Literary / Historical Information
Richard Wright’s novel Native Son challenged the dominant stereotypes of African-Americans. It also described how these stereotypes were perpetuated and whose interests they served. It was immediately popular, selling a quarter of a million copies in its first month of publication. Wright re-wrote it for the stage in 1941.
In Native Son, Wright adapts the literary naturalism, a school of literature in which the environment, rather than the individual will, determines the outcome of characters’ lives. Naturalism applies sociology to literature. In fact, in the nineteenth century, scientists were called naturalists. Literary naturalism attempts to describe the determinism of a particular social environment in shaping characters’ lives. The height of literary naturalism was in the 1890s, years before Wright wrote his novel; however its idea of the role of the novel to critique society fits perfectly with the kind of social analysis Wright would have learned as a member of the Communist Party.
In simple terms, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels theorized that literature reflects and sustains the material life of a society. To apply this theory to Wright’s use of the novel and of literary naturalism, we would notice that the material conditions of Bigger Thomas’s life–what he ate, how he paid the rent, what kind of work he did–determined his ideas. Moreover, the material conditions of Mr. Dalton’s life determined his ideas as well. Both Bigger Thomas and Mr. Dalton are blind to the connection between Dalton’s wealth and Thomas’s poverty. The power of the ruling class is maintained when the working class is kept in ignorance. The conscience of the ruling class is eased when its members address the economic problems of a mass of people with individualistic charity. Richard Wright uses his novel to enlighten his readers of the connection between wealth and poverty. He does so by showing the connection between the images of the stereotyped brutish African-Americans and the sophisticated whites and the reality of that unjust gap in wealth.
The novel is set during the 1930s in the United States. It centers around three locations. First, the Black Belt of Chicago, that is, the section of town occupied by African-American people concentrated there because of discriminatory housing and renting practices which forbid them outside a particular section of the city. The second part of the novel is set in an upper-class district occupied exclusively by white people. The third part of the novel is set in a courtroom in and the Cook County Jail.
Where It All Goes Down…1930’s Chicago
Maybe you’ve seen the 2002 jazz-fest filmic spectacular called Chicago. Hey! That’s also set in the 1930’s, in Chicago… and it involves prison. So Native Son must be a glitzy, glamorous musical wonderland as well, right?
Um. No. Not even close.
Bigger’s family lives in a beat-up, rat-infested one-room apartment in the segregated community of Chicago’s South Side. We recognize instantly that they are living in a hovel unfit for humans, but that they have no other choice.
The dingy apartment is set in stark contrast to the Dalton’s luxurious home. Once Bigger arrives at the Daltons’ house, we realize just how small his world is; Bigger wasn’t kidding when he indicated that the South Side feels like a prison. The Dalton home makes Bigger uncomfortable. He doesn’t know how to behave, wondering if he should touch anything or not.
The difference between their riches and his own family’s poverty makes him feel ashamed. Essentially these two settings represent different worlds—one that white people live in and one that black people live in. The drastically different settings are just another tool that author Richard Wright uses to illustrate the unfair social circumstances that drive Bigger toward crime.
Later, the setting moves to the jail. The jail, however, isn’t so different than his life on the outside. Just like living in the South Side, Bigger’s life and options are extremely limited and he feels trapped. Bigger is visited by the Daltons, his family, friends, lawyer, and prosecutor all at the same time. We can only imagine that during that scene, his tiny cell was packed completely full with no room to move around in.
Though there are scenes in the courtroom, we are mostly treated to the typical question-and-answer format of trial cases, and then the long speeches by the defense and the prosecution. So we don’t see much of the courtroom, but we do know that it is filled to the brim with white people who want to see Bigger dead. Throughout the novel, the setting demonstrates that Bigger’s environment is hostile. He has no refuge from constant poverty or from racism.
Timing Is Everything
The temporal setting is also important. It’s the 1930s and racism is ever-present… and not well disguised. During the setting of the book, racial segregation is still legal. Bigger is held back from numerous opportunities because of his race: the army is segregated so black people can only mop floors; Bigger isn’t allowed to become a pilot; the South Side of Chicago is where all the black people in the city have to live.
Remember that Richard Wright wrote this book before the Civil Rights Movement. By setting Native Son in his own day and age, Wright attempted to portray what the oppressive social circumstances of his day were doing to peoples’ lives.
The mood of the novel is melodramatic. It is written in the high emotional tone of high drama. Bigger is represented from the beginning as a victim of unremitting social forces. He never has a chance against them. The social system provides clear villains and unclear heroes and victims. The villains are the racists who hold power. The heroes are the communists who wish to redistribute wealth and establish and equality between rich and poor, black and white. The victims come from each of these groups.
Take a story’s temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
On the one hand, Bigger is a thoroughly unlikeable character. Even though we recognize that it is not his fault that he’s poor, and we recognize that circumstances have created his tendency towards crime, he’s a manipulative bully. He’s mean to his little sister, mean to his friends, and mean to his girlfriend.
Ultimately, however, though we don’t like Bigger, the tone of the novel is sympathetic to the position he’s in. This is achieved in large part by a narrator who explains how shame and fear dominate Bigger’s life, causing him to act the way he does:
“Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything… You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing […] You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks […] Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. . . .” he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. “They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die.” (3.1084-1087)
No matter how horribly Bigger acts (and he does act horribly), moments like these allow the reader to understand—and sympathize with—the vice-like mental strain that would cause someone to panic and lose hope
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