Naturalism in Native Son
Richard Wright's novel Native Son is a frightening and disturbing portrait of an individual rejected by society. The novel's protagonist is the ignorant, violent, and detestable Bigger Thomas, a young black boy living in 1930's Chicago. To help his family, Bigger reluctantly begins working as a chauffeur for the Daltons, the family of a millionaire real-estate magnate. When young Mary Dalton and her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone try to reach out to Bigger, he reacts as his environment has conditioned him to: in hate, fear, and shame. Later that night, he carries a drunk Mary up to her room and seems on the verge of taking sexual advantage of the girl. Frantically fearful of discovery when her blind mother enters the room, he accidentally smothers her to death with a pillow, afterwards burning her body in the Daltons' furnace—first beheading her so that she will fit inside. After this gruesome murder, Bigger chillingly accepts what he has done, and realizes that it has made him feel free for the first time, fully responsible for his own actions. His behavior leads him to rape and murder his girlfriend Bessie in the same state of frantic fear, and eventually sends him to the electric chair. In exploring the character of Bigger Thomas, Wright's purpose is to show how a society that perpetuates racist oppression leads naturally to the creation of emotionally stunted and alienated individuals who act in the only way their society has taught them to know: in hatred, fear, and violence. Wright uses setting and symbolism to emphasize the literary philosophy of naturalism, showing that it is Bigger's social environment that has molded him into a violent and brutal person. An essay, written by Wright, explaining Native Son, is entitled How "Bigger" Was Born. The title refers to Wright's inspiration for the character— but the title is a perfect summary: the novel is about the creation of a person like Bigger.
Naturalism is a philosophy and style of writing that emphasizes the animalistic and instinctive qualities of human behavior, portraying human actions as environmentally determined. It also stresses the eternal conflict between man and his environment— either the amoral and uncaring forces of Nature, or a society in which the subject is marginalized. Native Son's Bigger is a prime example of such a subject. Though the white-dominated society about him, in which whites "own the world," (pg. 23) and a white businessman is "like a god" (pg. 199), utterly excludes and disregards him, he is nevertheless its "Native Son." He is not an evil foreign influence; he is as intimate a product of the society about him as a son is to his father. In a world where blacks are oppressed and an emotional climate of fear, hatred, and mistrust pervades all race relationships, Bigger's actions are an inevitable outcome. Bigger realizes this, feeling that "His crime seemed natural; he felt that all his life had been leading to something like this." (pg. 119)
The setting of Native Son constantly emphasizes the philosophy of naturalism by portraying Bigger's environment as uncaring, corrupt, and oppressive. The opening scene of the novel depicts the conditions in which Bigger's family lives: a "tiny, one-room apartment" (pg. 2), rat-infested and crowded. The black ghettos of Chicago's South Side are a "world of steel and stone... hard... mechanical" (pg. 16). The South Side is the only area of Chicago in which blacks are allowed to live, a "prescribed area, [a] corner of the city tumbling down from rot" (pg. 199). Bigger's constant consciousness of this inequality is directly stated as one of the reasons for his actions: "He would jar [the whites] out of their senses," (pg. 199) he decides after thinking about racist renting policies. The ghetto buildings are old, ready to collapse. "There were many empty buildings with black windows, like blind eyes, buildings like skeletons standing with snow on their bones in the winter winds" (pg.198). The city, though so alien to the natural world, exhibits the same amoral disregard for Bigger as does Nature, so is compared to Nature's most savage realms: "the streets were long paths leading through a dense jungle, lit here and there with torches held high in invisible hands." (pg. 169)
Though the terrible conditions of ghetto life alone could probably create a person like Bigger, Native Son's setting is more than merely physical-it is the social milieu in which the oppression of the black race is institutionalized, in which every black knows that whites "say black folks are dogs. They don't let you do nothing but what they want," (pg. 406) where "they draw a line and say for you to stay on your side of the line. They don't care if there's no bread over on your side. They don't care if you die." (pg. 407) The institutionalized racism of nearly every societal organism contributes to Bigger's character. Bigger is shaped by the blatant racism of the press, which describes Bigger as "a jungle beast...utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization." (pg. 332-333) Bigger's alienation is increased by the cinema, which depicts blacks only as tribal African savages, and whites only as rich socialites (pg. 36). He is shoved aside by the real estate industry, which economically oppresses blacks, who "even though they could not get good jobs, paid twice as much as whites for the same kind of flats," (pg. 288) and which socially isolates them by allowing them to live only in the ghetto. His people are abused by the police, who badger and mistreat blacks, as described in How "Bigger" Was Born, which tells how police randomly arrest homeless blacks and torture them until they will confess to "any crime that handily happens to be unsolved and on the calendar." Society itself is in un-remitted opposition to Bigger and his race. The alienation and tenseness that Bigger feels comes from his relationship with the world around him, in which he is unceasingly aware of his apart-ness and of the ongoing antagonism between himself and white society. He reacts to his feelings, as he says, "only as I know how;" (pg. 406) the way his environment has conditioned him to react: in violence.
