is thoroughly frustrating, an ending that even makes me angry.
So how do I respond? Do I dislike the book because of the negative emotions I feel? Do I take these negative emotions as a compliment to the author’s ability to write?
Oh, literature, you frustrate me so!
Did I have more empathy for Bigger than, say, The Judge from Blood Meridian? Absolutely. But I feel like Wright missed something here. The communist propaganda in the book overshadows any progression that Bigger makes as a character.
Even Bigger, in the end, comes to the realization that he is to blame for his situation.
“He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions: never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.”
He realizes he’s to blame for his choices, but not after the reader must endure 20 pages of Communist propaganda that told us, essentially, none of us are responsible for our actions. Instead, the people around us are responsible for our actions. Meh.
How can I—living in 2012—truly understand all the forces at play in this novel? I can’t. Again, it all comes back to the time in which Richard Wright wrote this novel. And that’s what I have to remind myself. Communism, at least on this side of the ocean, was new and fresh. He mixed in this new idealistic vision with an old, nasty monster called racism. In my opinion, he proposed Communism as the answer to racism, which, in time, has proven to be a ludicrous idea.
In all, Native Son is brilliant, but falls frustratingly short at the end. As a reader, I wanted so much more than to feel like I was being preached to and proselytized in the last third of the book. And that’s what I got.
I wish Native Son would’ve ended on page 270.
The Opening Line: Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiinng! An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman’s voice sang out impatiently: “Bigger, shut that thing off!”
The Meaning: Bigger Thomas is a parallel character to Job in the Bible. Native Son’s epigraph reads: “Even today is my complaint rebellious; my stroke is heavier than my groaning” (Job 23:2). Like Job, he’s a man who struggled with the racial norms of the society he lives in. He represents life as a young American black man in the 1930s.
Highlights: Such a good plot-focused story. Quick pacing. Wonderfully written. Bigger Thomas is a strong and memorable character.
Lowlights: Please, Richard Wright, tell me…were you a communist? Wright in no way hides his political affiliation with this one. As a reader, I felt like he was preaching to me. Nothing is more of a turnoff. This would be like Newt Gingrich writing a novel in which Republicans sweep in to save the day.
Memorable Line: “Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”
Final Thoughts: I really thought I would be placing this novel extremely high in my rankings. But that was before I endured 25 pages of Communist propaganda. Crap. This could’ve been so much better. Even as I try and place myself in the time frame in which Native Son was written, I can’t get that communist taste out of my mouth. Is Native Son worth the read? Absolutely. But you might expect more from the ending.
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