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Native Son: Was Richard Wright a Social Commentator?

Updated on February 25, 2015

Naive Son Commentary

After reading Native Son by Richard Wright for the first time, one may be convinced they have encountered a realistic piece of work showing many points of view at once. Upon further examination, the reader will discover the attempt of a distinct social and political statement and possibly even a warning for the reader. It should also be noted that the author misses several opportunities to allow the reader to discover these messages on their own, creating the need to summarize the message during the books suspenseful ending.

Wright depicts not only a very realistic view of Black life of the 1930 and 40’s, but also an extremely subtle look at what must have been a perplexing world view from the outside looking in. The author creates these perspectives to show the frustrating influences present in the world of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas. From the opening scenes, Wright does a good job with the use of descriptive words to convey the reader into the typical poor, black, suffocating world that could have taken place in any American city of the time. With Wright’s description of life in Bigger Thomas’ South Chicago neighborhood, from the one room Bigger’s family of five lived in on the opening pages, to the summary of life that must have played out many times over, and culminating with Bigger’s observation of a married couple unashamed nakedness on a bed in the same room in full view of their children, the author opens the door to a world only previously encountered by one living this life.

In addition to the world of Bigger Thomas, Wright, although briefly, very efficiently portrays very real glimpses of several other worlds reserved for Whites describing the world within walking distance of Bigger’s home area. One such example is the showing of both the alarm and ignorance present in the American Public concerning the “Red Fear” that was gripping the nation at the time. The American fear of Communism, the labor movement and ultimately a Bolshevik type revolution of the late 30’s and 1940’s is shown by the general attitude displayed by the mainstream public encountered throughout the book. While a general ignorance of the situation is revealed with the description of Reds as a race of people from Russia by Bigger and his friend.

In addition to the fearful world Richard Wright shows us, the author allows us a brief view as though through the porthole of a ship never actually allowing the reader to see the whole picture of the very real ignorance and racist attitudes of those who publicly set out to help the downtrodden of our society. Although Mary Dalton’s existence seems to be created merely to achieve the pivotal point in the story, in which Bigger Thomas starts to feel some sense of being and purpose (which it does very nicely), along with creating the story line, the writer could have more fully laid the groundwork for the point he tries to achieve later in the book. By only introducing and not further exploring the basic ignorance of the so called humanitarians, in this case the Communist sympathizers and the Dalton family, that is so evident in Mary, Jan’s and Mr. and Mrs. Daltons attitude toward Bigger, Wright gives up the opportunity to introduce more plainly and allow the reader to conclude on his own the author’s final point, which is presented only during the final chapters of the story which will be discussed later.

Without going into an in depth evaluation of racism, the reader only need to ask themselves if Mary would have befriended Bigger if he were not black? The Dalton family, exemplified and even magnified by our vision of Mary, is simply trying to assuage their own feelings. While their motivations may be pure, their lack of understanding of Bigger’s situation shows an even greater problem than the ones portrayed on the surface. One must wonder if Richard Wright intended this line of thought or is it a bye product of which he had not intended or even noticed? If it was intended, would not it have served his purpose even more to develop that thought to a more elevated degree in order to drive his point to an even greater depth? Possibly Mr. Wright did indeed see the subtle point he was making and chose to let the reader find that argument for themselves.

The intended main character of Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is presented as a victim of his circumstance. Although he is portrayed to be held in his own world where he is trapped in a box with which no escape is present, Bigger is not a victim but predator intent not upon self preservation, but self gratification through violence towards others. Richard Wright tries hard to make the point that even though he can see outside this box, escape will never be allowed. Even though he may not be consciously aware of this pre-disposition at first, he discovers and even embraces it after the awareness of his own existence which is brought forth by the accidental killing then brutal unemotional disposal of a young well to do woman, Mary Dalton, whose father he is employed by.

Wrights contention that Bigger Thomas is a monster created by the white supremacy that surrounds him such as unethical real estate practices and an 8th grade education can be questioned by the fact that Bigger routinely commits crimes against his own people and shows a propensity toward violence of even his own friends. When a criminal strikes against one who is not his enemy or has no ability to provide him with gain he gives rise to a question of motivation. When confronted with a criminal without motivation being a criminal for the sake of being a criminal one does not have to look far to find social limitations that cannot be tolerated in any society.

Bigger is displaying the behavior of one who is even more deeply emotionally disturbed by turning upon his friends. The accidental killing of Mary Dalton not withstanding, if we consider the scene when after spending the day dreaming of things perceived unattainable and watching a movie he turns upon his friends in a frustrating episode inside the pool hall, and taking into account his second murder, the emotionless matter of fact killing of his very casual girlfriend Bessie Mears, Bigger shows us to be the sociopath he really is. Only after he is caught and brought to face what he has done and is confronted with the finality of his own existence does he actually show any remorse whatsoever. Furthermore, one must wonder if this remorse is nothing other than self preservation or an attempt to conjure sympathy for Bigger in order to better illustrate the authors main point.

At first read, one may think of Bigger Thomas as the protagonist in this book, but Richard Wright does a good job of disguising his main character until later in the text with the introduction of Boris Max the sympathetic attorney representing Bigger in his case. Although he is never actually introduced as such, initially through the inference and connection with Jan Erlone, Max is presented as a representative of the communist party but turns out to be a political mouthpiece for Richard Wright. Max’s summation in court clearly defines the point that Wright is trying to make. The summation of the complete book could be summed up in this one essay depicting the situation in America at the time of the books writing.

While this is a well-written book and Wright does a good job of creating the experience that is the life of Bigger Thomas, if one takes a brutally honest look at this book it becomes increasingly apparent that Wright either does not trust himself as a writer to convey the message he is trying to put forth or he does not trust the reader to understand the ramifications of the continued actions of racial and social oppression laid out in his story. Along with Wright’s warning of the outcome of continued racial oppression spoken through Boris Max comes a political statement to America that his depiction of life in an urban Black neighborhood can indeed be compartmentalized into one paradigm insinuating that all Black life is like that of Bigger Thomas’ world. Along with this warning, Wrights seems to be implying that within the framework of society as a whole and in the many situations as described in this book White fears’ are justified.


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    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Mr. Wright was a social documentarian as well as a commentator!


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