The symbolism used in Native Son also emphasizes naturalism in its contribution to the explanation of Bigger's plight. The juxtaposition of black and white objects is mentioned frequently. In an early scene, Bigger gazes "with childlike wonder" (pg. 16) at an airplane flying high above him, the white clouds contrasting starkly with the "black asphalt" (pg. 15) at his feet. The white clouds are a symbol of Bigger's hopes and dreams: that he can live as a part of the white world, that he could be allowed to "fly one of them things" (pg. 17). Bigger's wish is to have the freedom that flight symbolizes. His friend Gus, who watches the plane with him, replies, "If you wasn't black and if you had some money and if they'd let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane." (pg. 17) Of course, this will never happen. Bigger's reality is the grime of asphalt, not flight. Ironically, the second book of the novel is entitled "Flight"-though it refers to Bigger's ultimately unsuccessful attempts to avoid capture and possibly gain freedom.
The symbol of whiteness is also seen in the constant snowfall during the second book. White snow covers everything, representing the overwhelming power of the whites. As he flees the Daltons' home after Mary's burnt body is discovered, he falls into a snow bank: "snow was in his mouth, eyes, ears..." (pg. 254). The power of the whites is always felt in his life, throughout his being, just as he had said to Gus earlier in the novel: "'You know where the white folks live?'...Bigger doubled his fist and struck his solar plexus. 'Right down here in my stomach.'" (pg. 22) When he falls in the snow, he loses control of his bladder: "he had not been able to control the muscles of his hot body against the chilled assault of the wet snow" (pg. 254), just as he was unable to control his reactions to the white world around him, and murdered Mary Dalton. The snow, as a natural phenomenon, is another example of naturalistic imagery: Bigger pitted against his environment, against white society, battling the cold as he tries to escape.
One of the novel's most striking uses of symbolism occurs in the first pages. Upon waking, the Thomas family is beset by a "huge black rat." (pg. 3) The creature, ferociously hardened by its environment, attacks Bigger, who first traps it by blocking its hole with a crate, and then viciously kills it. "Bigger took a shoe and pounded the rat's head, crushing it, cursing hysterically" (pg. 4). The rat comes to symbolize Bigger himself, and foreshadows his fate. Like the rat, Bigger is conditioned by his environment; like the rat, he acts instinctively with violence when he sees himself threatened; like the rat, he becomes trapped by an ever enclosing mob of white vigilantes who comb the entire Black Belt of Chicago searching for him; and like the rat, he meets a violent fate, executed as a sacrifice to the howling, racist mob.
Ultimately, it is realized that Bigger himself is a prophetic symbol that foretells a future in which the tension of centuries of oppression will explode in anger and violence. The naturalistic philosophy of Native Son issues a warning: if the environment of oppression that society currently supports is not removed, a generation of people weaned on suffering and raised on injustice will come into mature being, and they will react in the only way they know.
Richard Wright's Criticism of Social Institutions
In Richard Wright's novel Native Son, direct and indirect criticism of social institutions plays a major role in the development of the novel's theme and its political message. By showing how American society was tragically broken in many ways, Wright issued a warning: that if the social environment of America did not change, brutal, emotionally damaged individuals like Bigger ignite the underlying social tension of the era and cause a terrible and violent upheaval in society.
Of all the social institutions Richard Wright criticizes in Native Son, the news media and press earn the dubious honor of bearing the most direct attacks. Through characterization of the newspapermen and excerpts of fictionalized news releases, Wright shows how the news media of his day presented a biased and sensationalistic viewpoint that held truth in low esteem.
Wright depicts the newspapermen who attach themselves to the Mary Dalton case as despicable vultures who care only about getting the juiciest news scoop. When Bigger Thomas, Native Son's equally detestable protagonist, first meets newsmen, he realizes that "they were harder than [Inspector] Britten, but in a more impersonal way, a way that was maybe more dangerous..." The newsmen are cynically emotionless; Bigger sees in them "a coldness that disregarded everybody." "They seemed like men out for keen sport," Bigger thinks. Indeed, the newsmen attempt to bribe Bigger for information and bully Inspector Britten to get him to reveal more information, saying "You're putting us in the position of having to print anything we can get about this case." The men obviously have no commitment to journalistic integrity, knowing that what sells is sensation, not truth.
The newspapers, in the grand tradition of Yellow Journalism, print sensationalistic stories that are more speculation than fact. They write of "drunken sexual orgies" in connection with Mary Dalton's disappearance, using emotionally loaded words: "in the grip of a brain-numbing sex passion," "little Mary Dalton," "the frantic parents," and "the radical's contradictory story". Only hours after Mary Dalton's burned body is discovered, the newspapers carry headlines stating: "AUTHORITIES HINT SEX CRIME," irresponsibly fueling the fires of hatred toward the black community. Blatant racism pervades articles on Bigger's trial, with descriptions of Bigger suggesting that he is an inhuman monster: "His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast." The newspapers perpetuate and inflame public feelings of hatred towards blacks while ignoring truth and concentrating only on the sale of more papers.
The importance of Wright's denouncement of the press lies in the fact that the novel's news articles are only partially fictionalized: Wright took many lines directly from real articles about a black rapist and murderer. Since the minds of the people, as Bigger' lawyer Max says, "are ... conditioned by the press of the nation," the press must be made responsible and truthful, or justice suffers and oppression is increased.
Richard Wright's criticism of the cinema in Native Son is similar to his criticism of the news media. While the newspapers present a sensationalized view of reality, the movies exhibit a romanticized one. In Bigger Thomas' debased existence, the movies are a form of escape. The movies contribute to a culture of violence. Though in Wright's time films did not depict the gratuitous violence they regularly do today, they give people like Bigger a feeling that they must be in a state of heightened sensation to be truly living--heightened sensation that can be found in movies, pulp fiction, sex, drugs, crime, and violence. Wright condemns this attitude by showing how it is perpetuated by society and by depicting the its inevitable result.
Bigger's life cycles through "rhythms" of "indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger." In a oppressive environment, his life is filled with a constant tension, which rich sensation can momentarily overcome. "Bigger felt an urgent need to hide his growing and deepening hysteria... he longed for a stimulus powerful enough to focus his attention and drain off his energies." Though movies fill this role at first, they seem to act as a sort of 'gateway drug,' leading him to ever more violent methods of release. Early in the novel, Bigger and a friend go to the movies and, in the dark of the theater, masturbate. The sexual release of masturbation in the setting of the movie theater reinforces Wright's theme. Later, Bigger's lawyer Max refers to the incident, which was reported at the trial. "Was not Bigger Thomas' relationship to his girl a masturbatory one? Was not his relationship to the whole world on the same plane?" he asks.
The movies' contribution to the culture of violence, then, is not violence itself, but a reinforcement of the attitude toward living that encourages violent and forceful living. The release of tension that Bigger and other blacks experience at the cinema is only a sublimation of this violent world-view. Because his entire life has been lived in a quest for intense feeling, it seems only natural to the reader, and to Bigger himself, that his life culminates in murder and rape.
Religion has often been used to justify oppression. During the Middle Ages, Church Hierarchies were used to make peasants think that their subjugation by the feudal system was God's will. In Native Son, Richard Wright reveals how religion pacifies the black community and makes them unwilling to initiate social change.
Bigger recognizes the escapist power of religion. "What his mother had was Bessie's whiskey, and Bessie's whiskey was his mother's religion," he thinks, referring to his girl Bessie's alcoholism, which she uses to dull the pain of everyday life. By giving people hope that the pain of this world will be satisfied by justice in the afterlife. The preacher who visits Bigger's cell tells him "this worl' ain' our home," and that life is "sufferin'." While what he says is true, he wants Bigger to accept it and trust in God to give him justice, not resist the world, the white society that shuts blacks out of the world and forces them to accept suffering. Wright and Bigger see religion as a passive force. Though the hope it brings to the blacks is positive, Bigger cannot accept it. "I wanted to be happy in this world, not out of it," he says. He sees that escape through religion plays into the hands of the white establishment. "The white folks like for us to be religious," he says, "then they can do what they want to with us."
Ironically, Wright did not foresee that it would be religious organizations, such as the church of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., that would lead to positive social change for black people during the latter half of the century. Perhaps, though, Wright's ideas made black church leaders realize the futility of social passivity.
