Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
The Outsider was the first of Wright’s books to receive predominantly negative reviews. Reviewers were primarily critical of its characterization, particularly the absence of sufficient motivation for Damon’s violence. The novel’s mix of melodramatic action and lengthy rhetorical exposition seemed disruptive. Black reviewers believed that Wright’s interest in existentialism indicated a separation from his roots. Also, most reviewers found the unrelieved pessimism of the novel unattractive.
The novel is clearly the result of Wright’s involvement with existential thinkers following his break from Marxism in the 1940’s. The novel seems to mark the low point of Wright’s despair, for it lacks Camus’s humanitarian hope or Jean-Paul Sartre’s belief in social change. Later critics, however, have suggested that The Outsider is a rejection of existentialism or is even a Christian existentialist novel.
existential or not, The Outsider is a logical extension of Wright’s earlier fiction and thought. In Native Son (1940), Bigger expresses in a less articulate manner the same sort of rage and dread felt by Damon. In “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Fred Daniels, like Damon, wants to share his hard-earned knowledge with others. In “Art and Fiction,” Wright maintained that personal freedom was conditioned on the freedom of others. Thus, in The Outsider Wright addressed familiar themes but consciously tried to move beyond the racial limitations of his earlier work.