In his novel, Native Son, Richard Wright reveals his major theme of the Black population in America in the 1930’s. In the opening scene of the novel, Wright introduces his condemning message towards the ugliness of American racism and the social oppression of Blacks in his time. The opening scene of Native Son functions by foreshadowing future events that occur throughout the novel involving major symbols that are introduced in the scene to represent other elements in the novel. The scene also establishes an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair as it presents the Thomas apartment setting and its contrasting image of the Dalton mansion.
The function of the scene is established by three major elements which is the alarm clock, the rat-catching, and the apartment setting. The first element that is introduced is the ambiguous alarm clock. The alarm clock that awakens Bigger Thomas and his family at the opening of the novel is a major symbol that Wright uses to attack American racism.
The loud ring the alarm clock gives off serves as a wake-up call Wright wants his audience to hear. Wright uses the alarm to represent his assertive message to the American public of the destructive effects of racism and oppression American society has accepted. His call for change is like a prophetic warning such as Elisha gives, in Biblical context, demanding the need for social change before it is too late for the nation of ancient Israel. Similar to Elisha’s warning, Wright predicts revolutionary violence and social upheaval if racism and oppression is not stopped in American society.
Another function of the alarm clock is its foreshadowing of Bigger’s symbolic awakening in the course of the novel. The clock in the opening scene represents Bigger as a powder keg, both of which are waiting to go off at any moment. Bigger’s climactic point of his explosive act of killing Mary serves the same function as the alarm given off from the clock whereas both wake and opens the eyes of those who hear it or see it. The alarm clock symbolizes Bigger’s new realization that he should not feel guilty for the killing of Mary because of the living conditions White society forced him to live into, which made him into what he is.
Another important element in the opening scene that Wright uses to attack racism and oppression is the rat-catching. In the commencement of the novel, Bigger discovers a huge black rat and his mother and sister jump in hysteria. Bigger then corners the rat, and as the rat attacks back, he strikes it with a skillet; then smashes it superfluously until it became a bloody pulp and showed it to Vera. The rat-catching scene is significant because it foreshadows Bigger being tracked down and caught in the course of the novel.
In the scene, Wright portrays the black rat as Bigger Thomas. Wright makes them resemble like each other because of their color and their unwanted presence. Like rats, the Black population are viewed as vermin and unwanted pests by White society. With this perspective, the public oppresses and controls the Black population to prevent them from getting near towards Whites in American society.
Both Vera and Mother Thomas’ hysteria towards the rat resembles White society’s hysteria toward Bigger’s murder and assumed rape of a White woman. Vera and Mother Thomas’ reaction towards the huge black rat is that of disgust and fear of what it may do. In comparison, when the public found the truth behind the killing of Mary, they panicked and feared of what a Black murderer and rapist is capable of doing. Wright uses this episode to reveal the intense hate the racist American society has towards the Black population. He also uses it to call attention to the excessive paranoia the public exhibits which is a link to the intensity and depth of American racism.
Another foreshadowing in the novel would be the representation of Bigger’s capture through Bigger’s cornering of the rat. In the beginning of the novel, Bigger blocks the exit of the rat such as how the police block the exit on Bigger later on in the novel. The foreshadowing extends also at how the rat attacks viciously at Bigger’s pant leg such as how Bigger shoots back at his capturers to prevent being caught. These aggressive scenes between survival and fear points out the result and effects of American society’s strong racist views as Wright describes the capturers drive to capture what seems dangerous and fearsome to them.
The last and final foreshadowing in the opening scene would be Bigger’s superfluous bashing of the rat and his act of showing the bloody rat to Vera. The scene is used to portray Bigger’s excessive beating at the time of capture and Buckley’s exhibition of Bigger’s capture and death. The excessive beating of both the rat and Bigger relate the abuser’s need for their thirst witnessing pain being inflicted upon their subject. They are also similar because their unnecessary abuse is a signal of the intense hate the abuser had towards them. Also, the exhibition of Bigger by Buckley presents the similar racist connotations as the beating does. In the novel, Buckley holds Bigger as a political advantage, stressing a racist message to Blacks to show them what happens to the unwanted Blacks when they break the law in Richard Wright’s time which consists of strict and racist laws.
One last important element of the opening scene is the setting of the dilapidated Thomas apartment. One function of this apartment setting is to set the atmosphere for the novel as a whole. The run-down and squalid apartment gives a sense of hopelessness and despair. The gloomy aspect of the setting describes the victimization of the Thomas family done by the society in which they are living in.
Another function of the apartment setting is that it is a microcosm for how Blacks live throughout the city of Chicago. The apartment is a small, congested room fixed with a kitchen and no walls to separate the men from the women. The inappropriateness of their apartment is exemplified when both Buddy and Bigger have to turn their heads away while Mother Thomas and Vera dress. These unacceptable living conditions are created by an oppressive society and creates an unstable Black society which produces people such as Bigger who turn out to be exactly what White society believes they are like.
The apartment setting is also part of a geographical contrast with the Dalton mansion. The apartment shows the unfair distribution of wealth as the Dalton mansion exhibits aristocratic characteristics with its multiple rooms and white columned porch; while the Thomas apartment has a mere single room, which occupies an entire family, and consists of a rat infestation. The contrast helps enforce the sense of the inequality and injustice while it also presents a divided Black and White society made possible by a racist country.
Altogether, the opening scene functions to attack American society and its oppressive standpoint towards Blacks in Richard Wrights time. Wright establishes the scene’s function by using these three major elements: the alarm clock, the rat-catching, and the apartment setting. Richard Wright central theme of change is produced by the opening scene to correspond with the rest of the novel as it stresses the warning of a possible revolution and social upheaval if conditions do not change in American society.