A Critical Perspective: Richard Wright’s Native Son
Richard Wright marked the beginning of a new era in black fiction. He was one of
the first American writers of his time to confront his readers with the effects of racism.
Wright had a way of telling his reader about his own life through his writing. He is best
known for his novel, Native Son, which is deeply rooted in his personal life and the times
in which he lived. This paper will discuss this outstanding American writer, his highly
acclaimed novel, Native Son, and how his life influenced his writing.
Richard Nathaniel Wright, was born on September 4, 1908 in Roxie, Mississippi.
His father was a sharecropper and his mother a schoolteacher. In search for better
employment his father moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, his
father worked as a night porter in a hotel and his mother worked as a cook for a
Caucasian family. Shortly after their move to Memphis, Wright’s father deserted his
family. His mother then tried to find any work she could find to support her family. Then,
at the age of seven his mother became ill and was unable to financially support her family.
As a result, the family had to move to Jackson, Mississippi to live with relatives. Wright
remained in Jackson until 1925 (Walker, 13).
In 1925, Wright left Jackson and headed as far as his money could take him, and
that was Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis was the exact same city in which his father had
taken his family to find a better life and where he abandoned them. Wright’s first trip to
Memphis ended in disappointment, desertion, and deprivation. While there Wright found
work as a messenger for an optical company.He lived in Memphis for approximately
two years. During that time, he witnessed the deep and violent South which eventually
would permanently scar him for life. Margaret Walker wrote:
I am convinced that the best of Richard Wright’s fiction grew out of the
first nineteen years of his life. All he ever wrote of great strength and
terrifying beauty must be understood in this light. His subjects and themes,
his folk references and history, his characters and places come from the
South of his childhood and adolescence. His morbid interest in
violence-lynching, rape, and murder-goes back to the murky twilight of a
southern past. Out of this racial nightmare marked with racial suffering,
poverty, religious fanaticism and sexual confusion emerge the five long
stories in Uncle Tom’s Children. (Walker 43)
The violent impression of Southern racism marked Wright’s personality and literature. As
a result, he would spend his entire life struggling to express the importance for men to
reject the stereotypic notions of race, class, creed, or any other prejudice and to accept
human value that honor the human spirit and release intelligence. It was Wright’s first
nineteen years in the South that opened up his most powerful and passionate writing
In 1927, at the age of nineteen Wright migrated to Chicago, Illinois. In Chicago,
Wright found a job a as Post Office Clerk and at the same time he continued to
self-educate himself by reading books, magazines, and newspapers. While in Chicago he
became interested in Communism Issues. The interest came as a result of his concern with
the social roots of racial oppression. In 1932, Wright joined the Communist party. He
was a party activist in Chicago and New York. Wright’s involvement with the Communist
party became the subject of most of his fiction writings. After he broke away from the
party his writings were centered around it. Wright’s years in Chicago are often considered
his maturation years, which were years of growing maturity and preparing for an
Wright’s career as a writer basically began in the 1930’s. In 1930, he wrote his
first novel, Lawd Today. His novel, Lawd Today, however was not published until after
his death. His first published work was, Uncle Tom’s Children: Five Long Stories, which
consists of stories that attack the racial discrimination and bigotry that Wright encountered
as a youth. Throughout Wright’s career he published many outstanding works. Among
his works included: five novels, two autobiographies, two books of short stories, four
nonfiction books and one collection of essays. Wright’s major influence began when he
Richard Wright’s most notable and highly acclaimed novel is Native Son.
Richard Wright contemplated for a while before he decided to write a novel in which a
Negro, Bigger Thomas, would become a symbolic figure of American life. The novel is
divided into sections entitled: fear, flight, and fate. Each section is used as a way to chart
the changes in the main character’s, Bigger Thomas, mind. Native Son, is the story of,
Bigger Thomas, a poor young black man who had misinterpreted myths and stereotypes
about the racist society in which he lived and accidentally murders a wealthy white
women. At the novel’s end, Bigger must face the consequences of his actions, and is
imprisoned and sentenced to death.Native Son is “considered both a psychological
melodrama and protest novel, that candidly exposes the pent-up hatred and bitterness of
the oppressed black American.” (Stine 415).
