Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The main theme of the novel is an argument that social conditions of deprivation motivate people to act in anti-social ways. Wright paints a clear picture of the impossible lives led by African-Americans in 1930s Chicago. They are forced into overcrowded, overpriced, and substandard housing, they are given such low-paying and transient employment that they cannot maintain a secure living, they are cut off from education, they are the victims of racist media misrepresentations that reduce their humanity and justify their further exploitation and deprivation, and they are blamed for all of their problems. When Bigger acts in an unfeeling way, killing and then disposing of the bodies of his victims, Wright argues that these are conditioned responses to overwhelming stimuli.
A minor theme of the novel is in its relation between the social and economic disenfranchisement of African-Americans and the sexual mores of the time, which both prohibited African-American men from coming near or touching white women, thus inciting them to do so. Bigger is conditioned by the media images of white women as the most attractive and the most unattainable sexual objects. He is conditioned by the social taboo, which resulted in countless lynchings of African-American men for supposedly coming into sexual contact with European-American women. When he sees Mary Dalton, he is for the first time, in close contact with the repository of this contradictory message and instead of acting her part, holding her distance, Mary acts as his friend, and familiar. When he kills his girlfriend, Bessie, Bigger also acts out the logical extent of the conditioned relations between blacks and whites. Conditioned to regard her as less than precious, Bigger rapes, kills, and disposes of Bessie as if she were nothing to him.
Wright’s exploration of Bigger’s psychological corruption gives us a new perspective on the oppressive effect racism had on the black population in 1930s America.
Bigger’s psychological damage results from the constant barrage of racist propaganda and racial oppression he faces while growing up. The movies he sees depict whites as wealthy sophisticates and blacks as jungle savages. He and his family live in cramped and squalid conditions, enduring socially enforced poverty and having little opportunity for education. Bigger’s resulting attitude toward whites is a volatile combination of powerful anger and powerful fear. He conceives of “whiteness” as an overpowering and hostile force that is set against him in life. Just as whites fail to conceive of Bigger as an individual, he does not really distinguish between individual whites—to him, they are all the same, frightening and untrustworthy. As a result of his hatred and fear, Bigger’s accidental killing of Mary Dalton does not fill him with guilt. Instead, he feels an odd jubilation because, for the first time, he has asserted his own individuality against the white forces that have conspired to destroy it.
Throughout the novel, Wright illustrates the ways in which white racism forces blacks into a pressured—and therefore dangerous—state of mind. Blacks are beset with the hardship of economic oppression and forced to act subserviently before their oppressors, while the media consistently portrays them as animalistic brutes. Given such conditions, as Max argues, it becomes inevitable that blacks such as Bigger will react with violence and hatred. However, Wright emphasizes the vicious double-edged effect of racism: though Bigger’s violence stems from racial hatred, it only increases the racism in American society, as it confirms racist whites’ basic fears about blacks. In Wright’s portrayal, whites effectively transform blacks into their own negative stereotypes of “blackness.” Only when Bigger meets Max and begins to perceive whites as individuals does Wright offer any hope for a means of breaking this circle of racism. Only when sympathetic understanding exists between blacks and whites will they be able to perceive each other as individuals, not merely as stereotypes.
The Effect of Racism on the Oppressor
The deleterious effect of racism extends to the white population, in that it prevents whites from realizing the true humanity inherent in groups that they oppress. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Native Son as a chronicle of the effects of oppression is Wright’s extraordinary ability to explore the psychology not only of the oppressed but of the oppressors as well. Wright illustrates that racism is destructive to both groups, though for very different reasons. Many whites in the novel, such as Britten and Peggy, fall victim to the obvious pitfall of racism among whites: the unthinking sense of superiority that deceives them into seeing blacks as less than human. Wright shows that this sense of superiority is a weakness, as Bigger is able to manipulate it in his cover-up of Mary’s murder. Bigger realizes that a man with Britten’s prejudices would never believe a black man could be capable of what Bigger has done. Indeed, for a time, Bigger manages to escape suspicion.
Other white characters in the novel—particularly those with a self-consciously progressive attitude toward race relations—are affected by racism in subtler and more complex ways. Though the Daltons, for instance, have made a fortune out of exploiting blacks, they aggressively present themselves as philanthropists committed to the black American cause. We sense that they maintain this pretense in an effort to avoid confronting their guilt, and we realize that they may even be unaware of their own deep-seated racial prejudices. Mary and Jan represent an even subtler form of racism, as they consciously seek to befriend blacks and treat them as equals, but ultimately fail to understand them as individuals. This failure has disastrous results. Mary and Jan’s simple assumption that Bigger will welcome their friendship deludes them into overlooking the possibility that he will react with suspicion and fear—a natural reaction considering that Bigger has never experienced such friendly treatment from whites. In this regard, Mary and Jan are deceived by their failure to recognize Bigger’s individuality just as much as an overt racist such as Britten is deceived by a failure to recognize Bigger’s humanity. Ultimately, Wright portrays the vicious circle of racism from the white perspective as well as from the black one, emphasizing that even well-meaning whites exhibit prejudices that feed into the same black behavior that confirms the racist whites’ sense of superiority.
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