Sunday, February 7, 2010

Native Son by Richard Wright

The Plot: Native Son was published in 1940, but is set in the '30s. It takes place in Chicago and centers around a young black man named Bigger Thomas. Bigger is mildly educated and poor but gets a break by Henry Dalton, a wealthy white man who needs a chauffeur. Particularly one who was "handicapped by poverty, lack of education, misfortune, or bodily injury." Dalton hoped to give Bigger a chance to support his mother and brother and sister, and maybe even go to school. Bigger, though torn for a few days, does decided to take the job offered by Dalton and starts at once. His first driving assignment it to take young Mary Dalton to her class at the university.

Mary, a Communist Party/Black rights sympathizer, treats Bigger different than any white person ever has, and it confuses him and makes him very uneasy. Instead of driving her to class, Mary has him take her to a friend's house where they pick up her Communist boyfriend: Jan Erlone. Jan, also a black rights activist, makes Bigger eat dinner with them and all three get a little drunk. Bigger drops Jan off and heads back to the Dalton residence with Mary who is quite a bit more intoxicated than the men. Bigger ends up carrying her to her room. Before he can leave, Mary's blind mother comes in to see if Mary is awake. Bigger panics. He knows that if he is discovered in a white woman's room at three am he's a goner. He doesn't want Mary crying out and alerting Mrs. Dalton to his presence so he tries to muffle her mumblings with a pillow. Mrs. Dalton, smelling the alcohol on her daughter, leaves, and Bigger realizes he's suffocated Mary. This sets off a series of panicked decisions and quickly spirals out of control.

Writing Style: The novel was difficult for me to read. The language isn't anything too complicated, but the emotions described were quite hard for me to understand. Wright writes in third person limited through Bigger's eyes. However, Bigger is a very confused angry young man so his thinking throughout most of the novel is hard to relate to. As events progress and he understands more of his life and the society he lives in, his thoughts get clearer. There is a lengthy section containing a speech made by a lawyer which really helped me understand a lot of the book. Boris Max, said lawyer, understands the world much better than Bigger and Wright is able to clarify quite a few things through this erudite character. Wright also expertly demonstrates the prejudices and injustice of the time through another lawyer, one who regards blacks and Communists as less than human.
Theme: Wow! Not long into the novel, Wright describes an election poster Bigger sees with a white face and the words: "YOU CAN'T WIN!" This struck me right off the bat as significant. To me it seems a very apt description of life as a black person in this novel. They couldn't win. No matter how much they tried they could never get ahead. Hell, they couldn't even live outside the "Black Belt," a section of the city where white men rented flats to poor black families at twice the cost for half the living space. Where old bread cost more than fresh bread outside the Belt and countless more tiny injustices every day. That seemed to me to be the biggest point Wright was trying to convey, just how bad African-Americans had it back then. Prejudice against anything unfamiliar seemed to be another one, and how unfair and ridiculous it is. When the law gets involved, they can't seem to decide what would be better: pinning Mary's murder on a black boy or a communist.

Another major portion of the books seemed to be dedicated to the meaning of life. Bigger didn't really think about what his life meant until he goes to court for Mary's murder. He thinks he's going to die and starts to reevaluate things. His lawyer comes and questions Bigger about how he feels and what he thinks and what's influenced him and for the first time Bigger sits and ponders these major questions. He starts to think that everyone just wants to be happy. That everyone is after something in life and that sometimes it's hard to get it. He realizes why he hates white people so much and how living with that hate caused him to behave in ways he regrets. He thinks everyone feels the same things he does, that he's not alone, we're all human and essentially the same. And for the first time in his life he feels connected to these people, and it gives him hope: something he's never experienced before. However, the angry white mob still hates him and just about crushes his newly discovered connection. He starts to see what life is all about just as his is going to end.

Overall: I thought this book was really good! I'm sure I didn't get as much out of just reading it that I would have in a lit class but I enjoyed what I did get. An interesting tidbit I learned about myself while reading this book is how little faith I have in the justice system. When Bigger goes to court I knew he'd be convicted. I never thought for a minute that a jury of white men in the '30s would let a black boy off. I knew it was doomed from the start. I loved Bigger's realization that we all feel the same emotions and as a result are able to relate to each other, that we aren't so different regardless of skin color or political affiliations. And you want so badly for him to live, so that he can get a more solid grasp on the budding hopeful feelings. I loved Boris Max's speech to the court room about who Bigger was and why he felt cornered and why senseless violence is going to continue between white and blacks until something changes. Max says "You cannot kill this man, Your Honor, for we have made it plain that we do not recognize that he lives!" I think that's a great statement of how life was for them.

Though I couldn't fully relate to every idea pit forward in this book, I understood what Wright was trying to say, and I think he did a great job with it. I think it's a must read for Americans so that we see how wrong persecution is, and so that we don't repeat the mistake with a different demographic.

I would highly recommend this book!!

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