Richard Wright's criticism of the court system is based on a belief that the system is corrupt and as racially biased as the newspapers. The third part of the novel, the book entitled "Fate," describes Bigger's trial in detail, and shows how justice was clouded. Racial bias, pandering, and the public pressure of mob emotion combine to deny Bigger any chance at justice. Wright shows how the judicial system is not immune to the prejudices of society, and can be manipulated for political reasons.
The characters of State Attorney Buckley and the coroner show that racism exists in the court system. Buckley, the court-appointed prosecutor, exhibits extremes of racism, calling Bigger a "half-human black ape," showing how the most powerful people in society perpetuate and support racism. The coroner and Buckley both turn the trial into a circus, exhibiting Bessie's mutilated, dead body, even though it serves no point in the trial. Though Max recognizes that they are "criminally appealing to mob emotion," the judge lets the men continue. Buckley and the coroner make accusations against the Communist party as they question Jan Erlone, Mary's boyfriend and a Communist leader. The coroner insinuates that Jan used Mary as "bait" to lure Bigger into the Communist party, and that he was complicit in Mary's murder. At one point in the trial, Buckley opens the window of the courthouse, allowing "the rumbling mutter of the vast mob" to "[sweep] in" to the court. Max objects, saying "it is an attempt to intimidate this Court." The judge sustains Max's objection, but Buckley's action shows that the mob is influencing the state's own prosecution.
The staining of the court proceedings by emotion and racism shows that the courts are not objective and unbiased, and that Bigger never had a chance at receiving justice. Wright shows that the judicial system is not used to correct social problems or rehabilitate criminals, but is instead used to exact revenge. This problem is still exists, as can be seen in statistics about the death penalty. Today, blacks receive this punishment much more frequently than whites, especially when the victims of their crimes are white. Wright's criticism remains relevant.
The Electoral System
Though Wright's criticism of the electoral system in Native Son is less pronounced than his critiques of other institutions, it still offers important insight. One of Native Son's important themes deals with power relationships, and the several instances in which Wright gives readers a glimpse of deeper political corruption show how power leads to greed and selfishness.
Early in the novel, Bigger sees men putting up an election poster of State Attorney Buckley. The poster features the prophetic warning "YOU CAN'T WIN!", and Bigger comments, "I bet that sonofabitch rakes off a million bucks in graft a year... You crook, you let whoever pays you off win!" The political system of rewards for campaign supporters and donors was very much in effect during Wright's time. During Max's defense of Bigger, he asks "Who provoked this hysteria so that they might profit by it?", and he answers, "The State Attorney knows, for he promised the Loop bankers that if he were re-elected demonstrations for relief would be stopped!" Politicians like Buckley use their influence in law enforcement to gain powerful support. Buckley promises to manipulate the system for to the benefit of those who support his attempt to keep his powerful position. He uses his power not to help the people he is supposed to represent, but to serve his own self-centered greed and lust for power.
Buckley promotes himself using Bigger as a pawn. The newspapers comment on the possible effect Bigger's trial will have on Buckley's run for re-election, and Jan confronts Buckley outright, "You're afraid that you won't be able to kill this boy before the April elections, ...aren't you, Buckley?" Abuses of power seem to run rampant. The election system itself is also depicted as hopelessly broken, with Bigger talking of selling his own vote, and voting more than once in an election, even though he was under voting age the entire time.
Wright's fictional exposé of corruption mirrored what was happening in the real world, causing readers to see that the political system perpetuates injustice and leads to the creation of emotionally warped and brutal individual such as Bigger Thomas. Wright's criticism shows how political injustice mirrors social injustice.
The Real Estate Industry
Richard Wright uses Native Son to show how the real estate industry supported and perpetuated the social and economic oppression of blacks. Mr. Dalton, the father of murdered Mary Dalton, is a millionaire real estate magnate, who actually owns the building that Bigger's family rents a room in.
The real estate companies work together to ensure that blacks are economically oppressed by overcharging them. Seeing a sign advertising Mr. Dalton's "South Side Real Estate Company," Bigger thinks of how his family "paid eight dollars a week for one rat-infested room," four people living in one cramped and dirty space. Later, Bigger remembers that "he had heard it said that black people, even though they could not get good jobs, paid twice as much rent as whites for the same kid of flats." During Bigger's trial, Max questions Mr. Dalton, asking him about his business practices. When asked why he does not charge less for the terrible homes he rents to blacks, Dalton replies, "to charge them less would be unethical," because he would be "underselling [his] competitors." That there appears to be a sort of informal price lock on the rent of homes to Negroes, shows that the economic oppression of blacks has become institutionalized.
