Native Son, by Richard Wright, is a tale of a black man that becomes a product of his environment due to his circumstances that leads him into a fearful downfall of violence. Bigger can be described as the victim of a racist society and its racial prejudice and segregation. Fear is the dominant emotion that the protagonist, Bigger, feels as a result of feeling inferior to white people that run the city. Bigger is especially fearful of white people and the power they have over him.
He is afraid of the ordinary white people, wealthy white people and the white people involved in the legal/justice system. The other contributing factor to Bigger’s fear is the lack of power he has to control his own situation. Through the use of characterization and symbolism, Wright commentates on the terrible effects of fear, where fear forces people to feel trapped to fall into their only lines of defense: defiance and violence.
To kickoff, Wright uses the symbolism of the rat to emphasize the effects of fear.
In the opening scenes of the novel, Bigger and his brother, Buddy, try and successfully kill a rat. The rat is just as afraid of Bigger as Bigger is of the rat, and their reactions to these fears are the same: defiance and violence. The rat acted in violence in retaliation against Bigger because the fear it had of him. The rat “leaped at Bigger’s trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth”(Wright 5) as an attack towards Bigger.
While Bigger attacked and ended up killing the rat, its “belly pulsed with fear” (Wright 6) as it “emitted a long thin son of defiance,” (Wright 6). Wright opens the novel in this way as a beginning emphasis of the terrible and unintended consequences of fear. Along with the violent acts resulting from the victims of fear, Wright also shows how those like Bigger hide their fear. Before disposing of the rat, Bigger scares his sister Vera with the rat, all while “enjoying his sister fear” (Wright 7). Wright could’ve had Bigger just get rid of the rat, but instead shows Bigger taking pleasure in Vera’s fear to show Bigger hiding his fear so others wouldn’t see his own fear. This ultimately is the reason to why Bigger can’t control the way he acts when around white people. At the interview with Mr.Dalton he thinks to himself “Why was he acting and feeling (the way he was)” (Wright 46). The way he was acting was due to the fear of white people he had. It caused him to feel trapped, like he had no control on his own life at the moment.
Despite his fear of the white supremacy, Bigger takes on the “opportunity” to work at the Dalton’s household. The job offer was considered an “opportunity” and Wright does this with full intent. Wright uses characterization and the setting of Mrs.Dalton and the white community to explain why it was considered an opportunity in the eyes of the black folk. Mrs.Dalton is blind and, like most white people in Chicago at the time, fails to see the racial prejudice and oppression that they uphold to the black people in society. Blindness and ignorance are, in a sense, one in this case. The black people are too ignorant, or in other words, blind to the fact that white people are keeping them on the bottom by hiring them to be housemaids or servants. Wright uses Mrs.Dalton to represent how the white people see the racial oppression done to blacks. To continue, Bigger’s family lives in a beat-up, rat-infested one-room apartment in the segregated community of Chicago’s South Side. Bigger and his family have very few limited options and this apartment is basically forced upon them. In comparison to the white households like the Dalton’s, Bigger’s apartment is drastically worse. The Daltons live in a luxurious mansion. The house is so big that when Bigger is in there he feels uncomfortable. The house was so much bigger than his that he hadn’t “thought [their] world would be so utterly different from his own” (Wright 45). Bigger felt intimidated by the huge house. Like the fear that makes Bigger feel trapped, his house is like living in a tiny corner in comparison to the Dalton household he works at. Seeing the house made him even more fearful of the white people.
The search for what provokes people to act irrationally will continue to haunt mankind. Richard Wright would argue that fear is the motivating reason for violent acts and defiance as seen through his extremely influential novel Native Son. Wright would advise to everyone that one should not try running away from fear but accepting and embracing it to not let it make you feel trapped nor have you feel like you lack control, which fear causes one to fear.