Richard Wright’s Native Son is about the cost of suffering and sacrifices which one man, defined as the Other from the mainstream of society, must pay in order to live as a full human being in a world that denies him the right to live with dignity. As a social being, Bigger Thomas is completely deprived himself because he is unable to find his social and self-esteemed values both in the stunted ghetto life and in the oppression of racist society. Therefore, the only way Bigger can express himself is through violence and rebellion: Wright views Bigger’s tragic destiny as the evidence which directly reflects the violence of a racist society. Eventually, in Native Son, Wight’s accusation is directed toward the systematized oppression applied by the white people, designed to keep the blacks from advancing and attaining their fullest potentialities.
Wright’s major purpose in Native Son is to show how tyrannical racist society oppresses the external and internal condition of Bigger Thomas, and how Bigger’s existence is distorted in that oppressive condition. Under the external oppression, black people come to inevitably go through an inner refraction, extremely internalizing the external oppression into the self, at the same time. On that account, self-hatred, shame and impotence are produced. Bigger’s existence, also, is perverted from not only his harsh reality but his own stunted inner-self. Under this dehumanizing condition, he has to be “a dispossessed and disinherited man,” and has to struggle for his existence even by means of radical violent actions (Wright 466).
The deep-rooted discordance induces an inner-refraction, and promotes the fundamental fear of self. That concretely appears in the phase of Bigger who has to observe his family’s suffering, and suffers from confirming his powerlessness. As for Bigger or other black people, fear means poor, incapable and furious. At the same time, fear is an anxious state of mind that he/she is afraid that him/herself is really such a person. This is the heart of the fear that blacks, including Bigger, feel, and that Wright wants to warn of.
Similarly, in the case of Bigger, being confronted with the problematic condition, he is unwilling to confirm in his mind that he is valueless: “Each time he asked himself that question his mind hit a blank wall and he stopped thinking” (Wright 12). In order not to directly see his reality, Bigger suspends his thinking from the unbearable and repetitious everyday-life. Therefore, wastefully he just spends most of time in the trivial matters such as deciding to “buy a ten-cent magazine, or go to a movie, or go to the poolroom and talk with the gang, or just loaf around” (Wright 13). The following description well shows Bigger’s unconscious desire to look away from a grim reality. He stretched his arms above his head and yawned; his eyes moistened. The sharp precision of the world of steel and stone dissolved into blurred waves. He blinked and the world grew hard again, mechanical, distinct (Wright 16).
What Bigger wants is an escape from the “mechanical” and “distinct” society (Wright 16). Thus, he wants to see the distinct boundary of society to be blurred even in the short moment of yawning. He feels comfort in the instant moment that sharp distinction of reality is blunt. The comfort, however, offered by temporary optical illusion, vanishes even simply by a blink.
This kind of escapist-inclination is also revealed in the cases of Mrs. Thomas or Bigger’s girlfriend, Bessie. Mrs. Thomas retreats into conventional religion because she is unable to handle the harsh reality. Likewise, Bessie is frequently anesthetized by alcohol, swing music, and sex because she is afraid to realize herself, completely trapped by white-centered society. In relation to Bigger, he is momentarily satisfied with constructing his own fantasy: indulging in movies, dreaming of robbing a white-owned store, and playing white, “referring to a game of play-acting in which he and his friends imitated the ways and manners of white folks” (Wright 17).
Everyone in the novel is described literally or figuratively as blind people, from the state’s attorney, Buckley, whose sight is prejudiced by virulent racism, to Mrs. Dalton, whose blindness is actual as well as symbolic. As Brignano states, the world of Native Son is essentially “a world divided by a color curtain” (38), and no one ever really sees Bigger. Instead, they see what they believe because the blind people are “seduced by social stereotypes into seeing myth rather than the individual” (Felgar 100).
Before Bigger kills Bessie, he rapes her. He is not conscious that he is raping her because the meaning of rape for him is much different from its general notion. When Bessie said to him that “they’ll say you raped her,” Bigger effaces a physical part from the concept of rape, and he replaces it with a psychological part: Had he raped her? Yes, he had raped her. Every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. But rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one’s back was against a wall and one had to strike out, whether one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face. He was a long, taut piece of rubber which a thousand white hands had stretched to the snapping point, and when he snapped it was rape. But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day by day. That, too, was rape (Wright 227-228).
