The Existentialist view separates into two arguments, both of which the author Richard Wright may support. In the lecture, “Existentialism is Humanism,” by Jean Paul Sartre, existentialism is the purpose of mankind’s existence breaks into two ideologies; Atheist Existentialism, which conveys that man’s existence comes before he realizes his purpose or essence, and Christian Existentialism, the belief that God or higher powers foresees man’s essence before he exists.
The novel, Native Son, by Richard Wright, the protagonist Bigger Thomas is a nineteen-year-old man living in the poor community of the Black Belt who later kills the daughter, Mary, of his white employer, Mr. Dalton and escapes from capture when he the cops find the remains. Bigger displays the Atheist Existentialism view, where he goes by life as an open book, waiting to procure his essence in life. As he progresses throughout the novel, Bigger supports the Atheist view of anguish, abandonment, and despair as he strives to find his essence in life.
Although few may conclude that Native Son supports the Christian Existentialism view of essence before existing, the majority of the novel supports the Atheist Existentialism of existence before essence. The reader sees through Bigger’s actions and choices that he does not follow a predetermined path set by a higher power that chooses how he lives. This demonstrates that Bigger only exists before he finds his essence in life. In Sartre’s lecture, he explains, in support of Atheist Existentialism, that mankind’s purpose is only a compilation of his actions. He defines the ideology as “existence comes before its essence”(Sartre 10).
The “existence” suggests that man is made without purpose and is beginning as just living. Without a God, there is no set aspiration or predestination for mankind, and man is simply roaming around in search of purpose or reason for existence. This supports “before its essence” in which the speaker suggests that as humans live out their lives man comes to define himself through not a maker but by an individual’s actions and decisions. An individual is nothing but what he makes of himself. He does not have a definition before birth nor does society shape him.
However, an individual is gratuitous to shape his purpose and desires. Through the character Bigger, Wright supports the Atheist Existentialism as Bigger tries to find the purpose for his life. In this scene, Bigger kills Mary Dalton, a white girl from a very prominent family and tries to hide the evidence by burning her body in a furnace. He is now on the way back to the house to check to see if the body burned all the way. Before Bigger enters the house, he feels “a confidence, a fullness, and a freedom; his whole life [is] caught up in a supreme and meaningful act” (Wright 338).
The “confidence, a fullness, and a freedom” suggest how he supports the Atheist Existentialism as he feels free from a directed path. He is described as “caught up in a supreme and meaningful act” which paints Bigger as defining himself through his actions and has been living a life without any meaning. Throughout the novel Richard Wright portrays more evidence supporting Sartre’s ideology through Bigger. Bigger has just left his girlfriend’s house and is now returning to the Dalton’s. As he walks, he thinks of how he will be living this new life of his.
From the moment he felt in control over how he wanted to live, Bigger “[feels] that he [has] his destiny in his grasp. He [is] more alive then he [can] ever remember having been”(Wright 420). The phrase “feels” that “his destiny in his grasp” Wright connotes that Bigger is following the Atheist Existentialism by having control over his destiny and choosing how he lives. The description of his life being “more alive” shows that he is now free to choose his actions an ability that mankind is capable of doing.
Wright supports the Atheist Existentialism in which man is not predestined before birth and that through Bigger portrays that man is accountable for his destiny. From the Atheist Existentialism viewpoint, Richard Wright supports Sartre’s Atheist view of humans being in anguish through Bigger in Native Son. In his lecture, Sartre explains that as a human being, mankind’s existence concerns all of mankind therefore one is in anguish. He states how man “is not only choosing what he will be … [but] at the same time [is] a legislator [that decides] for whole of mankind.
Sartre describes man “is not only choosing what he will be,” he again states the main ideology where man gets to decide for his life but at a price. Sartre utilizes “legislator” and “for whole of mankind” stressing the importance of one’s actions that influences everyone. Sartre puts emphasis on man’s consciousness of his surroundings before his actions. What one man does, can affect everyone around him. This sways man to beget a positive impact to mankind. In the novel, Bigger supports the idea of man being in anguish as his existence and actions cause a domino effect to the fate of others.
As Bigger escapes from being captured by the mob of white policemen, he overhears two of his people criticizing him for causing them to suffer job-loss. He overhears that “Bigger Thomas made me lose mah job…. He made the white folks think we’s all jus’ like him”(Wright 361). By accusing Bigger with “lose mah job” and “think we’s all jus’ like him” Bigger is in anguish because he causes their job-loss and how the whites view Negroes now. Bigger’s murder of Mary causes an amplification reaching the Negroes of his community through lay-offs and instigation of riots in the Black Belt.
Throughout the novel, Bigger displays more evidence in support to anguish. As he escapes from the white policemen, his pride and arrogance disables him from noticing the world around him until he steals a Times newspaper. While he reads the newspaper, Bigger notices in a column “RAID 1,000 NEGRO HOMES. INCIPIENT RIOT QUELLED AT 47TH AND HALSTED”(Wright 367). Through “raid 1,000 negro homes,” Wright suggests that Bigger’s crime not only affects those around him but leads to the raiding of 1,000 homes of his own people unjust and without warrant.
Bigger’s one crime instigates a “incipient riot” that enforces the anguish in Bigger as his actions amplifies to a massive effect on the whole Black Belt as the whites scour through every building, home, and neighborhood. Wright supports the anguish ideology through Bigger’s murder creating turmoil and chaos in his community. In regards to the idea of anguish, Native Son displays the atheist sub-idea of abandonment throughout the novel. In simple terms, the idea of God is nullified and man lives without excuse.
