Native Son (1940)

by Richard Wright

excerpts from “Richard Wright: Among the Literary Giants” by Gerald Horne  in The Baltimore Sun, February 28, 1999

Richard Wright was born in 1908 on a cotton plantation near Natchez. His father was a sharecropper, and his mother a schoolteacher. In 1914, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee where Wright’s mother worked as a cook for a white family and his father ran off with another woman. A short time later Wright’s mother contracted an illness that eventually made her an invalid.

Wright’s maternal grandparents, strict Seventh Day Adventists with whom he lived for a time in Mississippi, barred books from the house and considered fiction to be the work of the devil.

In 1925 after the brother of a high school friend was killed in racial violence, Wright left Mississippi and went back to Memphis where he worked as a dishwasher and delivery boy. While living in Memphis, he was drawn to the writings of naturalists such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Feodor Dostoevsky.

He moved to Chicago in December 1927 and eventually landed a job as a postal clerk. In his spare time he read Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Thomas Mann, Frederich Nietzsche and others.

By the time Wright moved to Chicago, his world had been shaped by three forces: racial oppression in the South, the Great Migration northward and the Great Depression which left many blacks trapped in poverty ridden Northern ghettos.

In 1933 he joined the Communist Party and became a member of The John Reed Club, a communist writer’s group. In 1937 he moved to Harlem and became an editor for the Communist Party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker. The next year he won critical acclaim when “Uncle Tom’s Children”, a collection of his short stories was published. In 1939 Wright received a Guggenheim Fellowship to devote full time to completing Native Son.

Native Son was published in 1940, selling 250,000 copies in six weeks.

Study Guide Book One:

As you read the first part of Native Son, consider the terrible irony of Bigger Thomas’ situation.
The problem of the novel derives from our simultaneous horror and sympathy for Bigger’s character.

  • How has racism, on top of poverty, shaped Bigger’s identity?
  • How does Bigger respond to these keenly felt but vaguely understood forces?
  • To what extent can Bigger control the emotions that drive his behavior?
  • From what sources does Bigger derive his notions about white people and middle class life?
  • What kind of people are the Daltons?
  • How does Bigger act inside the Dalton’s home?
  • What is so desperately wrong about Jan and Mary’s compassionate intervention in Bigger’s life?
  • Could Bigger have avoided committing the crime? How?

Consider as well the literary aspects of Wright’s art:

  • How does Wright render the setting: a Chicago winter landscape?
  • What is the effect of the novel’s inexorable sequence of event (plot) in naturalistic time?
  • Consider the effect of the novel’s radically subjective point of view; the universe is constructed by Bigger’s consciousness.

Finally, think about how Wright uses symbol. To what purpose does he put the nightmarish, resonant imagery which fills Part One:

  • The campaign poster for Prosecutor Bailey
  • The skywriter
  • The newsreel introducing us to the Daltons, Mary and Jan
  • The silent, wandering blind woman, and her watchful white cat
  • The self-feeding furnace

Book One: "Fear" (pp. 1-93)

The epigram from Job:

Even today is my complaint rebellious,
My stroke is heavier than my groaning.

Morning in the Thomas’ South Side Apartment (pp. 1-12)

  • What is the situation of poverty as we encounter it in the Thomas’ kitchenette apartment?
  • How has poverty shaped Bigger on a daily basis?
  • Yet this family has not yet collapsed under the pressure. What has Bigger's Mom been doing to provide opportunities for her family?
  • Is Bigger fated to be trapped like the rat he kills
  • What is his mother's prophecy? (pp.8-9)
  • How is Bigger responding to the the defining force of his 'surround'? (see also pp. 20-23)
  • Provisional Thesis: What primary obstacle must Bigger overcome to achieve perspective? (10)

On the Street (pp. 12- 22)

  • How does Wright use symbol in his novel? (Think about the political poster that Bigger sees and the skywriter above the city.)
  • What purpose does the unrelenting pace of the novel’s plot serve?
  • Note how Wright has placed the narrative perspective deep within Bigger’s consciousness? What makes this an effective choice?
  • How do Gus and Bigger use laughter to ease the tension they feel when they think about whites?
  • How does he describe the feeling he has in his gut whenever he thinks of white people? (and again) (pp.20-22)
  •  Can Bigger learn how to fly? Can he get the white people out of his gut? How? (pp.21-22)
The Pool Hall (pp. 22- 29)
  • Why is Bigger obsessed with the idea of robbing Blum’s Delicatessen? ( p.14) (See also when he speaks with Gus about his plan.)
  • Describe the vicious cycle of fear, shame, self-hatred and violent anger that possesses Bigger, even rising to hysteria when he thinks of standing up to the white world. (see pp.25-26 and pp.28-29)

At the Movies (pp. 29-34)

  • What sense of the reality of white America does Bigger get from the Newsreel?
  • How else has Bigger learned about the larger middle class world outside of the ghetto?
  • Why does Wright introduce us to Jan and Mary this way?
  • Describe the fantasy Bigger has about Mary while he is watching Trader Horn?
  • What do you make of Wright’s surreal choice to place Bigger in precisely this scenario a few hours later?

Terrorizing Gus (pp. 35-42)

  • Why does Bigger attack Gus and humiliate him with the knife? (35-40)
  • Describe the fantasies of violence that possess Bigger when he loses control.
  • Note that Bigger prides himself on the unpredictability of his mood swings and his potential for violence. (see pp. 28-29) Does he use violence deliberately as a release?
  • Consider the relationship between racism and black on black violence?
  • What distance must Bigger travel in order to grasp an authentic understanding of what possesses him at these moments? Is this leap of understanding possible? How could that be accomplished? Can society intervene to help before he does something worse?
  • Look at the moments after the violence as Bigger walks away from the Pool Hall and feels something warm roll down his cheek. (p. 41-42) Is he able to process what he has just done?

The Interview (pp. 42-53)

  • Why does Bigger carry a gun with him to the interview?
  • How far from Bigger’s home was the white section of Chicago's South Side in 1940?
  • Why would Bigger prefer prison to this job?
  • If Bigger were able to choke down his fear and hold this job, would it solve his central problem?
  • What role does Bigger play in the interview? What physical posture does he assume? Why?
  • Why can’t he just behave differently? Bigger is aware of what he is doing and hates it. (How does the white cat's arrival make the scene surreal?)
  • Who is Mr. Dalton? Why does he want to help Bigger this way? (Why doesn’t he instead stop sub-dividing apartments, jacking up rents and allowing his property to become dilapidated and infested with vermin?)

Mary, Peggy and the Blind Woman (pp. 51-62)

  • What is uncanny about the moment when Bigger sees Mary for the first time?
  • How does he respond to being in the presence of a ‘very slender’ young woman?
  • What is the extent of Bigger’s experiences with white women? (p.59)
  • Why does Mary’s behavior frighten him and make him angry? (pp.52-53)
  • How does Bigger react to seeing Mrs. Dalton in the kitchen? (pp.60-61)
  • Why does Wright choose to characterize a proponent of this liberal ideology in such an eerie and uncanny manner?
  • What are Mrs. Dalton’s plans for Bigger?
  • Why doesn’t Bigger want to continue his education? (pp.61-62)

The Night Ride with Mary and Jan (pp.62-80)

  • What is so desperately wrong about the eay that Jan and Mary’s attempt to befriend Bigger?
  • How does he react to their gestures of friendship? (pp.65- 69)
  • What is it like for Bigger to ride wedged between Mary and Jan in the front seat of the Buick? (pp.68-70)
  • Why is it humiliating for Bigger to be seen with Jan and Mary in Ernie’s Kitchen Shack? (pp.71-72)
  • Does Jan really like Mary? How demeaning is it for Bigger to chauffeur them around the park while they neck? (78)
  • What do you make of Wright’s choice to represent the Communists and their ideology in this way?
  • What do you think Wright’s Communist associates thought of this choice?

Bigger and Mary Stumble Towards Bed (pp. 80-87)

  • What conflicting feelings possess Bigger as he helps Mary to her bed? (pp.81-84)
  • Look at the moment when Bigger reacts to Mrs. Dalton’s presence in the room. (85)
  • What would have been the right thing for him to do at this moment?
  • Could Bigger have done anything differently, or was his reaction determined by the situation?

The Furnace (pp. 87-93)

  • What is Bigger’s first reaction when he realizes that Mary is dead? (pp.87-88)
  • How clearly does he think as he struggles with the body, the trunk, and his own terror? (88)
  • Could he have devised a better plan? What is ironic about this sudden presentation of Bigger’s improvisational skills?
  • Why does Wright imbue this scene with such horrifying detail: the self-feeding furnace, the decapitation of Mary, the white cat’s sudden appearance? (pp.91-92)
  • Is this just grisly sensationalism, or is there symbolic meaning to this climax?