Bigger has no regard to Bessie’s continuous rejection because, for him, rape means both an irresolvable fury toward white people and the ineffaceable humiliation of black life. In addition, because he is completely immersed in his desire to do and to fulfill something, Bessie’s protests are utterly ignored in his consciousness: “Her voice came to him now from out of a deep, faraway silence and he paid her no heed. The loud demand of the tensity of his own body was a voice that drowned out hers” (Wright 233).
Contrary to Bigger’s elated state. Social reality is growing ever more hostile to black people because of his crime. Five thousand policemen are thrown about Black Belt, many windows in the Negro section are smashed, all white schools are scheduled to be closed until the black murderer is captured, and several hundred black employees throughout the city are dismissed from jobs. Especially, Bigger realizes again the blind, inhuman and white-centered attitudes of society after being captured by policemen. At a court room in the Cook Country Morgue, what Bigger comes to feel is not a sense of guilt but rebellion, which arises against the fact that he has to be degraded into the sport for whites even in the moment of confronting death. Bigger think white people have no right to watch and use him for whatever they want: He sensed that in their attitude toward him they had gone beyond hate. He was their eyes gazing at him with calm conviction. Though he could not have put it into words, he felt that not only had they resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more than a mere punishment; that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control. The atmosphere of the crowd told him that they were going to use his death as a bloody symbol of fear to wave before the eyes of that black world (Wright 276).
Especially, Bigger seriously contemplates himself and the meaning of his life through the conversation with Max. The dialogue makes Bigger perceive relationships between himself and other people that he has never thought of: If that white looming mountain of hate were not a mountain at all, but people, people like himself, and like Jan—then he was faced with a high hope the like of which he had never thought could be, and a despair the full depths of which he knew he could not stand to feel (Wright 361).
Faced with impending death, Bigger is aware of why he had to kill other people, and of what he did not know: But really I never wanted to hurt nobody… They was crowding me too close; they wouldn’t give me no room… I was always wanting something and I was feeling that nobody would let me have it… I’ll be feeling and thinking that they didn’t see me and I didn’t see them (Wright 425). “I didn’t want to kill!” Bigger shouted. “But what I keeled for, I am!”…. “What I killed for must’ve been good! When a man kills, it’s for something…. I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for’em…. It’s the truth” (Wright 429).
Bigger’s statement, “What I killed for I am!,” shows the awareness of his whole personality (Wright 429). It is not an irresponsible excuse but a painful acknowledgement of himself. Bigger does not assert his violent act of murder is good because he has regretted such violence by realizing, in guilt and horror, how it has hurt many innocent people. Ultimately, Bigger himself comprehends that he has been distorted, alienated and blinded his whole life. Equally, he realizes too much suffering and sacrifices have been paid in order to achieve his self.
Apparently, Bigger’s tragedy lies in that he fails to grasp the proper moment of life, recognizing himself as a full human being, and he only comes to grasp that moment on the day of his execution. His awareness is too late. In addition, the total awareness was possible in the condition that all the other opportunities were deprived by confinement in prison except death: Waiting to die, Bigger discards all hopes for living, because he does not have to resist being oppressed by a racist society and to fear being cornered by a harsh environment.
What Bigger achieves is not the splendid thing that all the people would try to gladly attain and assimilate. However, Bigger’s desperate struggle to achieve the meaning of his existence cannot be simply considered as a trivial and monstrous thing, even though the achievement has originated from violence and rebellion. Bigger’s self-awareness is important in both personal an social respects. For, in the personal dimension, Bigger continuously attempts to realize his existence, resists not to be a mere environmental victim, and he torturously achieves his inward life that makes him understand other people as well as himself until the last moment of his life. And in the social dimension, the problems of Bigger transcend the limit of race, and present with reconsiderations to think about other oppressed people in society. In the end, the tragedy of Bigger Thomas clearly shows the painful process of self-awareness of one human being who suffers from the oppression of social prejudice, and struggles to find his human value.
In Native Son, violence of whites and blacks is directed toward each other. The society, stained with hostility and discrimination, prevents people from realizing their full potential as human beings and excludes them from full and equal participation in society. In such condition, like in the case of Bigger Thomas, self-realization can only come through violence. Finally, the destruction from such violence is mutual: What becomes the tragedy of an individual ultimately leads to the tragedy of society.
Courtney from Study Moose
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