Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4301
Richard Wright’s best work is always the story of one man’s struggle to define himself and by so doing make himself free and responsible, fully human, a character worthy not of pity but of admiration and horror simultaneously. Typically, the character is an outsider, and Wright uses blackness as a representation of that alienation, though his characters are never as interested in defining their blackness as in defining their humanity. Although many characters in Wright’s works are outsiders without being aware of their condition, Wright is never interested in them except as foils. Many of them avoid confronting themselves by fleeing to dreams; religion and liquor are two avoidance mechanisms for Wright’s characters, narcotics that blind them to their surrounding world, to what they are and what they might be.
Even Wright’s main characters must not think about that world too often: To let it touch them is to risk insanity or violence, and so his characters strive to keep the fire within in check, to keep the physical hunger satisfied. Thus, all of Wright’s protagonists are initially trapped by desire and by fear—fear of what might happen to them, what they may do, if they risk venturing outside the confines of black life in America—and the desire to do so. The life outside may be glimpsed in films; Bigger Thomas, for example, goes to a film and watches contrasting and artificial views of black and white society. Yet as untruthful as both views are, they remind Bigger of a reality beyond his present situation. Desire is often symbolized by flight; Bigger, like other Wright characters, dreams of flying above the world, unchained from its limitations.
Most of Wright’s stories and novels examine what happens when the protagonist’s fear is mastered for a moment when desires are met. The manifestation of desire in Wright is almost always through violence (and it is here, perhaps, that he is most pessimistic, for other, more positive, manifestations of desire, such as love, can come only later, after the protagonists have violently acted out their longings). Violence is central to Wright’s fiction, for as important as sex may be to his characters, power is much more so, and power is often achieved through violence; in Wright’s world, beatings and murders are frequent acts—central and occasionally creative.
Once the character has acted, he finds himself trapped again in a new set of oppositions, for in acting, he has left the old sureties behind, has made himself free, and has begun to define and create himself. With that new freedom comes a new awareness of responsibility. He is without excuses, and that awareness is as terrifying as—though more liberating than—the fears he has previously known. Although Wright does not always elaborate on what may follow, the characters open up new possibilities for themselves. If one may create oneself by violence, perhaps, Wright sometimes suggests, there are other, less destructive ways as well.
Some of Wright’s novels end on this note of optimism, the characters tragically happy: tragic because they have committed violent and repulsive acts, but happy because for the first time they have chosen to commit them; they have freed themselves from their constraints, and the future, however short it may be, lies open. Others end simply with tragedy, the destruction achieving no purpose, the characters attaining no illumination.
Lawd Today, written before Native Son but not published until after Wright’s death, tells the story of Jake Jackson from his awakening on the morning of February 12, 1936, to that day’s violent conclusion. Jackson is Wright’s most inarticulate protagonist: He has a banal life, undefined dreams, and a vague sense of discontent that he is unable to explain. Violent and prejudiced, he speaks in clichés, a language as meaningless as his life.
The book incorporates a montage of radio broadcasts, newspaper articles, and religious and political pamphlets into the narration of Jake’s day. Divided into three sections, Lawd Today opens with Jake’s dream of running up an endless staircase after a disappearing voice. That dream gives way to the reality of his life: hunger, anger, and recrimination. Tricked by Jake into an abortion for which Jake still owes five hundred dollars and now claiming to have a tumor that will cost another five hundred dollars to remove, Jake’s wife represents his entrapment. In the first section, “Commonplace,” Jake reveals his brutish and trivial character: his anger at his wife, a jealousy and resentment that lead him to bait her so he can hit her, a mock battle straightening his hair, and a meeting with friends who work with him at the post office. As they play bridge to pass the time until work, Wright presents without comment their stupid, cliché-ridden conversation.
The second section, “Squirrel Cage,” shows the men at work. They are all alienated in meaningless, routine jobs, but Jake’s position is the most desperate, for his wife has been to see his boss, and he is now threatened with the loss of his job. Falling deeper into debt by borrowing more money and making mistakes on the job, Jake is trapped by his work—despite his own protestations, as a self-proclaimed Republican and capitalist, that work is liberating. This section, too, ends with a long, rambling, and banal conversation among the men at work.
