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Native Son ()

Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (20)

Bigger Thomas is a 20 year old black man with an 8th grade education.  He lives in a one room apartment in a tenement with his mother, brother and sister and spends his days hanging around a poolroom, planning robberies with his friends.  "As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone.  The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled.  That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared."

As the novel opens, Bigger is about to be handed a golden opportunity.  The Dalton family hires him as a driver at a salary of $25 a week, plus room & board & the option of completing his education.  Bigger takes the job but disaster ensues.

On his first night on the job, Bigger is to drive the Dalton's daughter Mary.  She has him pick up her boyfriend Jan, who is a Communist, and they make Bigger take them to a restaurant where they can experience black people food.  They are impervious to how confused & uncomfortable they are making Bigger in their effort to partake of the black experience.

At the end of the night, Bigger helps a drunken Mary to her bedroom.  When her blind mother enters the room, Bigger fears what will happen if he's found there & covers Mary's face with a pillow to silence her.  Realizing that he's smothered Mary, Bigger beheads & incinerates her & tries to shift suspicion towards Jan.

This murder has a liberating influence on Bigger.  "He felt he had his destiny in his grasp.  He was more alive than he could ever remember having been; his mind and attention were pointed, focused towards a goal.  The feeling of being always enclosed in the stifling embrace of an invisible force had gone from him."

Feeling this new found power, Bigger involves his girlfriend in a plan to demand ransom for the "kidnapped" Mary.  But he ends up killing her too, to ensure her silence.

Bigger is eventually discovered and after a huge manhunt is put on trial.  His conviction and execution are, of course, inevitable, but during his time in jail Bigger confronts ministers, Communists, the Daltons & his own family.  Looking back on the chain of events that lead him to where he is, Bigger determines that lashing out in violence against whites was the only course open to him.  As his
attorney says in closing arguments, "It was the first full act of his life; it was the most meaningful, exciting and stirring thing that had ever happened to him.  He accepted it because it made him free, gave him the possibility of choice, of action, the opportunity to act and to feel that his actions carried

Let's just concentrate on this one quote because it reveals the two great weaknesses of the book and of Wright's viewpoint.

First:  The murder didn't happen to him;  Bigger murdered.  Wright feels that overwhelming societal forces crafted young men like Bigger into murderers.  They have no choice but to react to the oppression of White society with violence.  Free will is gone; psychology, class & race determine human action.  This view, largely though not exclusively a product of Freud and Marx, is extremely
pernicious.  The Left has done an enormous amount of damage to our society, and to those they claim to want to help, by absolving them of responsibility for their actions.  Humans determine their own actions, not world historical forces.

Second: Why was the murder, and not the job, the great empowering event of his life?  Bigger would have been making $1200 a year at a time when the vast majority of Americans, white and black, were making less than $1000 & supporting families.  He would have had a decent place to live, freed food and a chance to get an education.  Shouldn't this have been the liberating force in his life?

The book is obviously one of the pivotal texts in the history of Black fiction and makes for a quick read; it's pulp fiction elevated by the earnestness with which Wright descries the plight of blacks.


Grade: (C+)


Richard Wright Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Richard Wright
-REVIEW: of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (Richard Wright, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: How Richard Wright Grappled with Behaviorism, Racism, and Trauma in Native Son: George Makari on the Phobic World of Wright’s First Novel (George Makari, 9/14/21, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: When Richard Wright Broke With the Communists (New Republic, Apr. 19th, 2021)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Bleak Resonance of ‘Native Son’ (Gary Younge, 10/01/20, New York Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright (AARON COATS, Chicago Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: What We Want from Richard Wright (Lauren Michele Jackson, NY Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Richard (Nathaniel) Wright (1908-1960)(kirjasto)
    -Richard Wright--A Web Page
    -Richard Wright: Black Boy (PBS)
    -Literary Research Guide: Richard Wright (1908 - 1960)
    -PHOTOS: (pbs)
    -MWP: Richard Wright (1908-1960)(Mississippi Writers Page)
    -Wright, Richard (
    -Writing and Resistance>> Authors>> Richard Wright
    -Richard Wright, Mississippi writer, A project of Starkville High School
    -Mark's American Author Report: Richard Wright
    -WHO IS AFRAID OF RICHARD WRIGHT ?  (Julia Wright, Statement to the Duval County Committee reviewing Black Boy)
    -ESSAY: "Black Boys and Native Sons" (Irving Howe, DISSENT Autumn 1963)
    -ESSAY: Self-realization in the Novels of Richard Wright  (Alexander Detrick)
    -ESSAY: Richard Wright:   His Literary and Political Impact (Tim McRae)
    -Review of Black Boy (Daniele Fleming, Starkville HS)
    -REVIEW: Richard Wright Early Works: Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of   RICHARD WRIGHT Early Works: "Lawd Today!" "Uncle Tom's Children." "Native Son." (Alfred Kazin , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  EXILED IN PARIS Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett and Others on the Left Bank By James Campbell (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of    EXILED IN PARIS Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, and Others on the Left Bank. By James Campbell (Deirdre Bair, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: C. Vann Woodward: The Mississippi Horrors, NY Review of Books
        Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow by Neil R. McMillen
    -ESSAY: Too Honest for His Own Time (Arnold Rampersad, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: ON REREADING 'NATIVE SON'  (David Bradley, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Crime and Punishment and Explanation in Full  (Peter Monro Jack, NY Times)
    -The Works of Richard Wright, as Written (ELEANOR BLAU, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Hazel Rowley's Richard Wright: The Life and Times (Paul Evans, Book)
    -REVIEW : of 'Richard Wright: The Life and Times'  By Hazel Rowley  (Megan Harlan, SF Chronicle)

If you liked Native Son, try:

Himes, Chester
    -If He Hollers Let Him Go
(Coffin Ed Johnson & Gravedigger Jones Mysteries)
    -Cotton Comes to Harlem
    -The Real Cool Killers
    -The Heat's On
    -The Crazy Kill   (Read Orrin's review, Grade: B)

Mosley, Walter
(Easy Rawlins Mysteries)
    -Devil in a Blue Dress
    -A Red Death
    -White Butterfly
    -Black Betty
    -A Little Yellow Dog
    -Gone Fishin'       (Read Orrin's review, Grade: B)