When it appeared in 1940, Native Son was without precedent in American literature. Previous African American writing, including Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), had treated blacks as passive and innocent victims of racism suffering their lot in dignified silence. As Wright said of his own earlier work, the reading audience could escape into the self-indulgence of pity on reading such work rather than truly face the hard facts of racism. In Bigger Thomas, Wright created a character who was neither a passive sufferer nor an innocent victim. Instead, Wright reminded Americans of the full cost of bigotry in social and human terms by dramatizing the deep anger, hate, and fear that many blacks felt.
Years after Native Son’s appearance, James Baldwin would assert that every black person carries some degree of Bigger Thomas within him- or herself. Perhaps so, and it is to Wright’s credit that he was the first American writer to bring those feelings into the open. Readers are reminded that Bigger is a “native son,” and his experience is quintessentially a part of the American experience. On the psychological, the sociological, and the philosophical levels, Wright explores the most disturbing implications of what it means to be African American.
The basic tone of Wright’s psychological treatment of Bigger is set in the opening scene in which Bigger and Buddy battle the rat. Here is a symbolic paradigm for the entire novel in which Bigger, like the rat, will be hunted and destroyed. The rat, it must be understood, operates entirely at the instinctual level, and its viciousness is in response to fear. Recalling that “Fear” is the title of the first section of the novel, as “Flight” is of the second, suggests that Bigger, too, is a creature motivated by fear and acting instinctively. This is demonstrably true of his killing Mary Dalton while avoiding detection, and it shows up even earlier in the fight with Gus. Fearful of outside forces, particularly white people, Bigger is equally fearful of the repressed anger within himself, as his several comments referring to his concern that he is destined to commit some terrible act indicate. Thus, in at least the first two sections of the novel, Bigger, before and after the murder, is operating at an instinctual level, and it is against this background that his development takes place.
Bigger’s psychological state is an obvious result of the sociological conditions prevailing in the novel. As Bigger dramatizes the anger and pain of his race, the Daltons effectively represent the ruling white power structure. It is to Wright’s credit that he does not give way to the temptation to create villains, but makes these whites generous, liberal, and humanitarian. It is ironic that even while giving a “chance” to Bigger and helping in ghetto programs, the Daltons are reaping the proceeds of ghetto housing. Appropriately, Wright uses the metaphor of blindness to characterize the attitude of the Daltons here, as he will later, to account for Max’s failure to comprehend Bigger. Bigger, too, is described as blind, because, in this world of Native Son, there is no real possibility of people seeing one another in clear human perspective. All the characters respond to one another as symbols rather than as people.
Wright’s use of the polarities of black and white symbolism is not limited to the literal and racial levels of the novel. The entire world of Native Son, as the story unfolds, is increasingly polarized into a symbolic black-white dichotomy. Especially during part 2, the snow that buries the city under a cold and hostile blanket of white becomes a more complicated manifestation of the white symbolism than that limited to the sociological level. At the same time, not only does Bigger escape into the black ghetto in search of safety and security, he also seeks out the black interiors of abandoned buildings to hide from both the freezing snow and the death-dealing white mob. Finally, Bigger’s flight ends when he is spread out against the white snow as though he were being crucified.
It is not probable that Wright had heard of European existentialism when he wrote Native Son, so it is all the more remarkable that this novel should so clearly demonstrate concepts that anticipate Wright’s embracing of existentialist philosophy when he went to Europe in the late 1940’s. Though Bigger very obviously commits the first murder without premeditation, he quickly comes to the realization that somehow the act is the sum of his entire life. Rather than repudiating responsibility for his crime, or seeing himself as a victim of circumstances, either of which would be understandable, Bigger consciously and deliberately affirms the killing as the most creative act of his life. Whereas before he was in the position of constantly reacting—like the rat—he now sees himself as having responsibility for his own fate. Further, the world that before had seemed frighteningly ambiguous is now clearly revealed to him. For the first time in his life, Bigger has a positive sense of his own identity and a concrete knowledge of how he relates to the world around him. Ironically, Max’s case that Bigger is a victim of society threatens to deprive Bigger of the identity he has purchased at such terrible cost to himself, but, facing death at the end of the novel, he reaffirms his belief that he killed for something, and he faces death with the courage born of his one creative moment.
Wright’s novel is not without faults, particularly the tedious final section in which Max argues a doctrinaire Marxist interpretation of Bigger’s crime. Apparently, however, Wright himself could not fully accept this view, since Bigger’s reaffirmation of responsibility contradicts Max’s deterministic justification. In the final analysis, Bigger’s insistence upon responsibility for his act demonstrates the human potential for freedom of act and will and asserts human possibility in contrast to the Marxist vision of people as animals trapped in a world they cannot control.