In the concluding section, “Rat’s Alley,” the men go to a brothel for a good time on some of Jake’s borrowed money. There, Jake is robbed and then beaten for his threats of revenge. Finally, Jake stumbles homeward, his day nearing an end. The February weather, pleasant when the book began, has turned bad. All of Jake’s frustration and anger finally erupt; he beats his wife, whom he finds kneeling asleep by the bed in an attitude of prayer. As they struggle, he throws objects through the window. She grabs a shard of broken glass and slashes him three times. The book ends with Jake lying in a drunken stupor, bleeding, while his wife is on her knees, also bleeding, praying for death. Outside, the wind blows mercilessly.
Although some of the experimentalism of Lawd Today seems artificial, and although the protagonist is too limited to sustain the reader’s interest, this early work is powerful and economical. The situation, if not the character, is typical of Wright’s work, and the reader understands Jake’s violent frustration. Lawd Today has its flaws, but it foreshadows the strengths of Wright’s best work and in its own right is a daring and fascinating novel.
Along with Black Boy, Native Son is one of Wright’s finest achievements: a brilliant portrayal of, as Wright put it, the way the environment provides the instrumentalities through which one expresses oneself and the way that self becomes whole despite the environment’s conspiring to keep it divided. The book parallels Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925): Both are three-part novels in which there is a murder, in part accidental, in part willed; an attempted flight; and a long concluding trial, in both cases somewhat anticlimactic. Both novels are concerned with the interplay of environment and heredity, of fate and accident, and both have protagonists who rebel against the world that would hold them back.
In the first part of Native Son, Bigger Thomas is a black man cut off from family and peers. Superficially like his friends, he is in fact possessed of a different consciousness. To think about that consciousness is for him to risk insanity or violence, so Bigger endeavors to keep his fears and uncertainty at a preconscious level. On the day of the first section, however, he is required by the welfare agency to apply for a job as a menial at the home of the rich Dalton family. Mr. Dalton is a ghetto landlord who soothes his conscience by donating sums of money for recreational purposes. That it is a minuscule part of the money he is deriving from blacks is an irony he overlooks. Mrs. Dalton is blind, a fact that is necessary to the plot as well as being symbolic. Their daughter, Mary, is a member of the Communist Party, and from the moment she sees Bigger, who wants nothing more than to be left alone, she begins to enlist his support.
The first evening, Bigger is to drive Mary to a university class. In reality, she is going with Jan Erlone, her Communist boyfriend, to a party meeting. Afterward, they insist that Bigger take them to a bar in the black part of town. Jan and Mary are at this point satirized, for their attitudes toward blacks are as limited and stereotyped as any in the novel. Bigger does not want to be seen by his friends with whites, but that fact does not occur to Mary. After much drinking, Bigger must carry the drunken Mary to her bedroom. He puts her to bed, stands over her, attracted to the woman he sees. The door opens and Mrs. Dalton enters. When Mary makes drunken noises, Bigger becomes frightened that Mrs. Dalton will come close enough to discover him, so he puts a pillow over Mary’s face to quiet her. By the time Mrs. Dalton leaves, Mary is dead.
Wright wanted to make Bigger a character it would be impossible to pity, and what follows is extremely grisly. Bigger tries to put Mary’s body in the furnace and saws off her head to make her fit. However accidental Mary’s death may appear to the reader, Bigger himself does not regard it as such. He has, he thinks, many times wanted to kill whites without ever having the opportunity to do so. This time there was the act without the desire, but rather than seeing himself as the victim of a chance occurrence, Bigger prefers to unite the earlier desire with the present act, to make himself whole by accepting responsibility for the killing. Indeed, he not only accepts the act but also determines to capitalize on it by sending a ransom note. Later, accused of raping Mary as well, an act he considered but did not commit, he reverses the process, accepting responsibility for this, too, even though here there was desire but no act. His only sign of conscience is that he cannot bring himself to shake the ashes in the furnace; this guilt is not redemptive, but his undoing, for, in an implausible scene in the Dalton basement, the room fills with smoke, the murder is revealed to newspaper reporters gathered there, and Bigger is forced to flee.
