Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cross Damon’s wintry search for meaningfulness and happiness falls into five stages, omnisciently narrated in books of the novel entitled “Dread,” “Dream,” “Descent,” “Despair,” and “Decision.” By the time Cross reaches the fifth stage, no decision can stem the worsening of his life that is suggested by the first four titles.
When the story opens, Cross dreads everything about his intolerable life, which quickly comes to a crisis under pressure from his fifteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, his abused wife, and his moralistic mother. Then the completely unexpected happens: He survives a subway accident and learns that a mangled victim has been identified as him. Cross takes this opportunity to create himself anew. Again, however, the unexpected happens; he is seen by a friend, and rather than return to a life made even worse, Cross kills him.
Cross’s life is now dreamlike, because he carries in his mind a twenty-six-year identity that he is consciously denying. He is only early in the process of inventing what he believes will be a new personality, and therefore he is at the mercy of external circumstances. An accident in the dining car of a train causes him to meet two people who will haunt him like images in a dream that turns into a nightmare. Bob Hunter entangles him in the Communist Party, and Ely Houston is insightful enough to recognize him as a fellow outsider inclined to “ethical lawlessness.” The style of Wright’s narration in this part of the story is not dreamlike, however, as philosophical analysis plays a major role in his narration and characterization.
In New York, Cross meets Party members who claim to be rational, objective, and benevolent but whose only law is their purpose of domination. Cross, needing human contacts to give substance to his new identity, and believing that with his intelligence and existential freedom he is more than a match for anyone...
(The entire section is 794 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Outsider is divided into five books, each of which focuses on a phase in the psychological development of its protagonist. “Dread,” the first section, introduces Cross Damon, a well-read black postal worker, who is caught in a web of circumstances that exacerbates his sense of existential nausea: Dot, his fifteen-year-old lover, is pregnant and threatening to charge him with statutory rape; Gladys, his estranged wife, is squeezing him for money; his pious mother burdens him with guilt; and his tedious job stifles him. A fortuitous public transit accident in which he is believed to have been killed gives him the opportunity to escape his situation and “shape for himself the kind of life he felt he wanted.” Yet, before he leaves Chicago, he impulsively murders a coworker who discovers his secret.
In “Dream,” the second section, Damon struggles to create a new identity. Initially, he finds himself “alone at the center of the world of the laws of his own feelings,” and in this dreamlike state he boards a train for New York City. On board he has a lengthy discussion with District Attorney Ely Houston, who is fascinated by Damon’s belief that “man is nothing in particular” or “just anything at all.” Damon concludes that “what man is is perhaps too much to be borne by man.” In New York City, Damon adopts the identity of a dead man, Lionel Lane, and meets Gil Blount, a white Communist Party official who invites Damon to share his Greenwich Village apartment in order to incite the racist owner, Langley Herndon. Damon accepts, and his new social contacts make him believe that “the dream in which he had lived since he had fled Chicago was leaving him.”
In the third section,...
(The entire section is 709 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1985. The essays “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Alas, Poor Richard” provide important and provocative insights into Wright and his art.
Brignano, Russell Carl. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970. Claims that The Outsider gained attention because of interest in existentialist philosophy and literature, but that in fact the book, like Wright’s late nonfiction, argues for reasoned cooperation in the creation of peaceful and free societies.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on various aspects of Wright’s work and career, with an introduction by Bloom.
Davis, Allison. Leadership, Love, and Aggression. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. This psychological study of Wright’s personality and life, especially the childhood traumas caused by his “sadistic maternal family,” illuminates many motifs in his fiction.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Places The Outsider in the context of Wright’s evolution from Marxism to existentialism, then discusses his critique of the latter as he turned his attention to the human potential that...
(The entire section is 649 words.)