Thursday, April 23, 2009

Richard Wright/NATIVE SON

In the early 1930s in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old black boy who lives with his entire family in a one-room slum apartment, is given a second chance in life, despite his juvenial raps, his soiled record, and his general malaise, when he is offered a job as a chauffer for a wealthy real estate mogul, a white man who is known for having donated millions to charities for the betterment of black Chicago residents. Bigger's first day at work starts to take strange turns and ends in his accidental killing of Mary Dalton, his boss's pretty 22-year-old daughter. Suddenly, Bigger's in a jam--one everyone knows isn't going to end well.

Native Son was published in 1940, and because of when it was published we have to remember that the value of the book amounts to far more than Wright's good writing (and it is very well written--there are some extraordinarily tense and beautiful prose moments strung throughout the occasionally didactic text). Wright's agenda must have been groundbreaking at the time: the thesis of his character (black and white), as it develops over the book, is that there is no crime a black man could commit that would not be a product of systemitized injustice and internalized racial conditioning. The author himself doesn't take a specific stand on this theory--it's put forth in the voices of carious characters, although not, incidentally, the voice Bigger Thomas. But a state of psychological oppression, race-fear, and race-hate between black and white characters is developed and realized with a precision and sophistication that the book does not read much differently from some of the anti-racism textbooks I read in college--although Native Son predates them all by 50-60 years. And even tf the dialogue about the subject has changed over history, lessening the mainstream philosophical importance of the ideas Wright puts forth (and really, that's a whole separate conversation), the book has certainly not lost any of its relevance as a piece of history, and the memory of a terrible moment in a 400-year string of terrible moments.

All that said, I cannot honestly say I enjoyed the reading (which is not to say I'm not very glad to have read it). This book is not a comfortable read. There are gruesome moments and awful moments as we see the best and worst of every eschelon of Chicago humanity. One question that is not fully addressed--and which a modern reader might want addressed more deeply--is Bigger's sociopathy, and the calculation (and lack of emotion) with which he commits the crimes he does. Per the discussion above, and the intense and detailed descriptions of Bigger's thought process as he kills, I suppose it is supposed to be established that Bigger is "insane by reason of historical oppression." But I can't help but ask the questions I do. I think this was Wright's intention, as he has not endeavored to make his main character likable or sympathetic in the least. The effort, instead, is to create relatability, and watching the thought process of a murderer spelled out and justified in a way that feels quite natural is... difficult.

(Spoiler alert) Perhaps the saddest piece of the novel for me is the way that Bessie is exploited and then forgotten, even by the novel itself. By far the more brutal of the murders Bigger commits, Bessie's death is lost in the story, like the sins committed against so many black women in American history. It is sad to see that even Bigger doesn't think of Bessie as a human, while the white girl he kills by accident fills his mind with worry.

I wish that I'd had the opportunity to read this book in some kind of classroom or discussion setting, because I think there are just tons of things to talk about in it. I haven't even scratched the surface with this review. Has anyone else read it?

11 comments:

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Haven't read it but I very much enjoyed your thoughtful review.

Leigh Russell said...

Haven't read it but it sounds gripping. I was interested in your comment about reading it in a classroom setting, discussing issues arising. What age would you think it's appropriate for? Probably not under 16? And is it pure fiction, or was it based on a true incident, I wonder. I'm intrigued now. Thank you for the recommendation.

freddie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
moonrat said...

Leigh--I would say definitely not under 16. Maybe high school juniors or seniors, maybe, but there is rape and pretty grisly murder.

Re: truth/fiction: actually, the edition I have has an essay in the front my Richard Wright, who talks about where the character for Bigger Thomas came from. It is, absolutely, fiction--but on the other hand, is based on nothing but true stories. Every character in the book is an archetype of some sort.

freddie said...

Read it in high school and loved it. You hit the nail on the head.

Pamala Knight said...

I read it long ago and then again about ten years ago.

I think you've distilled the essence of the book quite well and I recall vividly the sinking feeling about Bigger and his misplaced and almost irrational logic. The Dalton girl's accidental murder disturbs him while Bessie's death doesn't warrant much thought at all. I think Wright was trying to make a point about race relations all round, within and outside the bounds of ethnicity. But it's a powerful read, well written and beautiful prose that succeeds in making you uncomfortable.

Thanks for the review.

Rebecca :) said...

I am reading this book for the Banned Books Challenge. (Thanks for the spoiler alert. I skipped it.) You wrote a great review. I am looking forward to reading this.

moonrat said...

Yay, Rebecca, come back and share your thoughts, please.

Wylie Kinson said...

I read this for high school English and because I grew up in an all-white smallish town, this book really opened my eyes to race/ism, culture, poverty, etc.
Yes - it was uncomfortable... and raw and graphic, but wow--what a book to give to a group of empathetic teens who desperately needed to know that life existed outside of our rural borders!
I really should read it again as an adult -- see what impressions I have 25 years later :)

Jena said...

Actually, I've read it a couple of times, both times for grad school. But I don't remember much about it now--just the basic plot and how I felt as I read it--mostly sympathy for unfortunate Bigger--he was just trying to do a right thing that turned horribly, horribly wrong, and I hated to admit it, but I likely would have made a lot of the same decisions in his shoes--except maybe that first one that started the whole thing.

Will you be reading Wright's Black Boy? (It's sometimes shelved as an autobiography, sometimes just credited as being autobiographical, as a significant enough portion of the story wasn't quite true.)

moonrat said...

Jena--Black Boy isn't on my list, but that doesn't mean I'll never read it. What are your thoughts on it?