He runs with his girlfriend, Bessie Mears. She, like Bigger, has a hunger for sensation, which has initially attracted him to her. Now, however, as they flee together, she becomes a threat and a burden; huddled with her in an abandoned tenement, Bigger wants only to be rid of her. He picks up a brick and smashes her face, then dumps her body down an air shaft. His only regret is not that he has killed her, but that he has forgotten to remove their money from her body.
The rest of the plot moves quickly: Bigger is soon arrested, the trial is turned into a political farce, and Bigger is convicted and sentenced to death. In the last part of the novel, after Bigger’s arrest, the implications of the action are developed, largely through Bigger’s relations to other characters. Some of the characters are worthy only of contempt, particularly the district attorney, who, in an attempt at reelection, is turning the trial into political capital. Bigger’s mother relies on religion. In a scene in the jail cell, she falls on her knees in apology before Mrs. Dalton and urges Bigger to pray, but toughness is Bigger’s code. He is embarrassed by his mother’s self-abasement, and although he agrees to pray simply to end his discomfort, his attitude toward religion is shown when he throws away a cross a minister has given him and throws a cup of coffee in a priest’s face. In his view, they want only to avoid the world and to force him to accept guilt without responsibility.
Bigger learns from two characters. The first is Boris Max, the lawyer the Communist Party provides. Max listens to Bigger, and for the first time in his life, Bigger exposes his ideas and feelings to another human. Max’s plea to the court is that, just as Bigger must accept responsibility for what he has done, so must the society around him understand its responsibility for what Bigger has become and, if the court chooses to execute Bigger, understand the consequences that must flow from that action. He does not argue—nor does Wright believe—that Bigger is a victim of injustice. There is no injustice, because that would presume a world in which Bigger could hope for justice, and such a world does not exist; more important, Bigger is not a victim, for he has chosen his own fate. Max argues rather that all men are entitled to happiness. Like all of Wright’s protagonists, Bigger has earlier been torn between the poles of dread and ecstasy. His ecstasy, his happiness, comes from the meaningfulness he creates in his existence, a product of self-realization. Unhappily for Bigger, he realizes himself through murder: It was, he feels, his highest creative act.
If Max articulates the intellectual presentation of Wright’s beliefs about Bigger, it is Jan, Mary’s lover, who is its dramatic representation. He visits Bigger in his cell and, having at last understood the futility and paucity of his own stereotypes, admits to Bigger that he too shares in the responsibility for what has happened. He, too, addresses Bigger as a human being, but from the unique position of being the one who is alive to remind Bigger of the consequences of his actions, for Bigger learns that Jan has suffered loss through what he has done and that, while Bigger has created himself, he has also destroyed another.
Native Son ends with the failure of Max’s appeals on Bigger’s behalf. He comes to the cell to confront Bigger before his execution, and the novel closes with Bigger Thomas smiling at Max as the prison door clangs shut. He will die happy because he will die fulfilled, having, however terribly, created a self. Native Son is Wright’s most powerful work, because his theme, universal in nature, is given its fullest and most evocative embodiment. In the characterization of Bigger, alienated man at his least abstract and most genuine, of Bigger’s exactly rendered mind and milieu, and of Bigger’s working out of his destiny, Native Son is Wright’s masterpiece.
Unlike many highly acclaimed books of the 1940’s, Native Son and Black Boy have not become dated. They offer a lacerating challenge to contemporary readers and writers—a challenge to share the relentless integrity of Wright’s vision.
Wright’s next novel, The Outsider, written in France and published thirteen years after Native Son, suffers from a surfeit of internal explanation and a failure to provide a setting as rich as that of Native Son. Still, its portrayal of Cross Damon and his struggle to define himself, while too self-conscious, adds new dimensions to Wright’s myth.
