Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Throughout Native Son, Wright depicts popular culture—as conveyed through films, magazines, and newspapers—as a major force in American racism, constantly bombarding citizens with images and ideas that reinforce the nation’s oppressive racial hierarchy. In films such as the one Bigger attends in Book One, whites are depicted as glamorous, attractive, and cultured, while blacks are portrayed as jungle savages or servants. Wright emphasizes that this portrayal is not unique to the film Bigger sees, but is replicated in nearly every film and every magazine. Not surprisingly, then, both blacks and whites see blacks are inferior brutes—a view that has crippling effects on whites and absolutely devastating effects for blacks. Bigger is so influenced by this media saturation that, upon meeting the Daltons, he is completely unable to be himself. All he can do is act out the role of the subservient black man that he has seen in countless popular culture representations. Later, Wright portrays the media as one of the forces that leads to Bigger’s execution, as the sensationalist press stirs up a furor over his case in order to sell newspapers. The attention prompts Buckley, the State’s Attorney, to hurry Bigger’s case along and seek the death penalty. Wright scatters images of popular culture throughout Native Son, constantly reminding us of the extremely influential role the media plays in hardening already destructive racial stereotypes.
Religion provides comfort for some of the characters in the book, but the protagonist comes to believe that religion contributes to the exploitation of black people by making them satisfied with their situation
Religion appears in Native Son mostly in relation to Bigger’s mother and Reverend Hammond. Bigger’s mother relies on her religion as a source of comfort in the face of the crushing realities of life on the South Side. Bigger, however, compares his mother’s religion with Bessie’s whiskey drinking—an escapist pastime with no inherent value. At times, Bigger wishes he were able to enjoy the comfort religion brings his mother, but he cannot shake his longing for a life in this world. When Reverend Hammond gives Bigger a cross to wear while he is in prison, Bigger equates the cross with the crosses that are burned during racist rituals. In making this comparison, Wright suggests that even the moral province of Christianity has been corrupted by racism in America.
Wright’s portrayal of communism throughout Native Son, especially in the figures of Jan and Max, is one of the novel’s most controversial aspects. Wright was still a member of the Communist Party at the time he wrote this novel, and many critics have argued that Max’s long courtroom speech is merely an attempt on Wright’s part to spread communist propaganda. While Wright uses communist characters and imagery in Native Son generally to evoke a positive, supportive tone for the movement, he does not depict the Party and its efforts as universally benevolent. Jan, the only character who explicitly identifies himself as a member of the Party, is almost comically blind to Bigger’s feelings during Book One. Likewise, Max, who represents the Party as its lawyer, is unable to understand Bigger completely. In the end, Bigger’s salvation comes not from the Communist Party, but from his own realization that he must win the battle that rages within himself before he can fight any battles in the outside world. The changes that Wright identifies must come not from social change, but from individual effort.
The presence of the Bible is apparent in Native Son. Biblical allusions appear frequently throughout the novel, but they do not serve as an uplifting component of Bigger Thomas’s life. Instead, Richard Wright seems to allude to the Bible with irony. Bigger is exposed to Christianity through his religious mother, Reverend Hammond, a Catholic priest, and his encounter with the church. However, Bigger’s constant rejection of Christianity and the church reveals Wright’s negative tone toward the religion. He views Christianity as an opiate of the black masses. Bigger has several negative encounters with religion. In one instance, Bigger sees his mother singing a hymn when he sneaks into his flat to get his pistol to prepare for robbing Blum’s delicatessen. His mother is singing the words: “Lord, I want to be a Christian, /In my heart, in my heart.” Her hymns and prayers are wholly ineffective and do nothing to forestall his violence. Even toward the end of the novel, facing a possible death sentence, Bigger’s mother pleads with her son to pray to God for repentance. Reverend Hammond also preaches to Bigger, yet he does not understand the words of Reverend Hammond and does not pray for repentance. Instead, Bigger does the opposite and rejects Christianity. When he later sees the fiery cross that the Ku Klux Klan displays, he tears off the cross from his neck which Reverend Hammond had given him and throws it to the ground. In yet another instance, Bigger overhears the church choir singing and ponders whether he should become Christian. However, his realization of changing his heart into a humble heart causes him to reject the idea because it meant, “losing his hope of living in the world. And he would never do that.”
Wright directly alludes to the Bible in the epigraph of Native Son. The epigraph states, “Even today is my complaint rebellious; my stroke is heavier than my groaning” (Job 23:2). This quotation is from the book of Job. According to the Bible, Job was a faithful man of God. However, Job experienced immense suffering in his lifetime, losing his children and his great wealth. He was stricken with poverty and boils. In these afflictions, God was silent, leaving Job in a state of deep spiritual anguish. This tone of anguish and despair is established in the epigraph at the outset of Native Son, and emphasizes Bigger’s suffering.
Job and Bigger are parallel characters in their dealings with suffering. This further suggests the aptness of Wright’s epigraph. Job suffered trials from an outside force that he could not control. Similar to Job, Bigger struggled with an outside force of the racial norms of society. The parallel is further strengthened by the freedom both characters display in their defiance. Savory has mentioned two quotes in the book of Job and Native Son that suggest Bigger and Job’s parallel stories. According to the book of Job, he lifts himself proudly through his suffering. “If the charges my opponent brings against me were written down so that I could have them, I would wear them proudly around my neck, and hold them up for everyone to see. I would tell God everything I have done, and hold my head high in his presence”. During this point of the passage, Job has yet to confess his sins to God. Convinced of his innocence, Job asserts that he will stand proud and tall in God’s presence. Bigger also has a similar experience. Bigger muses, “He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions: never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight”. This is the first time in the novel where Bigger does not throw the blame on others but instead asserts that he was responsible for his actions. Through this, he finally experiences free will and finds freedom.
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