Native Son is a 1940 novel (and an accepted classic) on race relations by Richard Wright. It is the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in a Chicago ghetto in the 1930s. Bigger’s violent temper, combined with his anger and frustration at his social situation, leads him down a murderous and self-destructive path.
What Wright does exceedingly well is capture Bigger’s feelings and emotions. Wright communicates very effectively what it means to be an angry black man in a time of racial inequality and social injustice.
Wright’s overall message is that Bigger’s violent behavior, while indefensible, is largely due to the fact of racial inequality and social injustice. It is, to a very great extent, inevitable – Bigger’s destiny. For the purposes of communicating this message, Wright writes Bigger inconsistently. Bigger is aware of his thoughts, even his self-conscious, to an unrealistic degree, and he gives the reader many articulate internal monologues and page after page of introspection. Yet Bigger struggles to express himself to others coherently, even on a very basic level.
Many events and conversations in Native Son are contrived (and how inconvenient for Bigger that he gets into all this trouble his first day on the job). The presence of so many contrived happenings clearly indicates that for Wright, the story is secondary to the message, and is so to the point where the reader may well wonder why he didn’t write a nonfiction book on the subject instead.
When Wright feels that he has not communicated his message through conventional literary means such as a character’s actions and conversations, he plainly explains it (or makes a character explain it) to make sure the reader doesn’t miss it. Thusly we get, on top of these conversations and actions, passages like “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.” and “‘I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while.’”
The novel’s third act drags considerably, as the reader is subjected to a barrage of ideological conversations and monologues. Additionally, many characters are one-dimensional caricatures. In communicating his message on relationship between social conditions and violence, Wright also puts in a good word for communism and a bad word for Christianity.
Many editions of Native Son are prefaced by Wright’s essay How “Bigger” Was Born, wherein Wright explains his purpose and motivation for writing the novel. Yet knowing what Wright was up to may keep many new readers from investing in the character.
Without saying that Wright’s message’s time has passed (I certainly do not mean to imply that racism in America has been eradicated; it certainly has not), at the risk of criticizing an accepted classic on race relations, here is the conclusion of the matter: as a social commentary, Native Son is fantastic and important, but as a novel, it has a lot of problems.
RECOMMENDED as an important part of American history