Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, was the first book by an African-American writer to enjoy widespread success. In fact, Wright’s novel generated much popular and critical interest before it was even published. Three hours after the book hit the shelves, the first print run sold out. Soon a school of black American writers—the “Wright School”— began modeling itself after the author in the belief that candid art about the black American would lead to positive political change. Wright suddenly became the most recognized black author in America. Today, the novel is essential to an understanding of twentieth-century American literature.
Native Son introduces a figure familiar to midtwentieth- century America, the lone man backed into a corner by discrimination and misunderstanding. Frustrated by racism and the limited opportunities afforded black men in society, Bigger strikes out in a futile attempt to transgress the boundaries and limits of his position. He murders Mary Dalton, the only child of a wealthy real estate magnate, by accident. Yet the act of murder gives his life meaning, and the consequent trial and execution are incidental. Bigger Thomas remains a seminal figure in American literature.
Native Son was the first novel by an American writer to deeply explore the black struggle for identity and the anger blacks have felt because of their exclusion from society. Many black American voices would echo Wright—James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, to name a few—in telling the story of an alienated protagonist whose search for self-identity and the freedom it brings must be achieved at all costs. Violence, drugs, and even religion serve as escape mechanisms for blacks who cannot face the fact that society considers them nonbeings.
Native Son's protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is searching for the power that will enable him to break free of the trap society has set for him. In the first section of this three-part novel, Bigger is forced to work for a rich family, the Daltons. Mr. Dalton earns his wealth as a slum lord for black real estate; Mrs. Dalton is blind. Their daughter, Mary, is a member of the Communist party, a fact she conceals from her parents by pretending that the meetings she. attends with her lover, Jan Erlone, are university classes. Bigger not only chauffeurs Mary and Jan to the meetings but is required to escort them into black ghettos where Wright satirizes their supposed liberal attitudes toward blacks. After one such foray into the ghetto, Bigger helps an intoxicated Mary to bed, thinks momentarily of taking sexual advantage of her, decides against it, but is interrupted by Mrs....
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