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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In The Outsider, Richard Wright tells a story of failed rebirth and renewal. Cross Damon, whose name suggests both the crossroads of decision making and the crucifixion that led to resurrection, is offered an opportunity to save himself through a random, senseless act. Instead, he takes steps that greatly worsen his already difficult situation. As he struggles to craft the new identity he has been offered, his desperate need for community propels him into political activity without the necessary commitment to the cause. Added to his existential inauthenticity (in impersonating another person) is his political hypocrisy (in pretending to support the Community Party). Although part of him sympathizes with the anti-racist aspect of the Blounts’s activism, he cannot wholeheartedly embrace the Party’s tenets or tactics.

Wright skillfully shows the downward spiral of one individual who makes numerous bad choices. More broadly, however, he locates Damon within a complex social system which, he suggests, offers few genuine opportunities for spiritual growth and meaningful political commitment. At each crossroads, it seems that Damon makes the wrong choice—but why? The reader is encouraged to see Damon more as a symbol of the loss of direction that many young African American males experienced during this time. A good example is Damon’s decision to participate in challenging housing discrimination, which was a prevalent social problem. Although this seems to be a good path to follow, he again takes a wrong turn. He not only kills the landlord, Herndon, but also Gil Blount, the Party fellow traveler whose idea he had supported.

Wright thereby gives Damon individual characteristics that make him more than a victim of social injustice. He continues to try to benefit further from each wrong-minded action. After Gil dies, he deceives his widow, Eva, and begins an affair with her. By finally allowing himself genuine feelings for Eva, Cross mistakenly believes that one good emotion is enough to redeem all his crimes. Unable to realize the cruelty of telling Eva she has been sleeping with her husband’s killer, his confession costs them both their lives.

Damon rationalizes his low status within society as a valid reason to mistreat other individuals rather than trying to actually tackle the problems in the system itself. For human beings struggling for meaningful lives within a fundamentally flawed system, Wright suggests the importance of taking individual responsibility combined with the accumulation of individual actions within the overall process of change.

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