Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son: A stark naturalistic vision of American society Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:53:26
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In Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, Wright uses the theory of naturalism to describe race relations in America. Looking back on his youth, Wright remembers vividly, the struggle against poverty, fear and racism, which are also the themes that are explored in this novel. Wright’s description of his protagonist’s story reflects his own experiences in America. Wright remembers his father’s desertion of the family, coupled with his mother’s crippling illness, which left her and her two sons in poverty, and which made Wright’s early years unhappy ones. Growing up in Mississippi, Wright felt isolated and rebellious against authority.
He left school after completing the ninth grade because he believed that the school’s programs were irrelevant to a black boy’s future. ” Bakish 5. Self-taught following his graduation and embittered by segregation and racism, he was drawn to the naturalistic novels of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. In his hometown of Mississippi, Wright was often denied jobs because “white workers felt threatened. ” Bakish 6.
Perhaps hoping to move from ‘rags to riches’, Wright migrated north to Chicago in 1927 at the age of 19, and then to New York in 1937, but the situation was no different. Wright learned that Chicago and New York were no better than Mississippi. “He came to the north to break the tragic cycle of his life in the South, what he found, however, was continuing enslavement. ” Bakish 31. Because Wright chose to deal with the experience he knew best, Native Son is an exploration of how the pressure and racism of the American cultural environment affects black people, their feelings, thoughts, self-images, in fact, their entire lives.
Wright’s attraction to naturalism comes from his instinctive recognition that his own life as an American black man was so closely reflected in naturalistic fiction. “Naturalist doctrine assumes that fate is something imposed on the individual from outside. The protagonist of the naturalist novel is therefore at the mercy of circumstances rather than of himself. ” Furst and Skrine 18. Naturalistic writers study people by their natural instincts, passions and the way their lives are governed by forces of environment and heredity. The recurrent imagery of naturalism is drawn from the animal world.
Human beings, are, in Emile Zola’s phrase, human beasts, characters that can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. So, “naturalism abounds in the law of struggle for existence. Furst and Skrine 16. According to the naturalist, “man is an animal whose course is determined by his heredity, by the effects of his environment and by the pressures of the moment. This conception robs man of responsibility for his actions. His actions are inescapable results of physical forces and conditions totally beyond his control. ” Furst and Skrine 18.
Through characterization, symbolism and the setting Wright reveals his protagonist’s fate as a black man in society. Wright, in keeping with the features of a naturalist novel, populates his novel with characters from the lower class, the uneducated and the unsophisticated. Bessie, Bigger, Gus, The Thomas’ etc Since “their daily life is commonplace and ordinary, the novel infuses qualities associated with the heroic such as acts of violence, and passion which involve sexual adventure which culminate in desperate moments and violent death. ” Pizer 12.
Wright begins Native Son with the grotesque scene of Bigger chasing and killing the rat prowling his family’s one-room, slum apartment in Chicago’s Black Belt. This action is ironically symbolic. The rat characterizes the social environment in which Bigger is forced to exist. In How Bigger Was Born, Wright asserts that the environment supplies the instruments through which the subject expresses itself. Racism is the instrument that controls all aspects of Bigger’s life- his home, school, job, friends, the church, the police, the court, and the media.
So, “the violent death of the rat, symbolizes the economic forces that oppress the poor. It also foreshadows Bigger’s violent efforts to break out of the physical and mental rattrap his life has been. ” Bakish 31. Bigger was not born a violent criminal, but became one in the unforgiving world of racism and poverty in American society. “Bigger experiences physical and psychological alienation from his family and friends as a result of the unfavourable traits in his personality. These traits evolved out of the inner frustrations and rage caused by his exclusion from the larger society around him. Brigano 145. Hence, the environment shapes Bigger’s consciousness. Bigger also develops a fragmented psyche. In How Bigger Was Born, Wright indicates that white society’s negative perceptions of blackness cause Bigger to feel he was something to be hated; his black skin was a badge of shame. Bigger felt uncomfortable in their presence. As a result, when the relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur to the wealthy Dalton family, he fears walking through the white section of the city. It is only with his gun and his knife at his side does he feel on equal footing with the white world.
Bigger uses the movie house as a means of escape from the harsh complexity of the real world. However, through the movies that Bigger absorbs, society gives Bigger a picture of what the American dream is and what an American citizen ought to be, yet, it simultaneously holds that dream beyond his grasp. As a result, Bigger’s psyche is fragmented by the movies he watched. Bigger says: “They draw a line and say for you to stay on your side of the line. They don”t care if there”s no bread over on your side. They don”t care if you die . . and when you try to come from behind they kill you. ” Wright 351. Furthermore, the stifling limitations imposed on blacks and their sense of exclusion is expressed in the novel as Bigger and his buddies stand idly on a street corner watching a plane fly overhead: “They got things and we ain”t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. ” Wright 20. Bigger has desires and aspirations like those of whites, he has dreams of being an aviator, a soldier, and a businessman, but each of these dreams are thwarted.
The planes and birds symbolize Bigger’s dreams and aspirations but because he exists in a climate of poverty and racism, he does not have the means to make his dreams a reality. Wright ultimately makes the argument that poverty and American racism are the forces that trigger Bigger’s tragedy. In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory of basic human needs. His theory suggests that embedded in the very nature of each human being are certain needs that must be attained in order for a person to be whole physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
Included in these needs are the need for the respect of others, and the need for self-respect. Bigger’s society denies him these needs, thus he is inhibited from ever reaching the pinnacle of self-actualization. Social and economic pressures have reduced Bigger to a sub-human state. Since society denies Bigger these basic needs, then it is society who is responsible for what Bigger becomes. Marxism with its dominant class ideology is very evident in this society. It is first represented in Buckley, who epitomizes the political status quo.
