Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Richard Wright, the narrator of the autobiography and the black boy who is the subject of the story. Richard begins his narrative when he is four years old, describing an incident in which he attempts to set his house on fire out of boredom and frustration with his restricted life within his family. He traces his life from that point on, describing numerous adventures and challenges that mark his journey to young adulthood. These challenges include physical ones, including the hunger that the poverty-stricken Wrights experience when Mr. Wright abandons his wife and two sons, and spiritual ones, including the search for himself within an environment that is racially charged and hostile to a young black boy growing up in America. Ultimately, Wright goes to Chicago, Illinois, where he joins the Communist Party before learning that his calling in life is to be a solitary individual, not a member of an organized group, and to be a writer whose weapons will be the words he uses.
Ella Wright, Richard’s mother, whose physical weakness makes it difficult for her to care for and even love her sons Richard and Leon. She moves her sons from place to place, temporarily housing them in an orphanage, as she tries to survive and provide for the boys, whom her husband abandoned when he left her and them for another woman.
Nathan Wright, Richard’s father, who...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
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Richard is the protagonist of the story— the "black boy." He sees himself as a victim of his surroundings, an existentialist view of limited choice in every circumstance. The only thing he is ever sure of, that which drives him to leave the South and tell his story, is the idea that his conception of the world is unique, and that this makes him different. He is certain of this by the age of twelve when, as he says at the end of Chapter 3, he has a "notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering." In contrast to his father, a peasant who is struggling to wrest a living out of the soil, Richard is aware of words, aware of the world, and insistent that the world can be different, even if the difference is only that he does not need to mop up after white people.
The novel opens with the white, ill, face of Grandma Bolden Wilson. Her face disturbs young Richard because he cannot understand how a person with such white skin can be considered "black." Richard's most important conflict with Grandma, however, is summed up at the start of Chapter 4: "Granny was an ardent member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and I was compelled to make a pretense of worshipping her God, which was her exaction for my keep." Ardent is not a strong enough word. Grandma is consumed by her belief in religion and its promise to reward her in...
(The entire section is 1916 words.)
Grandma Bolden Wilson
Richard opens his novel with Granny's white, ill, face. This face disturbs Richard as a little boy because he fails to see how such a white-skinned person could be 'black'. The most important tension Richard holds with Grandma, however, is neatly summed up at the start of the fourth chapter: "Granny was an ardent member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and I was compelled to make a pretense of worshipping her God, which was her exaction for my keep." Ardent is not a strong enough word. Grandma is consumed by her belief in religion and its promise to reward her in the hereafter for the suffering of the Jim Crow now. Her zealotry, Richard claims, also means ruining his life. Grandma will not let him get a job that will mean him working on Saturday (their Sabbath) and thus Richard cannot buy food, clothes, and other things necessary amongst children his age. Grandma also prevents him from reading as he would like to or even hearing stories, like Bluebeard, because they are not the Bible. Indirectly, this teaches Richard all about the pretense and the hypocrisy of religion. More directly, due to a deal he makes with Grandma to pray every day, he writes his first short story when he should be quietly praying in his room and thus begins to harbor the idea of being a writer. Grandma sets the pace of the family as well as establishing its treatment of Richard. She tried to orchestrate his religious conversion but finally gives up, concluding that his inability to...
(The entire section is 288 words.)
Grandpa was wounded while fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War. Due to his illiteracy, he asked a white officer for assistance with filling out the paperwork necessary to receiving a disability pension. The officer misspelled his name as Richard Vinson. Not knowing of the mistake, Grandpa returned home. However, as time passed and he received no pension he applied to the War Department who had no trace of him. Eventually, the above story of the "mistake" formed but the War Department demanded proof that Grandpa was in fact deserving of the pension. In consequence, Grandpa spends the rest of his life trying to convince the government he is who he said he is. Grandpa, says Richard, is just "like "K" in the Kafka novel, The Castle. He tries desperately to persuade the authorities of his true identity right up to the day of his death, and failed.
Grandpa is a strong male influence in Richard's life who only proves to him that "manliness" is impossible for black men in the Jim Crow South. As a warrior, Grandpa has fought and been wounded for his country, yet the army never pays him the respect—or the disability pension—he has earned. In the home, Richard is also taught that men are "impotent": despite the fact that Grandma calls Grandpa in to administer punishment, it soon becomes apparent that it is she, not he, who rules the house.
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Richard's father is his lawgiver and his exemplar. Nathan is the only character in the novel that Richard gives a future glimpse of. Furthermore, by granting this future view of his father, Richard also gives a view of his present, writing, self. At the end of Chapter 1 he defines his father and he defines his own conception of himself. Looking at his father twenty-five years after being deserted, Richard says:
"I forgave him and pitied him as my eyes looked past him to the unpainted wooden shack. From far beyond the horizons that bound this bleak plantation there had come to me through my living the knowledge that my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city— that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing "
Richard's father left the plantation hoping for a better life for his family, but being beaten by the city, he deserted his family, left them destitute, and fled back to the plantation. Richard is ultimately able to accomplish what his father failed by leaving the plantation clay behind.
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Richard is the protagonist of the story—he is, the "black boy." He tells his own story as if he is a victim of his surroundings, almost as if he is an existentialist given limited choice in every circumstance. There is really only one thing he is ever sure of throughout the novel and which drives him to leave the South and tell his story. That one thing is a conception of himself as a person who individually can conceive of the world. In addition to this, he knows that his awareness of having this conception of himself in the world marks him out as different. His certainty of this subjectivity is settled by the age of twelve. By then, he says at the end of Chapter 3, he had a "notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering."
His father is a peasant who is little more than clay struggling to wrest a living out of the soil, whereas he, Richard, is aware of words, of the world, and insistent that it can be different if the difference is only that he not have to mop up after white people.
(The entire section is 215 words.)
Mrs. Bibbs, like most white characters in the novel, represents one facet of the oppressive society that confronts Richard from birth. In this case, she articulates the white assumption that blacks are inherently suited to menial labor. Therefore, when she hires Richard to do chores around her house, she is astounded to learn that Richard cannot milk a cow.
In the novel, Mr. Crane stands for the liberal whites who are well-meaning, but ultimately too weak to stand up to the prevailing racism of their society. Mr. Crane is a Yankee business man who owns an optical company in Jackson and he wants to take on a black boy with the enlightened notion of teaching him the trade of optics. Richard shows promise because of his algebraic skill so Crane hires him as shop boy, saying that he will gradually learn the trade. Unfortunately, Crane's other workers do not want to find themselves eventually equal to a black boy. Rather than risk bodily harm, Richard leaves the job. Mr. Crane is sorry to see him go and though he promises protection in the future, Richard refuses to divulge what happened because he knows there will be repercussions outside the shop
Not to be confused with Richard's mother Ellen, who is sometimes called Ella, this Ella is a boarder at Grandma's house. A schoolteacher with a "remote and dreamy and silent" manner, Richard is attracted to her mystery, though afraid. She...
(The entire section is 1133 words.)