The Outsider Themes

Themes and Meanings (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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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The Outsider Themes and Meanings (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The central theme of The Outsider is Cross Damon’s quest for freedom: “I wanted to be free . . . to feel what I was worth.” Yet at the end of the novel, he admits that he has discovered “nothing.”

At first, the protagonist feels existential nausea: “insulted at being alive, humiliated at the terms of existence.” This sense of alienation leads him to accept a Nietzschean view of an amoral universe in which man is destined to become either an executioner or a victim. The transit accident allows him to create a new life, to act independently and to see “what living meant to me,” but he discovers that the egotistical exercise of freedom destroys those around him, including the one person he loves.

One problem is that Damon’s effort to live for himself collides with his basic humanitarian feelings. In fact, he despises the will to power that drives men such as Gil Blount, and his multiple murders do not free him; instead, he becomes, like Blount, a little god playing with others’ lives. The idea of universal freedom, which is negated by the will to power, demands the discovery or creation of norms that will protect the freedom of others.

In like manner, Damon fails in his effort to live authentically. He dreams of becoming one of those “men who were outsiders . . . because they had thought their way through the many veils of illusion,” but the new life he creates and his relationship with other characters are based on deception. He cannot overcome his conviction “that bad faith of some degree was an indigenous part of living.”

As he is dying, Damon states that “alone a man is nothing” and wishes that he “had some way to give the meaning of my life to others. . . . To make a bridge from man to man,” but he fails in this effort. Unlike Houston, he cannot accept social norms in which he does not believe, so he dies, like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, with a final enigmatic reference to the “horror” of his life.

Thus, The Outsider explores the question of freedom but provides no hopeful answers. In the novel, opposing ideologies are rejected, society is shown to be based on pretense, human nature is portrayed as brutal, and the possibility of creating a meaningful sense of freedom seems remote.