Native Son Questions and Answers
by Richard Wright

Start Your Free Trial

What is the main theme in R. Wright's Native Son?

Expert Answers info

jxcampbell eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2019

write103 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Social Sciences, and History

Two themes emerge strongly in Native Son by Richard Wright: first, the theme of individuality as a force for good; second, the theme of oppression as stunting not only black psychology but white psychology, too.

Both themes interplay with racism, as Bigger (the protagonist) is forced into a role he detests. He must act subserviently when around whites. He is fearful of the consequences of interacting with white people, and his oppression is felt everywhere. There is no escape from living in a white world, and his character constantly witnesses examples of oppression.

Because of the constant fear, Bigger himself internalizes a racist outlook. He is unable to see whites as anything other than a force, both economically and culturally. Because blacks are portrayed in the media as thugs and criminals, Bigger feels he cannot trust the image of his own race, nor the images of his own American culture.

Throughout the story, Bigger struggles to transcend racism and see himself as an individual without the pall of whiteness interfering in his life. He is constantly reacting—reacting to whites, reacting to distorted images of blacks, reacting to his own reactivity. This makes him passive. He is also mired in fear and anger.

When he meets a white character who he can as an individuality, Bigger's own sense of himself changes. The character of Max, who befriends Bigger, is trustworthy enough for a relationship to develop that is multi-faceted. In Max, Bigger sees a person and not only an oppressive force.

Both Max and Bigger grow through the relationship, representing how understanding can turn the tables on racism. Oppression, as Wright chronicles and observes, not only undermines the victims (African-Americans) but betrays the oppressors (whites) by turning them into unfeeling and weak through a false sense of superiority.

The characters of the Daltons, white philanthropists, expertly represent how whites are cut off from their own ambition of kindness and equality. While the Daltons give, their real attitude towards blacks is condescending and insincere. They can't see Bigger as an individual and are motivated by guilt. They make a lot of assumptions about Bigger out of their sense of making themselves feel better for his poverty.

Bigger's struggle to free himself from his own resentments, justifiable rage, and limited worldview illustrates his burgeoning individuality and his acknowledgement that racism is real. His relationship with Max also shows how the individual can overcome prejudice and that individuals on both sides suffer for the stereotypes. This doesn't mean that racism and oppression don't continue, but they are mitigated when black and white Americans both see beyond the veil of appearance and generalities.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

Kitty Sharp eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2010

write1,509 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Social Sciences, and History

The main theme of Wright's Native Son has to do with the context of fear that people are forced to live under when institutionalized racism is present in society.  The novel's protagonist Bigger Thomas is so afraid that he will be accused of rape that he unintentionally murders Mary Dalton.  Again, his fear causes him to act irrationally, irresponsibly, and immorally to cover up his crime.  Bigger then becomes consumed by the fear of being caught that he continues to behave in strange ways.  When he exerts violence against his girlfriend Bessie and is caught, this rape and murder go virtually unnoticed when paralled to the murder of Mary.  All these problems stem from Bigger's initial fear that he will be accused by Mary's mother if she finds him in Mary's bedroom, a fear that is driven by the institutionalized racism and stereotypes of the time.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial