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Many of the most important themes of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son are announced in the titles of its various sections or “books.” Book 1, for instance, is titled “Fear.” Book 2 is titled “Flight”; Book 3 is titled “Fate.” Wright thus explicitly encourages readers to approach the book thematically and to look for recurrent motifs in its pages.
Book 1 deals with the theme of fear in various ways. In the opening episode, many members of the Thomas family are fear-stricken when a huge rat scurries across the floor of their apartment. Later, Bigger is afraid of embarrassing himself with his friends if he fails to participate in a crime. Later still, it is Bigger who accuses one of those friends of being afraid. When Bigger subsequently accepts a job as a servant for a wealthy white family, he is afraid that he may be accused of a sexual crime when he carries the drunken white daughter, Mary, into her bedroom. His fear of being caught in the girl’s bedroom actually causes him to kill her and hide her body in a furnace, which he uses to burn her corpse. Then, of course, he is afraid of being suspected of the crime and charged with murder. Fear, in other words, is a major theme of Book 1 and a major problem in Bigger's life.
Another important theme of the novel is flight, or the attempt to escape. This is the major concern of Book 2. Bigger, in attempting to avoid being suspected of the murder, casts suspicion on another person. In another attempt to turn suspicion away from himself, he concocts an elaborate ransom plot. Later, he kills his own girlfriend and thus has another reason to flee. Eventually, though, he is caught and thus becomes subject to fate, the major theme of Book 3, which deals with his trial and conviction. Attempts at flight create further problems for Bigger.
The novel, however, deals with other problems or themes than the ones openly announced in the titles of its “books.” The problem of race – of racial prejudice and discrimination – is obviously crucial. Booker would not find himself in quite the same predicaments if he were not a black person living in a highly racist society. His whole life is shaped by his identity as an African American in a racist culture. Yet socio-economic class is yet another important factor in creating some of the problems Bigger faces. Bigger is not only black; he is a poor, uneducated black person in a culture in which money is highly important. If Bigger had been born into the black middle class of his time (which did in fact exist), he would have had many more opportunities for a better life than he has when the novel opens. Finally, gender is also the source of key problems in the book. Bigger feels the need to play a certain masculine role – the role of the tough guy. This role is limiting and does not do justice to the full complexity of his personality. Because he feels the pressure to act “tough,” Bigger makes some very unfortunate decisions.
Thus, because Bigger is black, poor, and constrained by limited ideas of what it means to be a man, he never achieves the individual identity he might have achieved under different circumstances. As Wright himself put it in an afterword to the book, ‘“Violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed. . . . It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality.”
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