Native Son


By Richard Wright
In "Native Son", Richard Wright introduces Bigger Thomas, a
liar and a thief. Wright evokes sympathy for this man
despite the fact that he commits two murders. Through the
reactions of others to his actions and through his own
reactions to what he has done, the author creates
compassion in the reader towards Bigger to help convey the
desperate state of Black Americans in the 1930's. 

The simplest method Wright uses to produce sympathy is the
portrayal of the hatred and intolerance shown toward Thomas
as a black criminal. This first occurs when Bigger is
immediately suspected as being involved in Mary Dalton's
disappearance. Mr. Britten suspects that Bigger is guilty
and only ceases his attacks when Bigger casts enough
suspicion on Jan to convince Mr. Dalton. Britten explains,
"To me, a nigger's a nigger" (Wright, Richard. Native Son.
New York: Harper and Row, 1940. 154). Because of Bigger's
blackness, it is immediately assumed that he is responsible
in some capacity. This assumption causes the reader to
sympathize with Bigger. While only a kidnapping or possible
murder are being investigated, once Bigger is fingered as
the culprit, the newspapers say the incident is "possibly a
sex crime" (228). Eleven pages later, Wright depicts bold
black headlines proclaiming a "rapist" (239) on the loose.
Wright evokes compassion for Bigger, knowing that he is
this time unjustly accused. 

The reader is greatly moved when Chicago's citizens direct
all their racial hatred directly at Bigger. The shouts
"Kill him! Lynch him! That black sonofabitch! Kill that
black ape!" (253) immediately after his capture encourage a
concern for Bigger's well-being. Wright intends for the
reader to extend this fear for the safety of Bigger toward
the entire black community. The reader's sympathy is
further encouraged when the reader remembers that all this
hatred has been spurred by an accident. While Bigger Thomas
does many evil things, the immorality of his role in Mary
Dalton's death is questionable. His hasty decision to put
the pillow over Mary's face is the climax of a night in
which nothing has gone right for Bigger. We feel sympathy
because Bigger has been forced into uncomfortable positions
all night. With good intentions, Jan and Mary place Bigger
in situations that make him feel "a cold, dumb, and
inarticulate hate" (68) for them. 

Wright hopes the reader will share Bigger's uneasiness. The
reader struggles with Bigger's task of getting Mary into
her bed and is relieved when he has safely accomplished his
mission. With the revelation of Mary's death, Wright
emphasizes Bigger's future, turning Mary into the "white
woman" (86) that Bigger will be prosecuted for killing.
Wright focuses full attention on the bewildered Bigger,
forcing the reader to see the situation through Bigger's
eyes. He uses Bigger's bewilderment to represent the
confusion and desperation of Black America. The author
stresses that Bigger Thomas is a mere victim of
desperation, not a perpetrator of malicious violence. 

Desperation is the characteristic Wright uses throughout
the novel to draw sympathy for Bigger. A killer with a
calculated plan for evading punishment would be viewed more
negatively than Bigger, a confused young man desperately
seeking a means of escape. His first poor decision after
Mary's death is to burn her in the Dalton furnace. The vile
and outrageous course of action taken by Bigger impresses
upon the reader the complete disarray of his thoughts.
Readers observe the absence of careful thought as Bigger
jumps out the Dalton's window, urinating on himself, and as
he frantically rushes from building to building, searching
for shelter. However, Wright also includes actions that
seem irreproachable despite Bigger's state of mind. His
brutal murder of Bessie, the only character willing to help
him, angers the reader. It is at that point that Bigger
seems most immoral, but Wright again shows Bigger's
helplessness. Wright contrasts the "insistent and
demanding" (219) desire that encourages Bigger to force
intercourse with Bessie with the desperation that causes
him to kill her. Even in the most immoral of acts, Wright
finds a way to accentuate the difference between actions
borne of depravity and those borne of desperation.. The
ultimate desperation and hopeless nature of Bigger's future
as the book closes and the death sentence is imposed leaves
the reader with a sense of sympathy at Bigger's plight.
Bigger's state at the end of the novel parallels the
desperation of Black America's present and the uncertainty
of its future. 

Black Americans in the 1930s faced seemingly insurmountable
challenges. Latent racism and poverty made them desperate
for solutions. Wright proves this through the life of
Bigger Thomas. He hopes that White America will realize
that only a desperate action could be expected under these
desperate conditions. Wright says of Bigger: "Never again
did he want to feel anything like hope" (315). The author
suggests that all Blacks felt this way when he writes of
the many families who were being persecuted during the
search for Bigger. 

This novel is a call to the nation urging recognition of
the desperate plight of Black America. Wright poignantly
tells the story of the immoral Bigger Thomas but is able to
draw sympathy for what many white Americans see as the
typical black miscreant by clearly defining his common
human emotions. Bigger's desperation to protect his own
life in spite of the obstacles around him makes him a
brilliant representative for Blacks in America. Wright
wonders and asks the question he attributes to Bigger in
the novel. "Why did he and his folks have to live like
this?" (100) 


Quotes: Search by Author