by Richard Wright
Time 100 Novels, Modern Library #20, Guardian 1000 Novels
It's hard for me, a white, middle-class man who group up largely with other white, middle-class people, to understand a character like Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright's Native Son. Bigger lives in a studio apartment with his mother, brother, sister, and, in the opening scene, a rather large rat. His life choices pretty much boil down to a life of petty crime or one of menial labor. Only when Bigger accidentally murders a white girl does a third option present itself.
Native Son is aware of the psychological factors that lead to the creation of Bigger and those like him. An early scene at the pool room highlights Bigger's mental state. To his friends, Bigger looks like a tough, a bully, a loose cannon - but underpinning his outward machismo is fear. He knows he can't back out of the robbery he planned, but he's terrified to go through with it, so he picks a fight with one of his friends to sabotage the plan. He lives in a constant state of fear, but cannot at any time admit that he is afraid. Ultimately, this same fear leads him to commit two murders.
The sociological factors loom even larger than the psychological ones, though. Bigger's fear does not come from nowhere, nor it unique to him. It is constantly reinforced through his interactions with white people, both seen and unseen. He lives in a crowded, overpriced apartment while apartments elsewhere in the city remain vacant, because the real estate moguls will only rent to African-Americans in the "black belt." He robs blacks but knows the penalties will be much more severe for robbing whites. He knows being alone with a white girl is grounds for accusations of rape. Even the kindness shown him by two liberal communists just reinforces the wall between Bigger and the white world:
[T]hey made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him, one holding his hand and the other smiling. He felt he had no physical existence at all right then; he was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin. It was a shadowy region, a No Man's Land, the ground that separated the white world from the black that he stood upon.The sociological factors are summed up in lawyer Boris Max' long, didactic monologue late in the book.
I see a lot of parallels between Native Son and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The plots mirror each other, and both Dreiser and Wright are much more concerned about what motivated the crime than the crime itself, and what those motivations say about society in general. It wasn't surprising to learn that Wright was a fan of Dreiser and the school of naturalism. Wright carefully avoids absolving Bigger for his actions, but neither does he hold society blameless. Native Son arguably is as significant a sociological text as it is a literary one.