Sartre in his lecture describes abandonment as “God does not exist, and … [man must] draw the consequences of his absence right to the end”(Sartre 13). By specifying that “God does not exist,” man is simply alone and has a freedom of actions. Man is not restricted to a predetermined path because there is no God. However, Sartre points out that man is inclined “to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end” suggesting that man abides in his own actions and choices, and that he cannot blame anyone else but himself. Wright illustrates Bigger
assimilating the abandonment thought that he takes full responsibility for the death of Mary Dalton. In the scene Bigger kills Mary Dalton and burns her body to cover the evidence. He contemplates how “She was dead and he had killed her. He [is] a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman”(Wright 145). By connecting “She was dead and he had killed her” Bigger acknowledges his crime and enforces it by taking responsibility. He continues with “He is a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer” Bigger has broken the peace between the whites and the blacks and takes credit for his skin color.
By stating “He had killed a white woman” connotes how Bigger claims the consequences for breaking the social taboo of society and the penalties he will face against the white community. Sartre justifies how man lives without the presence of God, and he is unable to blame a higher power for what has befallen on him but must assert complete responsibility for consequences. In other cases, this also relates to the fact that man is able to take full credit for the rewards he partakes because of his actions.
Richard Wright exhibits additional evidence supporting abandonment through Bigger as he recognizes that without God he is capable of defining himself and decides what path he takes. In the scene, Bigger is at home and realizes the meaning of his purpose. Bigger has overcome society and “he had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It [is] something that [is] all his own…”(Wright 167). The author states “he [has] murdered,” are evidence of abandonment as Bigger accomplishes something meaningful in all his life.
Bigger “[has] created a new life for himself” suggests how this murder marks a deviation from just existing to living with essence. Bigger again takes credit for the murder and embraces the idea of Abandonment. This simply means that he has created new life from this one murder and will guide to a new way of path. However, due to the reward of making a new life for himself, Bigger is also constraint to the path that he has made, the path of being a black murderer of a prominent white woman. Bigger will have to accept the consequences of killing Mary later on in Book Three; Fate.
Native Son depicts how man is in Despair in support to Atheist Existentialism. Despair states how man simply sets one’s limitations and goals based his capabilities. Sartre defines despair as “we limit ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which render our action feasible”(Sartre 16). Using “reliance” and “probabilities” Sartre connotes that man sets goals within his own grasp. Stating how man’s goals are determined “within our wills” that “render our action feasible,” Sartre suggests that man may set a goal then realize its difficulty; he may abate to a lower objective or limit.
Sartre enforces that man is in control of his own limitations, but sometimes man will either be belittled by obstacles or strive for the highest goals. Through Bigger, Richard Wright also depicts Despair as Bigger realizes that he has no restrictions. Bigger prepares to leave his family and thinks back to how he lives his life. He contemplates how “He was outside his family now, over and beyond them; they were incapable of even thinking that he had done such a deed”(Wright 167). Wright utilizes the words “beyond” and “incapable” to place emphasis on a “ceiling” of expectations on Bigger.
Bigger describes his feat with “done such a deed” to connote how he has done the impossible in his society. People in Despair each obtain a goal or destination in life and strive for it, setting that par they desire to reach. However, when obstacles emerge or discouragements arise, people may reduce that dream to what they deem “manageable” to them. Throughout the novel, Wright includes additional evidence that substantiates towards Despair in Bigger as he certifies that he has no restraints towards his goal.
In the novel, Bigger gets ready to leave his family to return to the Dalton’s house to observe the furnace and ponders over his accomplishment. He cogitates how “Now that the ice was broken, could he not do other things? What was there to stop him”(Wright 168). By stating, “the ice was broken,” Bigger turns a new leaf in life through his accomplishment and obtains the essence of his entity from the murder of Mary. He has passed his limits and “could he not do other things” suggests that Bigger will continue to supplant his new destiny by living his life and achieving the highest goals possible.
Wright continues with the rhetorical question “what was there to stop him” to display that Bigger has no limits now and will reach for the highest objectives in his life. There is no ceiling in Bigger’s existence and comes to a realization that there is nothing impeding on his path of murder and pride. Bigger supports the idea of Despair not only through the establishment of an explicit goal, but to the point where he has no limits to his capabilities. He finds that this murder has given him a purpose worth striving for in his existence and that nothing will intercept his determination of achieving his goal.
Sartre depicts man does not simply make goals to just lower them to an “obtainable” level and announce this false achievement, but he makes goals and perseveres for the incipient aim in their life. Through Native Son, Richard Wright supports the Atheist Existentialism through Bigger as he exists until defining himself through the murder of Mary Dalton. He lives in anguish by affecting not just one person but also his whole community by his actions and abandonment in that he blames no one and credits no one but himself.
Lastly, Bigger supports despair when he finds out his purpose through the action of killing Mary and realization that he is limitless amongst men. Existence of humans portrays an obscure mound of clay; man simply chooses how he desires to shape it through his actions molding it into a distinct and purposeful masterpiece, whether or not beneficial or detrimental is up to man himself. Work Cited Sartre, Jean Paul. “Existentialism is Humanism. ” Lecture, 1946. Accessed online, Google. http://www. marxists. org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre. htm 3/20/13. Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005.
Subject: Søren Kierkegaard,
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 November 2016
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