The first section of Native Son, is entitled Fear. In this portion of the book, we are
introduced to the main character, Bigger Thomas, who is a full-blown juvenile delinquent.
Throughout the first section, he is ruled by images he is unable to control. Bigger is hired
by Mr. Dalton to be his live-in chauffeur. Bigger’s first task is to drive Mr. Dalton’s
daughter, Mary to a lecture at the university. On their way to the lecture, Mary tells
Bigger that they are not going to the lecture and to go pick up Jan. Jan Erlone is Mary’s
communist lover. Throughout the night, Bigger is frightened by Mary’s and Jan’s
insistence to treat him as an equal. Bigger has this reaction because he isn’t used to being
treated equally by someone of the opposite race. At the end of the night, Mary is drunk,
and after driving her home he must carry her up to her room. When Mary’s mother, who
is blind, enters Mary’s room, Bigger accidentally smothers Mary while trying to keep her
from telling her mother that he is in the room. Bigger tries to cover up Mary’s death by
burning her body in a furnace. Bigger then creates a scheme to extort money from her
parents by pretending to have kidnapped her. Bigger does that by trying to pen the blame
on Jan, because he is a member of the Communist party (Wright).
The second section of Native Son is entitled Flight. In the beginning of this book
Mary’s bones are discovered by Britten, the police detective. At this point, Bigger is on
the run from the authorities. While on the run, Bigger brings his girlfriend, Bessie, along.
Bigger didn’t want to take any chances leaving her, since she was the only person who
knew about the murder of Mary. However, Bigger ends up killing Bessie, because he
thinks she will slow him down. Eventually, he is captured by the police and has to face the
consequences of his actions (Wright).
The third section of Native Son is titled Fate. At the beginning of this section, we
see Bigger awaiting his destiny, which is death. At this point he has lost all hope and is
ready to accept the consequences. While in jail, Bigger is visited by Rev. Hammond, his
mother’s pastor. Rev Hammond tries to get Bigger to see that the only thing he can do
now is trust God. Even though, Bigger isn’t interested in what Rev. Hammond has to say,
he accepts the cross that he gives him to wear around his neck. Bigger’s mother comes to
the jail to see him, but embarrasses him by the way she begs Mrs. Dalton not to let her son
die. Also, in this section of the book we are introduced to Buckeley, the state’s
prosecuting attorney, and Boris Max, Bigger’s lawyer. Bigger is highly intimidated by
Buckeley, who only sees him as a sub-human being and is only out to get him. Max,
Bigger’s lawyer, has little contact with him during the trial and fails in his defense for
Bigger. At the of the story, Bigger stands alone and must accept the life he has made for
himself. Also, before his death Bigger says, “What I killed for must’ve been good!” and “I
didn’t want to kill . . .But what I killed for I am!”
Native Son is a landmark novel that created important new directions in literature.
Native Son was the first novel written by a black American writer achieve widespread
critical and popular success. Many critics hailed the novel as a penetrating indictment of
racial persecution. For example, James Baldwin called Native Son, “the most powerful
and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America.
Also, Irving Howe commented: “A blow at the white man, the novel forced him to
recognize himself as an oppressor. A blow at the black man, the novel forced him to
recognize the cost of his submission.”(Stine 415)However, some critics faulted the book
for a lack of realism, claiming that its vision of American life was overdrawn and unfair.
