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Native Son (1940)

by Richard Wright

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7,352941,131 (3.94)333
Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright's novel is just as powerful today as when it was written -- in its reflection of poverty and hopelessness, and what it means to be black in America.… (more)
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1940s (21)
AP Lit (237)

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Showing 1-5 of 93 (next | show all)
If I look at Native Son simply as a novel, it is a good one, inspired by Crime and Punishment, but set in the context of racial segregation in Depression-era Chicago. The crux of the plot is a murder committed involuntarily by a young African American, Bigger Thomas, out of fear of being found with a young white woman, Mary, in her bedroom, and the prevailing psychological mood of resentment at racial injustice, segregation, hostility, and contempt is compelling. But if I look at the novel as a message, I do not know quite how to take it. Richard Wright wrote with the intention of telling readers "what had made [Bigger] and what he meant." His explanation would have been easier to grasp had he written a straightforward protest novel about an innocent victim. The trouble is that Bigger is so malicious, and therefore the suggestion that racism made him what he was is so much harder to accept. He sexually assaults Mary; he feels sexualized misogynism towards Bessie, and rapes and murders her; he plots to get ransom money for the woman he has already killed and hidden; he experiences having murdered a white woman as catharsis for the racism the white world has shown towards him (e.g. "It was not Mary he was reacting to when he felt that fear and shame. Mary had served to set off his emotions, emotions conditioned by many Marys. And now that he had killed Mary he felt a lessening of tension in his muscles; he had shed an invisible burden he had long carried"; e.g. "He looked ... round at the white faces near him. He wanted suddenly to stand up and shout, telling them that he had killed a rich white girl..."; e.g. "In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful thing that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply ... never had his will been so free.") Wright seems to be saying that racial segregation could make a person not just depressed, bitter, angry, rebellious, militant, or despondent... but evil. "He had been so conditioned in a cramped environment that hard words or knocks alone knocked him upright or made him capable of action--action that was futile because the world was too much for him. It was then that he closed his eyes and struck out blindly, hitting what or whom he could, not looking or caring what or who hit back."

How does a reader handle Wright's apparent message that racism could drive an African American man to feel murder of a white woman as a self-actualizing accomplishment? What do we do with a novel that brilliantly announces the psychological experience of racism, but then goes so far in its picture of racism's impact that it seems like a drastic indictment of its victims as teetering on the edge of psychopathy? If racism did that to a person, then what was Wright saying about African Americans? Hence reactions like this one from writer David Bradley. First his early take on the book: "Suddenly I realized that many readers of 'Native Son' had seen Bigger Thomas as a symbol; in 1940, when 'Native Son' hit the shelves, they ... had probably never come into enough contact with blacks to know better. God, I thought, they think we're all Biggers." Then his evolved take: even if the novel should not be taken as a sociological report, "[i]t reminds us of a time in this land of freedom when a man could have this bleak and frightening vision of his people, and when we had so little contact with one another that that vision could be accepted as fact." He could not accept Bigger's character or its genesis as a realistic picture of the African American experience, and thereby drew this response from Wright's daughter excoriating him as a denialist: "We all have a Bigger Thomas crouching within us, although there are those, like Mr. Bradley, who need to kill Bigger on paper rather than recognize him as part of their own darkness. Mr. Bradley segregates Bigger in the farthest corner of his mind, denies him, projects him outward and lynches him. But haven't we discovered that the outward projection of shadows within is the very foundation of segregationist thought?"

It is hard to go all the way with Wright. Bigger's advocate tells the court at his trial: "Every hope is a plan for insurrection. Every glance of the eye is a threat. His very existence is a crime against the state." Here we are in the realm of social protest. But the defense, such as it is, goes on: "He was impelled toward murder as much through the thirst for excitement, exultation, and elation as he was through fear! It was his way of living!" and "Is love possible to the life of a man I've described to this Court? . . . The circumstances of his life and [Bessie's] would not allow it." This is beyond protest; it is exposing how inhumanity has made the victim inhumane. Are we to accept Wright's picture of a man's mind under racism so far as to believe that its victims are so warped by it as to exult in murder and be incapable of love? If so, this novel may constitute the deepest of all protests against racism. ( )
  fji65hj7 | May 14, 2023 |
17. Native Son by Richard Wright
Introduction : Caryl Phillips (2000)
published: 1940
format: 464-page paperback
acquired: February 2022 read: Feb 20 – Mar 11 time reading: 15:17, 2.0 mpp
rating: 4½
genre/style: classic novel theme: Richard Wright
locations: 1930’s Chicago
about the author: American author born on a Mississippi plantation, 1908-1960

A dark classic look at American racism in fiction. Richard Wright wrote for purpose. He was determined force the reader's eye coldly on the hard fact of racism. No cushion of sympathy, or pity, he draws the reader in so we can't look away, holds us by force of the novel, looking wide-eyed and horrified.

