Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Critical and scholarly reception of The Outsider has largely focused on four areas of interest: its relation to American racism, its existentialist thought, its artistry, and its relation to Wright’s life. Some reviewers and scholars have expressed disappointment that Wright, having abandoned his homeland for residence in Paris, seemed to lose touch with African American life and to betray his promise as a critic of racism. Wright does, in fact, make it clear in the novel that his protagonist has not thought of himself significantly in terms of color and does not intend to redefine himself in racial terms. His condition, Wright suggests, is the condition of all modern humanity. Racist stereotyping is only one manifestation of the larger modern malaise, the arrogation of power in an attempt to find meaning where positive, transcendent systems of value have failed. In reducing racism to a symptom, perhaps Wright also reduced the contribution that he could make toward achieving freedom and justice for many people and instead set his imagination and his artistic powers adrift in European philosophical speculation.

Thus, some critics have faulted Wright for his inability to understand or contribute to existentialist thought, remarking that the novel appears to be existential in intent but actually contradicts that view of the human predicament. Others, however, have pointed out that the novel is actually Wright’s portrayal of the failures of a philosophy that he had debated with his contemporaries in Paris, including Jean-Paul Sartre. Wright had already shown signs of interest in an existentialist protagonist when he created Bigger Thomas, but by the time he created Cross Damon, his thinking was moving beyond existentialism, as well as Marxism, to an interest in emerging African countries, in which he saw hope for a sane vision of humanity. Indeed, Wright’s experience of American racism made it possible for him to understand both the insights and the shortcomings of existentialism.

Whether existentialist or not, the novel has been found engaging by many critics because of the significance of its social, psychological, and philosophical issues and because of the challenge presented by its protagonist. There is universal agreement among critics, however, that The Outsider became so much a novel of ideas that Wright’s artistic control and effectiveness suffered.