Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Native Son

To follow Dickens, I want to write about a novel that receives less attention in lists of Classic Literature.  Published in 1940, Native Son by Richard Wright is a phenomenal and heart-wrenching book that deserves to join the "greats" of Classic Lit. I'm not sure why this novel hasn't yet received the recognition it deserves, for there are several books published in the 1950s and 1960s that have already achieved this kind of acclaim, including several I have previously discussed: East of Eden, Catch 22, and In Cold Blood.  Nevertheless, I consider Native Son a piece of Classic Literature for a number of reasons.

Perhaps the primary attraction for me in the book is that the main character is once again a sort of "misunderstood criminal."  I don't know why this always appeals to me (such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Jean Valjean in Les Miserables) but I am so captivated by the protagonist Bigger Thomas.  Let me warn you - there is a lot of dark content in this novel.  Bigger murders two people throughout the course of the novel, and similar to In Cold Blood, the author never forgets or diminishes the significance of these crimes.  It is painful to read about his actions and the kind of train wreck self-destruction that follows.  The plot falls into a violent, spinning-out-of-control pattern out of which Bigger cannot wrench himself free.  I was overwhelmed with sympathy for Bigger, and my heartstrings intricately tied him up as an unforgettable character in my mind. 

There is a significant dimension of the novel that I haven't yet mentioned but you might have guessed if you are familiar with Richard Wright.  Bigger is an African American, and his struggle to grapple with his racial identity controls just about everything that happens in the story.  Wright powerfully illustrates the psychological damage that an unjust social structure can cause an individual.  Bigger does not particularly experience overtly hateful actions and slanders, but he implicitly views himself as dangerous through the stereotype whites have pressed against him.  In effect, Bigger is forced to embody the worst of the prejudices white people tend to set against him.  However, Wright also illustrates that Bigger has prejudices against white people as well, and he cannot see them as individuals.  Likewise, the psychological effects of these stereotypes affect the white people as well.  There are many symbols throughout the text that additionally suggest the oppressive roles that have engulfed black-white relationships in the novel.

Finally, I must mention the writing style, for Wright is an incredibly talented writer.  The novel moves very quickly and smoothly because of the skillful details and dialogue he includes.  Adding to the intrigue, Wright portrays the novel from Bigger's point of view and consciousness.  Bigger is an uneducated, reckless sort of character, and it is fascinating to get inside his head while he processes what happens to him.  His reasoning and self-perception create a fascinating experience for readers who would otherwise view the plot from a much more rational perspective.  There are many other dimensions of the novel that are worth studying and discussing, but I will end for now on these thoughts.  I truly believe this is a magnificent novel that is well worth your time, even though it is a difficult and depressing story to experience.


Melody said...

I read this for a high school English class and found it, like you said, a difficult and depressing story to experience. It's on my list for next year, though, because I figured that if pieces stuck with me for so many years it deserved a re-read. I'm looking forward to seeing how my reactions might be different this time around.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

Ive never heard of this one, but I have enjoyed your review. The book sounds very interesting and I will keep an eye out fo rit

Amy said...

When I hear that people are encouraged to read or reread the books I mention, it makes my day. I hope to hear back from you both when you've read it again!

Ellen said...

I read this maybe a month or two ago; you're right, it's a tough book. There are so many points (god, the whole novel if I'm being honest) at which Bigger doesn't seem to have any control over his life...he's just a product of the society he's grown up in. (I read a review somewhere that what's really going on is that he's crippled by the importance he assigns to what white society thinks of him. Interesting to think about.) It's hard to keep reading a novel in which the character is so clearly doomed from the start, but Wright is, as you say, a fantastic writer.

LifetimeReader said...

I stumbled across this on my parent's shelves in high school then studied it in a class in college--but both are now long ago. What a powerful book! I too will have to pull out my copy again.