Friday, January 28, 2011

Decades 2010 Challenge: Native Son

I'm a little embarrassed that I'm just now reading this book, which holds such an important place in American and African-American literature. I never felt while growing up that I was insulated by Southern ways from a full cultural experience, but every so often I bump up against what I've been missing--and I realize I was insulated in some ways, perhaps in the most insidious ways because they were so subtly effective that I wasn't even aware of them. And so my education continues.

(Warning: Possible spoilers ahead. As an English major, I like to know the major plot points in advance, because it's the journey, not the destination of the story that matters. However, I'm aware not everyone feels that way.)

Although I knew the basic plot of this book, I didn't expect it to be so political and so philosophical. In the story of Bigger Thomas, a young Chicago black man from a poor family, who obtains a job as a driver for the rich, progressive, white Daltons, then accidentally/negligently kills their daughter, Wright effectively blends together themes of race relations, class struggle, and existentialism.

With little experience among white people, Bigger is confused and disoriented by the overtures of the Daltons, who seem to want to treat him as an equal and a servant at the same time. When he steps into the Dalton's world, the rules of conduct that Bigger knows by heart no longer apply. Every small freedom and act of kindness seem like some sort of trap. Bigger is constantly on edge, trying to stay one step ahead of the cascade of troubles that descend on him, initially by accident and then more certainly with each decision he makes.

At the same time, Bigger feels that in seizing and using his newfound freedom, he is creating himself, defining himself by his choices in an existentialist sense. Even in the most disastrous circumstances, even when his choices are morally wrong and/or outside the law, he often feels the exhilaration and the deep satisfaction of his own independence and initiative of thought and action.

Wright occasionally sacrifices credible character development in order to make his thematic points, and the "Red scare" element of the plot seems dated now, but this remains an important work in so many ways. I'm glad I got around to it at last.


He had been caught up in a whirl of thought and feeling which had swept him onward and when he opened his eyes he saw that daylight stood outside of a dirty window just above his head. He jumped up and looked out. The snow had stopped falling and the city, white, still, was a vast stretch of rooftops and sky. He had been thinking about it for hours here in the dark and now there it was, all white, still. But what he had thought about it had made it real with a reality it did not have now in the daylight. . . . He felt that there was something missing, some road which, if he had once found it, would have led him to a sure and quiet knowledge. But why think of that now? A chance for that was gone forever. He had committed murder twice and had created a new world for himself.

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