Richard Wright wrote fiction as a way of pursuing his thoughts on an issue—usually racism. The Outsider is a “novel of ideas” in which he attempted to clarify, and perhaps contribute toward a solution for, an issue that he saw as larger than racism. He was concerned about the possibility of identity, meaningful action, and fulfillment in the modern world, in which judgments of good and evil (for example, of racism as practiced in America or Nazi Germany) cannot be made on the basis of faith in the existence of a transcendent being or scheme regarding the value of humanity.
Wright addressed this concern by accepting the challenge, and presenting his critique, of two modern lines of thought with which he had recently been engaged: Marxism, as he had observed its practice in the Communist Party of the U.S.A., and existentialism, in which he had read widely and which he had discussed in Paris with major existentialist thinkers and novelists. Marxism emphasizes the determination of history and individual lives by economic forces. Existentialism, however, emphasizes individual freedom to create unique selfhood and value. Both propose that traditional systems of meaning and value that include the existence of a transcendent creator are untrue and useless. There exists no covenant (promise) between a god and his creatures, and no divine judgment. Wright’s strategy for examining these philosophies, as they would be lived, was to invent a protagonist who had found his entire life meaningless and revolting, but who possessed the intelligence and knowledge to analyze his predicament and seek an existential solution. In one winter of this protagonist’s discontent, he learns lessons about Communism, existentialism, and his own personality, and he also learns a hopeful truth about humanity.
Book 1 of the novel is entitled “Dread,” and Wright suggests throughout the novel that this state is shared by humanity in general. The epigraph, by the nineteenth century existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, characterizes dread as a psychological complex of simultaneous desire and fear, attraction and repulsion, toward every aspect of life. Cross Damon knows that the cause of...
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