As the novel opens, Damon is trapped by his life. His job with the post office is unfulfilling, his wife is threatening, and his underage mistress is pregnant. He “desires desire,” but there is no way for that desire to be completed. “A man creates himself,” he has told his wife, but the self Damon has created is a nightmare. He broods, his brooding as close as he comes to religion. Another underground man, Damon gets his chance for new life on the subway. Thought dead after his identification papers are found near the mangled body of another, Damon gets a chance to create himself anew. He must invent, he thinks, not only his future, but also a past to fit with his present; this new opportunity brings with it a different and more potent sense of dread.
From the beginning of this new life, Damon is remarkably successful at the mechanics of creating a past. He easily obtains a birth certificate and a draft card. At a deeper level, however, he traps himself as surely as he has been trapped in his old life, so that his new one becomes a continuous act of bad faith. Even before he leaves Chicago, he hides in a brothel where he encounters a coworker who recognizes him. Damon murders the man and throws his body out a window. The pattern of violence, so typical of Wright’s characters, begins in earnest for Damon.
Taking a train to New York, Cross meets two people who will influence his new life, a black waiter who introduces him to the world of Communist politics in New York City, and Ely Houston, the district attorney, who is the most articulate person in the novel and the only one fully to understand Damon. Houston asks Damon why, when all blacks are outsiders, so few seem conscious of this fact. Wright suggests that being human is too much to be borne by people, that the struggle to define oneself is too difficult; the novel is a testament to that suggestion.
The Communist Party members, too, are outsiders, and there is nothing unified about their company. Each one that Damon meets is playing god, hoping to protect and extend his personal power. Their awareness of their motives varies, but they are a threat to Damon, and the action of the book is propelled by a series of murders: Damon himself wants to act like a god. Near the end of the book, Houston comes to understand that Damon is the killer, but—rather than indicting and punishing him legally—Houston allows him to go free, alone with his knowledge of what he is. Damon is horrified by his fate, but he is robbed of even that when he is killed by two Communist Party members who fear him.
The Outsider is both an extension and a modification of Wright’s earlier views; it is far more pessimistic than Native Son, and the influence of the French existentialists is more pervasive. Like earlier Wright heroes, Damon is engaged in defining the world and himself. “The moment we act ’as if’ it’s true, then it’s true,” he thinks, because each person, in the absence of a god, is able to create the world and its truth. From Fyodor Dostoevski, Wright again borrows the notion of underground man and the idea that without a god, all is permitted. Yet as each man plays god, as each becomes criminal, policeman, judge, and executioner, there are no longer limits. People desire everything, and desire is described as a floating demon. People are jealous gods here—the worlds they create are petty, their jealousy destructive. Cross Damon is loved in the novel, but that love, unlike the love in Native Son, which is held up as potentially meaningful, is here without promise. Although he creates himself and his world in The Outsider, all that is made is violent and brutal, a world without redemption even in the act of self-realization.
At the end of the novel, Cross Damon dies, not with Bigger Thomas’s smile, but with the knowledge that alone, people are nothing. Searching in his last moments of freedom for a clean, well-lighted place in which to rest before he confronts the world again, Cross finds only death. Before he dies, he admits his final act of bad faith: He has thought that he could create a world and be different from other men, that he could remain innocent. Like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (1902), Damon dies realizing the futility of that hope; having looked into his own heart of darkness, he dies with the word “horror” on his lips.
It is Wright’s bleakest conclusion, the book his most relentless examination of the consequences of his own philosophy. If The Outsider lacks the narrative drive of Native Son, it remains a strongly conceived and troubling piece of fiction.