The reader first encounters Buckley at the beginning of the novel as Bigger, who has just left his family’s run-down, rat-infested, one-bedroom apartment, looks across the street at two men who are putting up a campaign poster of Buckley: The poster showed one of those faces that looked straight at you when you looked at it and all the while you were walking and turning your head to look at it. It kept looking unblinkingly back at you until you got so far from it you had to take your eyes away, and then it stopped, like a movie blackout. Above the top of the poster were tall red letters: YOU CAN”T WIN! 13
Like the poster”s view, the dominant class ideology extends to every aspect of Bigger’s life, constantly reminding him that he cannot get beyond the boundaries that have been set for him. The words on the poster which Buckley has directed towards his potential voters in Chicago’s Black Belt: “YOU CAN”T WIN”; is another reminder for Bigger that his life cannot be more than it is, which adds to his frustration. Furthermore, “capitalism appears in the person of Mr. Dalton. ” Wright xvii Mr. Dalton clearly represents the upper class, wealthy, private owner while Bigger and his family are the oppressed lower class.
The wealthy neighborhood where Mr. Dalton lives with his wife and daughter is a far cry from the Black Belt where Bigger lives with his mother and two siblings. Ironically, Mr. Dalton owns the building. Bigger, his family, and other poor blacks are part of a vicious cycle of capitalism where they are being exploited by the dominant class. The dominant class ideology enslaves Bigger politically, economically, racially, and psychologically; he is not free to satisfy the most basic of his human needs and is forced into a state of animalism. Bigger’s actions are as any animal’s would be: instinctive and survival based.
When faced with danger, Bigger lashes out just as an animal would. Although Mr. Dalton has periodically converted his profits from the rents into magnanimous contributions to various Negro institutions, Wright establishes that “bourgeoisie capitalists engage in such seemingly humanitarian deeds in order to discourage revolt and to appease their own feelings of guilt. Through Mr. Dalton Wright is exposing white hypocrisy. ” Brignano 77. Similarly, Mrs. Dalton’s blindness is a symbol of the failure of whites to see blacks as anything but criminals. It is true that Mrs.
Dalton cannot see Bigger in the room, but if she could have, she would have been blind to the reason why he was there. The racism that black people endured in the 1930’s was not a figment of Wright”s imagination. Popular culture displayed negative perceptions of African Americans and perpetuated these through magazines, propaganda, and motion pictures. Bigger himself, used these stereotypes imposed on blacks to escape the repercussions of his murder of Mary Dalton. Bigger reasons that since he is supposed to be a stupid black boy, he would never be expected to commit such a daring act.
Therefore, he implicates Jan Erlone in the murder by signing the ransom note “Red”, because he knew that the Communist party was hated in the society. Further, he acts out the white-assigned role of the stupid black boy, on the morning after the murder, by sitting and waiting for his breakfast. Wright employs the omniscient narrator in this framework by revealing Bigger’s thoughts: “who on earth would think that he, a black timid Negro boy would murder and burn a rich white girl and then sit and wait for his breakfast like this? “Wright 91.
Through Wright’s graphic descriptions of the details of Bigger’s crimes, “Bigger is portrayed as a naturalistic victim caught in an environmental trap. ” Bloom 65 It may be argued that Bigger was just in the wrong place at the wrong time; a victim of circumstances, for if Mary had stuck to the plan and gone to the lecture at the university she would not have gotten drunk, if she had not been drunk, she would not have had to be carried to her room. If Bigger had not taken her to her room, he would not have had to hide from her mother.
If her mother had not come in, he would not have had to put the pillow over her face, which led to her suffocation. Nevertheless, like the rat, overpowered by societal forces stronger than himself, Bigger is doomed to die a violent death for his crimes. However, the murders gave Bigger a strange sense of satisfaction. For the first time in his life, he has defied the legal, social and moral concepts of the society that oppressed him. The murders awaken in him, a new concept of himself. Racism was nothing new in the 1940’s. Racism was everywhere, even in the so-called fairness of the American justice system.
Wright did not even have to make up the hypocrisy of American justice; he just used actual court cases, like the 1938-39 case of Robert Nixon. Nixon was charged for killing a white girl during a robbery, which did not stray too far from Bigger Thomas’ story. Through Bigger’s lawyer, “Boris Max, the hypocrisy of the American justice system was highlighted. In Bigger’s defense, he cited a case where, “rich white boys, clearly guilty of kidnapping and first degree murder had escaped the death penalty, but the lawyer sees that Bigger has no chance in this bigoted society. Bakish 38. Through the defense summation in Native Son, Wright indicts the society that has contributed to the development of Bigger Thomas. The tripartite division of the novel-“Fear, Flight and Fate” reveals the stark realities of African American experience in the 1940’s. They lived in fear of white rule, as a result they were always running away, but no matter what they did or where they went, their fate was already decided.
From the foregoing, it is clearly evident, that the use of naturalism allowed Wright to present an unbiased account of American social and class relations through the eyes of an ignorant character whose world of poverty, despair, and frustration turn him into a killer. Moreover, since his protagonist’s experiences reflect his own, Wright is able to use his naturalistic style to objectively record his own experience without distorting it to suit conventional morality and standard literary tastes. So it can be said that Native Son is a stark naturalistic vision of American society.

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