The Outsider Themes
The book The Outsider by Richard Wright is a critical look at the world of the middle-twentieth century for African Americans. It follows the story of Cross Damon, an intellectual black man whose life is fraught with the troubles common to African Americans in that time period. Here are several themes that are present in the novel.
Rebirth and the Opportunity for Reinvention
The main character is named very metaphorically. He is a representation of Christ and yet also a demon because he represents the duality of man and good and evil. Because of his Christ-typification, he is shown to have a "resurrection" experience. He is mistaken for dead during an accident early in the events of the novel, but he comes to and has the opportunity to reinvent himself. He experiences life again as if he is new to it, but it is no better.
Isolation and Loneliness
Cross is, initially, a very isolated man. He has no family and his friends are pretty much only around to drink with. He drowns his sorrows in alcohol because he has no joy in his life. Later in the story, after his near-death experience, he meets with a group of Communists, and he begins to believe that he may find community in this organization. He later realizes, however, that they are oppressive and strip the people of subjective thought. Even when he finds a lover, she commits suicide after learning about Damon's past. In the end, Damon dies alone, with an enemy at his side reminding him of how horrible his life was.
The Pursuit of Happiness
As a black man in the 1950s, life is pretty desolate for Cross. He searches everywhere he can to find hope and joy to improve his life. He turns to different ideologies, to alcohol, and eventually to a mistress, but he can never find enduring happiness. He descends into a more chaotic and destructive state, eventually murdering multiple people because of the desolation that fills his life.
Themes and Meanings
Richard Wright wrote fiction as a way of pursuing his thoughts on an issue—usually racism. The Outsider is a “novel of ideas” in which he attempted to clarify, and perhaps contribute toward a solution for, an issue that he saw as larger than racism. He was concerned about the possibility of identity, meaningful action, and fulfillment in the modern world, in which judgments of good and evil (for example, of racism as practiced in America or Nazi Germany) cannot be made on the basis of faith in the existence of a transcendent being or scheme regarding the value of humanity.
Wright addressed this concern by accepting the challenge, and presenting his critique, of two modern lines of thought with which he had recently been engaged: Marxism, as he had observed its practice in the Communist Party of the U.S.A., and existentialism, in which he had read widely and which he had discussed in Paris with major existentialist thinkers and novelists. Marxism emphasizes the determination of history and individual lives by economic forces. Existentialism, however, emphasizes individual freedom to create unique selfhood and value. Both propose that traditional systems of meaning and value that include the existence of a transcendent creator are untrue and useless. There exists no covenant (promise) between a god and his creatures, and no divine judgment. Wright’s strategy for examining these philosophies, as they would be lived, was to invent a protagonist who had found his entire life meaningless and revolting, but who possessed the intelligence and knowledge to analyze his predicament and seek an existential solution. In one winter of this protagonist’s discontent, he learns lessons about Communism, existentialism, and his own personality, and he also learns a hopeful truth about humanity.
Book 1 of the novel is entitled “Dread,” and Wright suggests throughout the novel that this state is shared by humanity in general. The epigraph, by the nineteenth century existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, characterizes dread as a psychological complex of simultaneous desire...
(The entire section is 1,620 words.)