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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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THEMES / THEME ANALYSIS

The following are themes of Native Son.

MAJOR THEMES

1. RACISM

Native Son is an indictment of racism. Racism affects Bigger's life at home, at the Daltons, and in police custody. The Thomases must live in their rat-infested apartment partly because no one will rent to blacks in any other section of town. At the same time, blacks are charged higher rents than whites. When Bigger goes to the movies, one of the films portrays blacks as jungle savages. After his arrest, Bigger finds that the press and the public are using racial stereotypes to portray him as a sex criminal and brutal mass murderer. And despite their best intentions, even the liberal Daltons and the radical Jan and Mary act toward Bigger in a racist manner by failing to recognize him as an individual.

2. BLACK RAGE

Bigger Thomas is angry. You first see him in conflict with his mother and sister. Later he turns in fury on one of his best friends, Gus. Jan and Mary also enrage him. He frequently thinks of "blotting out" the people around him. And some of his moments of greatest exhilaration occur when he vents his hostility in violence.

Bigger's anger seems to be closely connected to his sense of racial identity. He is often furious at other blacks for their passive responses to the limitations placed on their lives by whites. And he is frequently enraged at whites for making him feel ashamed and self-conscious. Does Wright share and approve of Bigger's fury or does he present it as a tragedy? Your answer to this question will depend on whose views you think Wright shares. By narrating the novel from Bigger's point of view, Wright draws you into sympathy with Bigger. You can also argue, however, that Wright identifies more with Boris Max, who seems shocked and upset by Bigger's attitude toward violence. What is your response to Bigger's fury?


3. RELIGION

Although his mother is religious, Bigger decides that she is blind to the realities of her life. He sees his mother's need for religion as parallel to Bessie's for whiskey. Both, he thinks, are passive, escapist responses to racist conditions. At the end of the novel, Reverend Hammond tries to convince Bigger to pray. But Bigger appears to reject the black church, and presumably all religion, when he throws away the crucifix given him by Reverend Hammond. Bigger identifies the crucifix with the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan.

Wright seems to be sharply critical of the black religious establishment and its representative, Reverend Hammond, who even objects to Jan's suggestion that Bigger try to fight back and save his life. You might argue, however, that Bigger's rejection of the cross and of religion is not necessarily the author's rejection. Do you find the views of either Reverend Hammond or Mrs. Thomas appealing? Or do you agree with Bigger's repudiation of them?

4. COMMUNISM AND RADICAL POLITICAL IDEAS

Jan Erlone is a Communist, Mary Dalton is a Communist sympathizer, and Boris Max is a lawyer who works closely with causes supported by Communists. Even before any of these characters appears in the novel, Bigger has seen a movie that portrays a Communist as a maniacal bomb thrower. Native Son contrasts the media image of Communists with Communist characters who are decent, warm human beings. Some readers think Wright's portrayal of his Communist characters is too idealized. On the other hand, Wright also shows that neither Jan nor Mary understands Bigger and that, despite their professed concern for black people, neither can relate to a black man as an individual human being. As a result, you might maintain that the novel criticizes Communists even while portraying them as victims of unfair stereotyping.

In Book Three, Wright uses Boris Max to present a radical social critique. Max argues before the judge that Bigger's violence is a predictable response to society's racism, which is the real criminal. Max also tells Bigger that young unemployed blacks like him should work with other blacks and with trade unions and radical movements. Many readers think that Max speaks for Wright and that Max's arguments are those of the Communist Party of Wright's time. You might question whether Max ever really understands Bigger, however. If you feel he doesn't, this limitation might be evidence that he isn't a completely reliable spokesman for Wright. Do you agree with any of Max's arguments?

5. DETERMINISM AND FREEDOM

Bigger feels happier and freer after he kills Mary. His violence against a white woman gives him a sense of power. At the end of Native Son, he even implies that his killings expressed his deepest self. You could argue that through his violent rebellion, Bigger has transcended or risen above the passivity of the other black characters. From this point of view, Bigger's violence is an assertion of his freedom and a rebellion against society's constraints.

But Bigger's lawyer Boris Max suggests that Bigger is only a passive product of his society. Bigger's violence, he says, is a reflex created by the oppressive conditions of his life. From this viewpoint, Bigger is at least as blind, passive, and self-destructive as the novel's other black characters, and perhaps even more so.

MINOR THEMES

The relationship between men and women is another of the themes of Native Son. Bigger's affair with Bessie is affected by the difficult conditions of their lives. Each uses the other as a means of escape, but genuine love between them doesn't seem possible. Bigger is attracted to Mary, and she may be attracted to him, too, but the racial barrier prevents Mary from even understanding Bigger and makes Bigger fear and hate Mary.

Another theme is Wright's critique of the criminal justice system in the U.S. Wright suggests that the court's verdict is predictable and perhaps even that the court is carrying out the will of the mob. Alienation (isolation) is an additional theme of Native Son. Bigger is isolated from whites and blacks alike, and his acts of self-assertion cut him off from humanity even further. Black family life is another of the novel's concerns.

Bigger's father was the victim of a Southern lynch mob. And Bigger's family lives in such crowded conditions that they get on each other's nerves. Finally the novel considers media stereotyping. Both the movies and the newspapers stereotype minorities, Communists, rich people, and criminals.

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