For example, David Cohn described Native Son as “ a blinding and corrosive study in
hate.” Another critic, Clifton Fadiman wrote: “ Wright is too explicit. He says many
things over and over again. His characterization of upper-class whites are paper-thin and
confess unfamiliarity. I think he overdoes his melodrama from time to time. He is not a
finished writer. But the two absolute necessities of the first-rate novelist passion and
intelligence-are in him.” (Butler 12)
Richard Wright was one of the first writers of his time to confront readers with the
dehumanizing effects of racism. Most of his stories are centered around withdrawn,
impoverished, black men who have been denied freedom and personal identity. Much of
his fiction came from his own impoverished childhood in the South and his early adulthood
in the segregated communities of Chicago. In Wright’s writing he often embraced
communism, black nationalism and existentialism. At the center of all his work were the
insistence on the purity of the individual imagination, but it is often tempered by his vision
of black people’s collective destiny. Evelyn Gross Avery wrote:
The writer most frequently credited with making the Negro “visible” is
Richard Wright. . . Offering historical and sociological, as well as
psychological insights into the American character, Wright examines the
rebel, his behavior and motivations, his background. Products of a
lower-class black environment, Wright’s rebels are well acquainted with
hunger, disease, poverty. They learn quickly from frightened mothers and
beaten fathers not to expect much from America. Their dreams of power
are undercut by the reality of Jim Crow and more subtle discrimination.
Ambition is discouraged; impotency reinforced. All entrances and exits are
blocked. Trapped, Wright’s black man may choose to suffer his fate
passively; he may reluctantly accept his status as a victim. But not for
long. Wright’s victims are generally minor characters or else they evolve
Richard Wright, is considered a naturalist writer. By naturalist we mean his
writing is defined through his own experiences. Naturalistic fiction provided Wright with
a means by which he could better see himself and his work. Wright considers his
naturalism as just another version of American realism. Wright’s attraction to naturalism
comes from his instinctive recognition that his own life as an American black man was so
closely reflected in naturalistic fiction. The use of naturalism was useful to Wright in a
number of ways. First, it gave him a literary style that was a useful tool for honestly
probing into the world around him. Also, he was able to use his naturalistic style to
objectively record his own experience without distorting it to suit conventional morality
and standard literary tastes. Critics debate whether Wright’s Native Son is fully
naturalistic in style and vision. Although, “Bigger is initially portrayed as a naturalistic
victim caught in an environmental trap, but becomes a new kind of black hero when he
develops the psychological resources necessary to understand his and master his
environment.” (Bloom 65)An example of Wright’s naturalism writing is showed through
Bigger’s thoughts after he kills Bessie.
He closed his eyes, longing for a sleep that would not come.
During the last two days and nights he had live so fast and hard that it was
an effort to keep it all real in his mind. So close had danger and death
come that he could not feel that it was he who had undergone it all. And,
yet, out of all, over and above all that had happened, impalpable but real,
there remained to him a queer sense of power. He had done this. He had
brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most
meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and
deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind
eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his
actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and
He had killed twice, but in a true sense it was not the first time he
had ever killed. He had killed many times before, but only during the last
two days had this impulse assumed the form of actual killing. Blind anger
had come often and he had either gone behind his curtain or wall, or had
quarreled and fought. And yet, whether in running away or in fighting, he
had felt the need of the clean satisfaction of facing this thing in all it
fullness, of fighting it out in the wind and sunlight, in front of those whose
hate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him off
into a corner of the city to rot and die, they could turn to him, as Mary had
that night in the car, and say: “I’d like to know how your people live.”
But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and
what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and
something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself
had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in
back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had two worlds,
though and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been
together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness(277-278).
Throughout the years Richard Wright’s writings has effected and influenced many
people all across the world. Richard Wright will continue to be known as the most highly
acclaimed writer of his time. Through his writings, Wright allows his readers to visualize
what his life was like. Wright told the story of his life through his writing. His novel,
Native Son, will remain on reading lists now and for years to come. I hope that this paper
has broaden your view on Richard Wright and his novel Native Son.
Butler, Robert. Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne
Joyce, Anne Joyce. “The Tragic Hero.” Modern Critical Interpretation. ed. Harold
Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Metzger, Linda. “Richard Wright.” Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from
Contemporary Authors. New York: Gale Research, 1989.
“Richard Wright.” African American Writers. ed. Valerie Smith. New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.
“Richard Wright.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. ed. Jean C. Stine. Michigan: Gale
Research Company, 1984.
Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genuis. New York: Amistad Press, Inc.,
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1993.