Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Native Son, Part II

I have officially survived Native Son. This is an achievement.

I disagree, though, with one statement made about it both in the afterword by John Reilly and in the introduction by Richard Wright himself. Richard Wright says:
I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom's Children. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest.</i>
And John Reilly further interprets this statement (perhaps wrongly, perhaps overstepping what Richard Wright actually meant, but I don't know):
The story is thus calculated to show Bigger Thomas as a man brutalized and depraved beyond ordinary humanity.
An explanation for this shocking conception is Wright's fear that in his first book he had made a naive mistake. In Uncle Tom's Children he had collected five stories based on the victimization of Negroes who in various ways violated the Jim Crow conventions which forbid any human familiarity between black and white. The pathetic situations of the stories were certain to draw pity from any but the most benighted readers; but that was just the trouble. Pity can purge us of hostility and arouse feelings of identification with the characters, but it can also be a consoling reassurance which leads us to believe that we have understood, and that, in pitying, we have even done something to right a wrong. In Native Son Wright allows no chance for such evasion. "It would be so hard and deep," he said, that readers would have to face the truth "without the consolation of tears."
No danger of tears with Bigger Thomas. He is a character to shock everyone. The liberal who believes himself a friend of the Negro cause is disappointed, for Bigger is grim proof that racial differences in America are far more than skin deep.
I'm not sure whether Richard Wright would agree with John Reilly that all this was quite what he was trying to accomplish, because I do not think that it is what Richard Wright actually succeeded in accomplishing at all. I do not think that Bigger Thomas is in the least tiny bit a difficult character to pity, relate to, or sympathize with. Certainly it would be very easy to write a book about a rapist and murderer which would make him difficult to pity, relate to, or sympathize with; but that is not the book that Richard Wright wrote. On the contrary, everything comes about so accidentally, in such a panic of helplessness and the atrociously bad judgment of youth that it's impossible not to relate to him - the scenario he plays out is such a classic anxiety nightmare that everyone everywhere has had nightmares of, that through our innocent incompetence and panic we could accidentally find ourselves responsible for something horrifying.

I compare this book to another novel about a somewhat sympathetic murderer from an oppressed class of people who murdered a woman who was his oppressor: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Considering Richard Wright's fascination with Russia, I don't think Richard Wright could possibly have not read Crime and Punishment before writing Native Son; I don't think he could possibly not have been influenced by Crime and Punishment in his writing of Native Son. But though both novels set themselves the challenging task of making murderers likable, Native Son is far more effective and successful and thoroughly convincing at it. Crime and Punishment makes a valiant effort in the beginning, but subsides into a sort of half-hearted fence-sitting in which Dostoyevsky admits he does not really quite know whether to cympathize with Raskolnikov or not. Richard Wright, on the other hand, does not fail to sympathize with the murder victims but does not for a single second confuse that with the slightest lack of sympathy for Bigger Thomas.

I do not think that Richard Wright intended to create a character that we could not have the comfort of relating to and sympathizing with; rather, I think he intended to create a character that we would relate to and sympathize with, but whose persecutors we would be forced to also relate to and sympathize with. That is the true innovation of Native Son: it is not that Richard Wright's black characters in this book are any less easy to relate to than any other book's black characters, but rather that the white characters who are oppressing them are easy to relate to as well. The white characters are not given any evidence to prove to them that the death was an accident, and all of Bigger's panicked coverup attempts are sufficiently outlandish (hacking the corpse's head off and shoving it in the family furnace, when if only he'd had sufficient trust in the system to leave the corpse where it was and run panicking to her parents apologizing for it, he could at least have been exonerated from the false charges of rape and probably painted in the courtroom as being somewhat less remorseless) that it's not difficult at all to see why the family would assume the worst about him. It's possible to see, simultaneously, why Bigger did not have any of the trust in the white people's system that might have enabled him to at least get life in prison instead of the death penalty, and also why the white people do not have the trust in Bigger (or perhaps more to the point, the understanding of Bigger's lack of trust in them) that might have enabled them to believe his story when he said that Mary's death was an accident.

So in effect, Richard Wright made this book scarier to white people simply by being more sympathetic to us. Think that concept over a while.
Tags: books
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