The Long Dream
The Long Dream, despite some effective scenes, is one of Wright’s weakest novels. The story of Rex “Fishbelly” Tucker’s growing up and coming to terms with his environment is a pale repetition of earlier themes. The first section describes Tucker’s youth. His father, an undertaker, is the richest black man in town, but his money comes also from a brothel he runs on the side. Tucker admires his father’s success while detesting his obsequiousness with whites. When, however, Fishbelly is arrested, he twice faints at the white world’s threats. Having presented himself as a victim, he becomes one. Walking home after his father has arranged his freedom, Fishbelly sees an injured dog, which he puts out of its misery. Fishbelly then comes upon a white man who is pinned to the ground with a car door on his body. When the white man calls out to Fishbelly, using the term “nigger,” Fishbelly walks on, leaving the man to die.
In the second section, Fishbelly finds a woman, but she and forty-one others are burned to death in a fire at the bar. The rest of the novel is an unconvincing story of the police who want the return of the cancelled checks that Fishbelly’s father has used to pay them off, the police’s arranged murder of the father, the subsequent framing and imprisoning of Fishbelly for rape, and Fishbelly’s keeping the checks for his future use. All of this is seriously contrived. At the end, Fishbelly is on a plane leaving for France, where his childhood friends are stationed in the army, which they describe as exciting. He is talking to an Italian whose father has come to America and found a dream, where Fishbelly himself has known only a nightmare. France, he dreams, will offer him what America has not.
In Fishbelly’s attempt to understand himself and his environment, he is a typical Wright protagonist. He is weaker than Wright’s usual characters, however, and that shallowness, coupled with an implausible plot, prevents the novel from being entirely successful.
A Father’s Law
Julia Wright, Richard Wright’s daughter, had A Father’s Law, his last unfinished novel, published on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. Along with providing intriguing insight into a partial biographical critique, Julia Wright’s introduction to the novel shares her touching memory of finding the manuscript in the months after Wright’s death.
The novel is a study in the ironies present in the law that Ruddy Turner must enforce, both as a police officer and as a father. The story begins with Ruddy’s promotion from police captain in an African American neighborhood in Chicago to the position of police chief in an affluent white area of the city. The police commissioner hopes to stir up the complacent citizens of Brentwood Park against the crime that runs rampant in the area. As soon as Ruddy assumes his new office, he is confronted with a portion of that crime—five unsolved murders. In the midst of work challenges, Ruddy also faces concerns at home. His relationship with his academically brilliant son, Tommy, is conflicted. He cannot understand either Tommy’s ways of thinking or his motivations. Tommy’s educational interest in the psychological motivations behind acts of crime further separates the father and son. While Tommy questions why people do not commit crimes, his father questions why they do. Ruddy’s lack of comprehension of his son’s reasoning and actions leads him to suspect his own son in the murders. The novel’s end leaves Ruddy wrestling with his son’s very public confession, a confession that undermines the father’s law in every way.
The question of guilt is a central focus of the novel. Ruddy, Tommy, and Tommy’s former fiancé, Marie, are all engulfed in guilt. Marie, who has been diagnosed with hereditary congenital syphilis, has been jilted by Tommy. She is blameless, yet she is isolated, and it is her guilt that serves as the psychological driving force behind Tommy’s guilt—both literally and figuratively. Further, the lack of ability even to acknowledge, let alone feel, guilt is the problem with Brentwood Park, the scene of both men’s downfall. Ruddy’s own youthful decision to become a law enforcer in an effort to assuage his feelings of guilt ironically turns back on him with his suspicions of his son and Tommy’s subsequent confession to the crimes.
Like Wright’s other novels, this novel also deals with isolation. Ruddy is isolated from his friends and fellow officers as he worries that his son is a murderer. Marie is isolated from her parents, her lover, and all other human contact when she is diagnosed with an illness that brings moral condescension. Tommy is isolated from his father and his fiancé. While Ruddy’s isolation is partially self-inflicted because he does not want others to know of his doubts about his own child, Marie is isolated as a result of other people’s choices. She is truly the innocent victim.
A Father’s Law is a brilliant reflection on the meaning of law, the motivations of people, the way guilt works in our lives, and the isolation of human beings. Even in its incomplete state, this deeply psychological piece is further evidence of Wright’s genius.