The first 200 pages of this novel were as intense as anything I have ever read. But it wasn't fun, it was awful, painful, yet still compelling. This is his masterpiece. Bigger Thomas, like the strongest of Shakespeare's villains, is all calculation and doomed for lack of consequential foresight. We're in a tragedy, but our villain is not part of noble house maneuvering for power, he is confined in all space, physical and mental, by white American racism. He acts within and against these confines, and when he crosses a line, he thinks only how to clean it up and get away. And it's here, Fargo-like, or Parasite-like, to name a couple movies, Wright leaves us. Shocked, stunned, trapped strangely in slow motion, horrified.

Mixing a few books at a time, I put the book down there (exhausted). When I picked it back up, the worst of the intense horror was past, but the book still had another 200 awkward pages of consequences, and contemplation, mentally search for ways to come to terms, and, even more awkwardly, toying with communist concepts. Bigger enters the legal system defended, without cost, by a Jewish American communist.

There is a nothing perfect in this book. It goes from evocative to uncomfortably horrific to oddly awkward. It doesn't fail. I was able to coast through these last 200 pages, and think about all that had happened, but it's a strange way to wrap this up.

Wright wanted to create a look at the human cost of racism without pity - and it certainly has done something of that sort. Five yucky stars for those first uncomfortable 200 pages, but less for the work overall.

https://www.librarything.com/topic/348551#8097035 ( )
  dchaikin | Mar 18, 2023 |
Good novel of the black experience and injustice. ( )
  kslade | Dec 8, 2022 |
“…she was dead; she was white; she was a woman; he had killed her; he was black; he might get caught; he did not want to be caught; if he were they would kill him.”

Bigger Thomas - a black man trapped in a white man's world. Angry, for so many reasons, and scared, for many of those same reasons. When those emotions collide, and he acts out, his world collapses. And it's not just Bigger who suffers. The wide social implications of his actions, steeped in racism, effect other Black members of his community and, of course, his family. This book delves deeply into the reasons why Bigger does what he does, and why the world in which he lives in is partly, if not mostly, responsible. It is as important a book to read now as it was when it was first written. If not more so...

“How on earth are you going to change men’s hearts when the newspapers are fanning hate into them every day?” Jan asked. A question that still remains unanswered today. ( )
  Stahl-Ricco | Nov 25, 2022 |
Published in 1940, this book provides social commentary on race relations in the US. Protagonist Bigger Thomas commits a crime, though he never intended for it to happen. The story relates what happens in the aftermath. I am not a lawyer, but I am pretty sure what is spoken at the trial would not be allowed in present day (though I have no idea what would have been permitted in 1940). Nevertheless, the author is trying to make a point, and he makes it well. Many of these racial issues are (sadly) still relevant. I listened to the audio book. Peter Francis James does an amazing job with the voice acting – the distinct voices, inflection, and clarity are simply outstanding! I can see why this book is considered a classic. ( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wright, Richardprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cade, PeterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Diaz, DavidCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fisher, Dorothy CanfieldIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Olzon, GöstaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pellizzi, CamilloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Phillips, CarylIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rampersad, ArnoldIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reilly, JohnAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schuck, MaryCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Solotaroff, TheodoreAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Oggi ancora il mio lamento è ribellione, la mia piaga è piu' grave dei miei sospiri" Libro di Giobbe, 22,3
Even today is my complaint rebellious,
My stroke is heavier than my groaning.
A mia madre- che, quando ero bimbo alle sue ginocchia, m'insegno' l'ammirazione e il rispetto delle cose e degli uomini immaginosi e fantastici.
My Mother
who, when I was a child at her knee, taught me to revere the fanciful and imaginative
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Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng! An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room.
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Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright's novel is just as powerful today as when it was written -- in its reflection of poverty and hopelessness, and what it means to be black in America.

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