Published by Harper Perennial on August 2, 2005
Genres: Classic, Fiction
Source: my shelves
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Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas—a cruel, young black male living in the Black Belt of Chicago in the 1930s. The book is split into three sections, each representing a part of Bigger’s life: Fear, Flight and Fate.
The main narrative is centered on his consciousness—he is frustrated and angry with his lack of opportunity and the feeling that all the decisions made about his life are in fact made by white people. Even the decisions he makes on his own are based on what white people think. Where he lives, what he does, how he acts, what he thinks—these are all based on a world in which he doesn’t feel he belongs. This also makes him confused and afraid, not only of the world around him, but also of himself and what he is capable of. Because of this confusion and fear, Bigger is forced to make a decision that results in the death of a young, wealthy white woman. Killing a white woman makes him feel like he has power over the race that has oppressed him for so long, and he finally feels alive. No longer is he being held captive by white people and their whims. From now on, Bigger is going to do what HE wants to do. Even when he is discovered as the killer and has to flee, he is still making his own decisions about what to do. Unfortunately, these decisions lead to the rape and murder of another woman. Faced with capture and imprisonment, Bigger must come to terms with his actions and his ultimate fate.
Along with the issues of Jim Crow and racism, Richard Wright also touches on Capitalism, liberalism, Communism and religion. Each idea is represented by the characters, and their ideas and actions are laid out in a way that lets the reader decide how to feel about them. In this particular edition, Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” is included at the back of the book, and it explains how he came up with the character and why he felt that character needed a voice. He explains that “Biggers” aren’t just black–there are Biggers in every race–and the basic issues he raises are relevant to any society in which one group of people is being oppressed by another. The ideas in this book can even be applied to parts of today’s society
Just as Wright’s Black Boy gave me a clear understanding of the embarrassment and shame black men were made to feel before and during the era of Jim Crow (and even today, in some cases), Native Son clearly showed me the guilt, fear and anger they felt, even if it wasn’t outwardly expressed. There is always that one moment in each of Wright’s books that is like an epiphany, where a character’s feelings and plight are fully explained and become crystal clear.
Native Son is a very good book. Wright is an excellent writer who can eloquently express his feelings and thoughts while wrapping them in a good storyline. I was kept interested and in suspense throughout–even when I was reading through pages of dialogue that expressed one of the central ideas, I did not become bored. Although I didn’t choose to read it for this reason, it is also included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I think if you are an adult who is interested in black history and the racial and social issues surrounding the Jim Crow era, this is definitely a must read.
(Click here to learn more about Richard Wright.)