The prejudiced sale of real estate also socially isolates and oppresses blacks. They are only allowed to rent homes in a certain section of town, on the South Side of the "line," an unofficial demarcation that segregates black and white. Though there are housing shortages in the South Side, blacks can not rent homes outside of the prescribed area, which naturally encloses a ghetto, a section of the city "tumbling down from rot."
Wright shows how the racist policies of the real estate companies contributes to the brutal murders Bigger commits. "Mr. Dalton," asks Max, "do you think that the terrible conditions under which the Thomas family lived in one of your houses may in some way be related to the death of your daughter?" Richard Wright's novel exposes the racist practices of real estate firms and warns that they are breeding brutality and suffering through their support of oppression.
White Businesses in the Ghetto
Wright exposes yet another instrument of economic oppression in his criticism of white businesses in black ghettos. Just as the real estate industry uses discriminatory renting practices, ghetto businesses owned by whites drain the resources of black communities but give nothing back, siphoning all the riches possible out of the ghetto and leaving only economically desiccated remains.
As he flees the vigilante mobs that are methodically searching the city for him, Bigger grown hungry and stops at a grocery store in the Black Belt. Though he would rather patronize a "Negro business establishment, he knew there were not many of them. Almost all businesses in the Black Belt were owned by Jews, Italians, and Greeks." These groups are still marginalized minorities, but with their mostly white skin, they occupy a higher place than blacks. Since these ethnic groups live in different parts of the city, the Black Belt has a lopsided economy that shifts money out of black communities. The only business opportunities for blacks are "funeral parlors; white undertakers refused to bother with dead black bodies."
Price gouging is also present in these white business, which further destabilizes the economies of black communities. "Bread sold here," thinks Bigger, "for five cents a loaf, but across the 'line', where white folks lived, it sold for four." Since blacks who venture into white territory are putting their lives in danger, they are forced to accept higher prices for inferior goods. While Bigger is in jail, he hears the cries of a black intellectual, who is being imprisoned: "...you dump all the stale foods into the Black Belt and sell them for more than you can get anywhere else!" he accuses.
The economic oppression the blacks suffer under only adds to the violent tension that builds up under these terrible circumstances. By illustrating in Bigger the eventual violent explosions that will result from oppression, Wright urges readers to take notice and begin righting the wrongs of society.
The System of Charity
Though Wright could probably have increased sympathy for his startlingly unlikable protagonist by making Mary Dalton's family symbols of society's wrongs, by making them racist and prejudiced, he does not. Instead, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are philanthropists who donate to black charities and attempt to help Bigger by offering him a job, a room, and an education. Further, he does not make Bigger respond positively to their offers of help-he in fact makes Bigger's accidental murder of Mary come as a result of her friendly advances towards him. Through this, Wright shows that charity is not helpful to the black community, because it is misdirected, hypocritical, and selfishly motivated.
Dalton feels that his donations are based in compassion and sympathy, but he does not realize that he is not really easing the problems of the black community. Even after Bigger murders his daughter, he keeps donating, telling Max that "what this boy has done will not influence my relations with the Negro people. Why, only today I sent a dozen ping-pong tables to the South Side Boys' Club..." Max is aghast: "My God, man! Will ping-pong keep men from murdering? ...This boy and millions like him want a meaningful life, not ping-pong..." Dalton's efforts are misguided, as "tragically blind as [Mrs. Dalton's] sightless eyes". They are a layer of pretty paint over rotting wood, doing nothing to ease the fundamental wrongs of society. Even education for a select few blacks cannot really end social injustice. The efforts of the Daltons do not help ease the oppression of an entire race.
Mr. Dalton does not see that his philanthropy is hypocritical and, in a way, a justification for his exploitation of blacks. As his company gouges the black people of Chicago by charging them exorbitant rents, he donates. Max asks him, "...the profits you take from the Thomas family in rents, you give back to them to ease the pain of their gouged lives and to salve the ache of your own conscience?" If he really wanted to "see the blacks have a chance," as he says, he would use his power and influence to change his company's renting policy.
Wright shows how charity alone can never solve the problem of social injustice. While money can help in a superficial way, fundamental societal changes must take place before oppression can truly be relieved.