Native Speaker Themes

The main themes in Native Speaker are double consciousness, assimilation and alienation, and strained relationships and betrayal.

  • Double consciousness: Henry Park provides a unique illustration of Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness, in which a member of a minority group feels strained by self-contempt they have internalized from their dominant oppressors.
  • Assimilation and alienation: In describing his experiences as a first-generation immigrant, Henry depicts the difficulty in belonging to neither the country of one’s parents nor the country of one’s own lived experience.
  • Strained relationships and betrayal: Familial and professional relationships in the novel are strained by complex emotions and deception.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Double Consciousness

Coined by the Black writer and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, the term “double consciousness” is a social phenomenon in which a person who belongs to a historically oppressed group feels an internal conflict when interacting with the majority population, who represent the oppressors. This conflict is often implicit, but in the case of Henry Park, the Korean American protagonist and narrator of Native Speaker, it is evident: Henry is an industrial spy hired by a powerful man to disrupt a fellow Korean American’s political career.

John Kwang, the businessman and mayoral candidate Henry is hired to spy on, represents the ambitions and hopes of the Korean American community, someone who is making a name for himself in the United States and is driven to uplift his culture as he ascends to the top of political and social power in New York City. Henry—who, as a first-generation immigrant to the United States, is still very much in touch with his Korean roots—feels he is an enemy of his own community in spying on Kwang.

Assimilation and Alienation

In addition to struggling with double consciousness, Henry feels that he has not fully assimilated into American society. He was relatively close to his parents, who immigrated to the United States decades earlier and now have both passed away, and this allows Henry to keep a connection with his Korean roots. Even so, Henry doesn’t feel he fully fits in with Korean culture either. He is a man with one foot in the US and the other in Korea, a land that he has little firsthand experience of. This causes him to feel alienated in the world, for he is a man with no country. Henry’s marriage to Lelia, a White American woman who has not struggled with the same issues of identity and belonging, further emphasizes his own displacement.

Strained Relationships and Betrayal

Henry’s marriage to Lelia has been strained by their son’s sudden death at age seven. Lelia feels that Henry hasn’t reacted appropriately and that he is too prone to stoicism. John Kwang, too, has a strained relationship, though its reason is less complex: he is cheating on his wife with the public relations assistant for his mayoral campaign. Kwang has a complicated relationship with his own sons, but Henry is fond of John Kwang Jr., who reminds him of his own late son, Mitt.

Complex relationships extend outside of the familial sphere. Henry and Eduardo, another spy, work on Kwang’s team, gathering information—but Kwang himself is not innocent and has his campaign management office bombed and burned. Ultimately, Henry is able to mend his relationship with Lelia once he begins to acknowledge his emotions, and he even ends the novel by quitting his previous job and working as her assistant in speech therapy.

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