Tuesday, July 28, 2009

158. Native Son – Richard Wright

History: This book was written in 1940. It was one of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African-Americans by the dominant white society. It also made Wright the wealthiest black writer of his time and established him as a spokesperson for African-American issues
Plot: Bigger Thomas wakes up in a dark, small room at the sound of the alarm clock. He lives in one room with his brother Buddy, his sister Vera, and their mother. Suddenly, a rat appears. The room turns into a maelstrom and after a violent chase, Bigger kills the animal with an iron skillet and terrorizes Vera with the dark body. Vera faints and the mother scolds Bigger who hates his family because they suffer and he cannot do anything about it.
That evening, Bigger has to see Mr. Dalton for a new job. Bigger's family depends on him. He would like to leave his responsibilities forever but when he thinks of what to do, he only sees a blank wall. He walks to the poolroom and meets his friend Gus. Bigger tells him that every time he thinks about whites, he feels something terrible will happen to him. They meet other friends, G. H. and Jack, and plan a robbery. They are all afraid of attacking and stealing from a white man, but none of them wants to admit their concerns. Before the robbery, Bigger and Jack go to the movies. They are attracted to the world of wealthy whites in the newsreel and feel strangely moved by the tom-toms and the primitive black people in the film, but they also feel that they do not belong to either of those worlds. In the movie theatre they jack off right there, apparently something that they do regularly. After the cinema, Bigger returns to the poolroom and attacks Gus violently. The fight ends any chance of the robbery occurring; Bigger is obscurely conscious that he has done this intentionally.
When he finally gets the job, Bigger does not know how to behave in the large and luxurious house. Mr. Dalton and his blind wife use strange words. They try to be kind to Bigger, but they actually make him very uncomfortable; Bigger does not know what they expect out of him. Then their daughter, Mary, enters the room, asks Bigger why he does not belong to a union, and calls her father a "capitalist." Bigger does not know that word and is even more confused and afraid to lose the job. After the conversation, Peggy, the Irish cook, takes Bigger to his room and tells him that the Daltons are a nice family but that he must avoid Mary's communist friends. Bigger has never had a room for himself before.
That night, he drives Mary around and meets her Communist boyfriend, Jan. Throughout the evening, Jan and Mary talk to Bigger, oblige him to take them to the diner where his friends are, invite him to sit at their table, and tell him to call them by their first names. Bigger does not know how to respond to their requests and becomes very frustrated, as he is simply their chauffeur for the night. At the diner they buy a bottle of rum. Bigger drives throughout the park, and Jan and Mary drink the rum and joke around in the back seat. Jan and Mary part, but Mary is so drunk that Bigger has to carry her to her bedroom when they arrive home. He is terrified someone will see him with her in his arms; however, he cannot resist the temptation of the forbidden, and he kisses her.
Just then, the bedroom door opens, and Mrs. Dalton enters. Bigger knows she is blind but is terrified she will sense him there. He silences Mary by pressing a pillow into her face. Mrs. Dalton approaches the bed, smells whiskey in the air, scolds her daughter, and leaves. Mary claws at Bigger's hands while Mrs. Dalton is in the room, trying to alert Bigger that she cannot breathe. As Bigger removes the pillow, he realizes that she has suffocated. Bigger starts thinking frantically, and decides he will tell everyone that Jan, her Communist boyfriend, took Mary into the house that night. Thinking it will be better if Mary disappears and everyone thinks she has gone for a visit, he decides in desperation to burn her body in the house's furnace. Her body would not originally fit through the furnace opening, but, after decapitating her with a nearby hatchet, Bigger finally manages to put the body inside. He adds extra coal to the furnace, leaves the corpse there to burn, and goes home.
When Bigger talks with his family and meets his friends, he feels different now. The crime gives meaning to his life. When he goes back to the big house, Mrs. Dalton notices her daughter's disappearance and asks Bigger about the night before. Bigger tries to point suspicion toward Jan. Mrs. Dalton sends Bigger home for the day, and Bigger decides to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie complains, claiming that he did not love her, and he gives her some money to assure her of his affection. Bessie mentions a famous case in which the kidnappers of a child first killed him and then asked for ransom money. Bigger decides to do the same. He tells Bessie that he knows Mary has disappeared and will use that knowledge to get money from the Daltons, but in the conversation he realizes Bessie suspects him of having done something to Mary. Bigger goes back to work. Mr. Dalton has called a private detective, Mr. Britten, and this time, sensing Britten's racism, Bigger accuses Jan on the grounds of his race (he is Jewish), his political beliefs (Communist), and his friendly attitude towards black people. When Britten finds Jan, he puts the boy and Bigger in the same room and confronts them with their conflicting stories. Jan is surprised by Bigger's story but offers him help.
Bigger storms away from the Dalton's. He decides to write the false kidnap note when he discovers that the owner of the rat-infested flat his family rents is Mr. Dalton. Bigger slips the note under the Dalton's front door and then returns to his room. When the Daltons receive the note, they contact the police, who take over the investigation from Britten, and journalists soon arrive at the house. Bigger is afraid, but he does not want to leave. In the afternoon, he is ordered to take the ashes out of the furnace and make a new fire. He is terrified and starts poking the ashes with the shovel until the whole room is full of smoke. Furious, one of the journalists takes the shovel and pushes Bigger aside. He immediately finds the remains of Mary's bones and an earring in the furnace, and Bigger flees.
Bigger goes directly to Bessie and tells her the whole story. Bessie realizes that white people will think he raped the girl before killing her. They leave together, but Bigger has to drag Bessie around because she is paralyzed by fear. When they lie down together in an abandoned building, Bigger rapes Bessie, and decides that he will have to kill her. He hits Bessie's head with a brick several times before throwing her through a window and into an air shaft. He quickly realized that the only money he had was in her pocket.
Bigger runs through the city. He sees newspaper headlines concerning the crime and overhears different conversations about it. Whites call him "ape." Blacks hate him because he has given the whites an excuse for racism. But now he is someone; he feels he has an identity. He will not say the crime was an accident. After a wild chase over the rooftops of the city, the police catch him.
During his first few days in prison, Bigger does not eat, drink, or talk to anyone. Then Jan comes to see him. He says Bigger has taught him a lot about black-white relationships and offers him the help of a communist lawyer named Max. In the long hours Max and Bigger pass together, Max learns about the sufferings and feelings of black people and Bigger learns about himself. He starts understanding his relationships with his family and with the world. He acknowledges his fury, his need for a future, and his wish for a meaningful life. He reconsiders his attitudes about white people, whether they are prejudiced like Britten, or accepting like Jan.
At Bigger's trial, Max tells the judge that Bigger killed because he was cornered by society from the moment he was born. He tells them that a way to cut the evil sequence of abuse and murder is to sentence Bigger to life in prison and not to death. But the judge apparently does not sympathize and sentences Bigger to the electric chair. In the last scene, while he waits for death, Bigger tells Max, "I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em." Bigger then tells him to say "hello" to Jan. For the first time, he calls him "Jan", not "Mister", just as Jan had wanted. This signifies that he finally sees whites as individuals, rather than a looming force. During their final moments of discussion, while Bigger is on death row, Max tries to summarize how white society has conditioned great anger and effeteness into Bigger and other oppressed impoverished people, but Bigger somewhat misinterprets this and twists it into a different message in order to comfort himself. He claims that "What I killed for must've been good!" and thus exemplifies what Max has just tried to explain to him-- that white corporate society is keeping the poor people angry, and ignorant as to why they are angry. Bigger, however, does not comprehend this for exactly those same reasons, and Max becomes quite shaken and teary-eyed before the two shake hands and Max leaves, and Bigger is alone.
Review: While not apologizing for Bigger's crimes, Wright is sympathetic to the systemic inevitability behind them. The novel is a powerful statement about racial inequality and social injustices so deep that it becomes nearly impossible to determine where societal expectations/conditioning end and free will begins. As Bigger's lawyer points out, there is no escape from this destiny for his client or any other black American, since they are the necessary product of the society that formed them and told them since birth who exactly they were supposed to be. "No American Negro exists," Wright once wrote "who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull."
Opening Line: “Brrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiing!”
Closing Line: “He heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut.”
Quotes: “He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the same and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair.” (
“There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong; white men were looking at something with which they would soon accuse him. It was the old feeling, hard and constant again now….”
Rating: Superb.

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