Native Son Analysis

Alhassan Bundu-Conteh Native Son Introduction to Literature Dr. Brenda Doharris Sept. 29th 2009 Margolies, Edward. “Revolution; Native son” The Art of Richard Wright. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1969. ____________________________________________________________ _ Summary In this essay, Margolies’s main thesis is that Wright’s novel, Native Son does have obvious flaws but its impact on today’s readers is just as profound as it was in 1940. The body of the essay is an enlargement of his arguments supporting this thesis.

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The essay can roughly be divided into three sections: the first section examines the weaknesses of what Margolies describes as “proletarian literature”. The second examines the plot consisting of three books within the novel. He then examines each of the three books and points out their significance in terms of the development of the plot. The third (final) section looks at reasons for the novel’s continuing impact and influence on today’s readers. Arguments. Margolies describes Native Son as a “Proletarian literature” and argues that all the weaknesses characteristic of such literature are inherent in Native Son.

The reader may not be aware of these flaws because Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas is decidedly the ‘Anti-hero’. He is weak, cowardly and thoroughly consumed by fear. Book One of the novel is appropriately called FEAR. It traces the different kinds of fear that ravage Bigger’s mind and determine his actions. Bigger is, angry, cold, devoid of warmth, love and loyalty. As his fight with Gus in the pool room demonstrates, Bigger is a fearsome but cowardly bully who enjoys freedom and humanity for the first time after committing two gruesomely revolting murders. Margolies then identifies some failings of proletarian literature.

First, Native Son is patently propagandistic calling for the establishment of a new and humane socialist system where such crimes as Bigger commits could not happen. A second is over documentation. Wright does too much documentation to demonstrate that Bigger’s actions, behavior and fate have already been determined by his inferior status in American society. His bleak negro world stands in agonizing contrast to the glittering, affluent and vibrant white world which is inaccessible to him because of his color and class. A third weakness is the lack of in-depth character portrayal.

Only Bigger is realistically portrayed in depth; the others are delineated as representative types of the social class to which they belong. A fourth weakness is that Bigger, in spite of his terrible psychological conditioning is depicted as the stereotyped communist version of black and white workers enjoying fraternal solidarity. A final weakness is Wright’s penchant for didactics. He instructively and obsessively drives home sociological themes in didactic expository (explanatory) prose when these themes could just as easily be understood in terms of the organic development of the novel.

Margolies sees other flaws in character delineation, prose style and theme. Wright’s sympathetic portrayal of Bigger does not sit well with many critics. Also, Native Son does not belong to one category. Although the novel addresses sociological themes two thirds of Native Son deals with the warped psychology of Bigger. This makes the novel a socio- psychological work with Wright probing various intensities of shame, hate and fear. A third problem centers on style. The novel’s point of view is that of the inarticulate and virtually illiterate Bigger.

Since he cannot express himself well, he can hardly convey his emotions to a wider world beyond his world. Therefore, Wright has to find ways of communicating Bigger’s thoughts and feelings. He has to interpret his feelings. Margolies sees another weakness in Wright’s failure to resolve the contradiction between freedom of action implying choice and his Marxist determinism suggesting lack of choice. The plot, structure and Bigger’s portrayal, are also at odds with Wright’s determinism. The plot is simple and consists of three books within the novel. Each of the three books has its own climax. Book one, FEAR, climaxes with the murder of Mary.

Bigger’s actions are motivated by fear. His fear of whites, the people that that keep him in abject poverty, engenders an insane hatred of them. But he cannot admit openly that he fears whites. He is a coward who masks his fear in naked acts of physical aggression toward other blacks- his fight with co-gangster, Gus at Doc’s poolroom is a case in point. Book Two, Flight climaxes with the killings of Mary and Bessie. In killing Mary, Bigger feels he has symbolically destroyed the white forces responsible for his deprivation, immobility and abject misery. Ironically, he feels empowered and free for the first time in his life.

The killing of Bessie reinforces Bigger’s illusion of self- empowerment; the Monstrousness of this murder simply thrills him. Book Three, FATE climaxes with the culmination of Bigger’s trial in the death sentence. Wright tries in Book Three, to put together all the significant elements of Bigger’s life; he attempts to demonstrate how all of society (white and black) has a stake in Bigger’s crimes. Margolies notes a philosophical weakness in FATE- an inconsistency of tone where the reader feels that Wright, although philosophically in tune with Max’s communist views, is more emotionally sympathetic to Bigger.

He also sees Bigger’s impassioned hatred coming out more impressively and vividly than Max’s eloquent rationalization of the socio- economic conditions and racism that have produced Bigger. Also, Book Three is dissimilar to Books One and Two. Whereas the latter two limit themselves to realistically portraying Bigger’s actions and thoughts, the former tries to interpret Bigger’s thoughts and actions in symbolic sequences. The scene in Bigger’s cell is illustrative. In addition to Bigger, there are the Daltons, Jan, Reverend Harmond (a negro preacher), his family, his gangster co-conspirators, Max and the district attorney.

In the view of Margolies, this scene seems highly contrived, as if Wright is confronting Bigger with all the major forces that have created him. In the last section of his essay, Margolies re-examines the failures of Native Son, and Bigger’s revolutionary nationalism. He advances reasons for the enduring impact of the novel. Native Son fails because its ideologies are inconsistent; it also fails because of what he calls an “irresolution of philosophical attitudes” which did not allow Bigger and other characters to develop fully.

He also contends that non of the three kinds of revolution in Native Son represents Wright’s viewpoint. Revolutionary communism is foreign and not an essential force in Bigger’s life. Bigger’s visions of a communist utopia are so out of his character that Wright is unable to sustain him long in it. Another kind of revolution, negro (black) nationalism is more in tune with Bigger’s character. Bigger accepts responsibility for Mary’s death because of his pathological hatred of whites. Killing Mary gives him strength and happiness because such and act outrages whites and anything that makes whites unhappy conversely makes him happy.

Margolies also attributes a political nationalism to Bigger- a solidarity with all oppressed black people directed against whites. He contends that Wright’s greatest success is in portraying Bigger as a metaphysical revolutionary rebel. It is in this role that Bigger’s significance is appreciated by modern readers. As a metaphysical revolutionary, he challenges the terrible conditions of his life, the agonizing contrast between his innate sense of fair play and the unjust actualities of the outside world. Bigger resorts to violence in order to exist.

Margolies notes in conclusion that Native Son is a powerful novel. Its impact on today’s readers is just as profound as it was at the time of its publication (1940). This is due to a number of reasons; the negro problem is deeply embedded in the national psyche and conscience, the socio-economic conditions that produce Bigger are still present in American society. His shocking monstrosities not with standing, Bigger is an integral part of the American society because he is its native son. His image is indelibly imprinted in the consciousness of the readers of Native Son.


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