Critical Context

When first published in 1940, Native Son was an immediate success. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and in three weeks 215,000 copies were sold.

Richard Wright was a prolific writer, and his other works include Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945), Lawd Today (written 1935, but not published until 1963), Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), and The Outsider (1953).

As literature, Native Son employs the tenets of naturalism and existentialism to portray Bigger Thomas, the stereotypical “nigger.” If, as the naturalist contends, human beings are the products of their environment, then the very title of the novel—Native Son—seems to indicate that Bigger responds to environmental forces. In true naturalistic fashion, Bigger does not understand these forces, and hence he cannot control them.

Wright is as true to existential tenets as he is to naturalism. The meaninglessness of Bigger’s existence is at one with the existential philosophy. When, at the end of the novel, Bigger says, “But what I killed for, I am!” he is accepting responsibility for his actions—yet another attribute of existentialism.

Native Son is naturalistic and existential not because Wright is intent on adhering to particular philosophical systems but because, as some commentators have observed, he found black life in America both naturalistic and existential.

Since Native Son was published in 1940, it has disturbed the complacency of Americans, both African Americans and whites. Bigger Thomas’s raw rage cannot be ignored; readers respond either negatively or positively to the novel. Wright kept the promise he made when he discovered that “even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about Uncle Tom’s Children. ” He vowed that his next book would be one that “no one would weep over.” In fact, “it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” In this, Wright succeeded.