Native Son

It is clear almost from the beginning that Bigger Thomas is doomed, trapped in a downward spiral that will lead to arrest, prison, or death, driven by despair, frustration, poverty, and incomprehension. As a young black man in the Chicago of the '30s, Bigger has no way out of the walls of poverty and racism that surround him, and after he murders a young white woman in a moment of panic, the walls begin to close in.

There is no help for Thomas-- not from his hapless and dysfunctional family, not from liberal do-gooders nor from his well-meaning yet naive friend Jan, certainly not from the police, prosecutors, or judges of the racist power structure that sets out to track Bigger down after his crime. Bigger is debased, aggressive, dangerous, and a violent criminal. As such, he has no claim upon our compassion or sympathy. And yet...

A more painful, compelling story than Native Son may not have been written in the 20th century by an American writer. That is not to say that Richard Wright created a novel free of flaws, but that Wright wrote the first novel that successfully told the most painful and unvarnished truth about American social and class relations. As the critic Irving Howe said in 1963, "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. It made impossible a repetition of the old lies [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture."

Other books had been written that focused on the experience of growing up black in America -- including Wright's own highly successful Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of five stories that focused on the victimization of blacks who transgressed the code of racial segregation. But they suffered from what Wright saw as a kind of lyrical idealism. They set up sympathetic black characters in oppressive situations, and evoked the reader's pity. Wright was aiming at something more.

With Bigger, Wright created a character so damaged by racism and poverty, with dreams so perverted, and with human sensibilities so eroded, that he had no claim on the compassion of the reader. Even on the last page, in Bigger's first honest, simple, human statement, we get a justification of Bigger's appalling crime: "’I didn’t want to kill,’ Bigger shouted. ‘But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder…What I killed for must’ve been good!’ Bigger's voice was full of frenzied anguish. 'It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something... I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em. It's the truth...'"

Baldwin's genius was that in preventing us from feeling pity for Bigger, he forced us to confront the hopelessness, misery, and injustice of the society that gave birth to Bigger.

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