NATIVE SON THEMES–BY INSTRUCTOR OMG.
In his development of this theme, Richard Wright alludes to several stories from classical Greek mythology, most notably the stories of Oedipus of Thebes. Like Sophocles’ stories of Oedipus, Native Son intertwines the idea of hubris (“excessive pride”) with the idea of blindness. Most notably, we see that Bigger Thomas’ incredible pride and anger often blind him from seeing reality. In a similar way, the Dalton’s wealth and complacency are manifested in Mrs. Dalton’s physical blindness. Both the blind Daltons and the blind and angry courtroom mob serve as examples of American racism. Ironically, Bigger’s blindness prevents him from seeing what opportunities he does have; even as his pride fuels his blindness, his blindness prevents him from taking opportunities for advancement. Just as Bigger is blind to his potential, white America is blindly unaware of the sufferings of racism and poverty.
In Book Three, the theme of identity is developedmostly in the scenes where Bigger prepares to face his death in the electric chair. In these final moments, Bigger must struggle to “come to terms” with what he has done and what he has become. In this regard, Bigger’s identity crisis is more of a struggle to separate his own impressions from the projections of the racist society around him. Even as Bigger must accept responsibility for his crimes, he faces the complex task of asserting his own worth even as he can’t ignore his crime. When Bigger is involved in the process of asserting his own worth, he finds that he is in a trap because he has been unable to act upon all of the dreams that he has. Bigger wants to define himself as an aviator or even as the leader of his gang, but these are all ultimately false. One important thing to note is that Wright’s treatment of the identity theme resembles the philosophies expounded in several existentialist works. In particular, the prison scenes toward the end of the novel are intended to hearken back to the works of Wright’s favorite writer, Dostoevsky. Particularly after his rejection of established religion, Bigger has the existentialist burden of searching for meaning in life without the traditional support systems offered by the church or other social structures. By the end of Native Son, it seems that Bigger is one man who is doomed to fight against the machinery of a hostile world.
This is one of the lesser themes in the novel, developed mostly during Part Two (Flight) and Part Three (Fate). After Bigger kills Mary Dalton, his mind is racing and at the same time that his anger is stoked by his ego, Bigger is also afraid that he is losing control of his mind. During the “Flight” episode, the narrative suggests that Bigger is running away from the authorities at the same time that he is hoping that he might run away from his madness, his lack of control over his life, etc. When Bigger kills Bessie, he has a false hope that this action replaces Mary’s accidental murder because it is intentional; and he hopes that the “intentional” aspect of the act will bring him back into control of his mind. Instead, this second murder only fuels the madness that has already taken over. Wright depicts this madness as something we might contrast to Bigger’s “anger” or “hubris.” There is a deliberate emphasis on Bigger’s paranoia as something separate to his crimes against society. Furthermore, Bigger’s feelings of being “trapped” seem to carry a psychological significance that matches the more literal “trapped” feeling of living in a slum. Finally, Bigger’s crimes have a demented logic of symbolism. In Doc’s poolroom, both the gash in the table and the threats directed towards Gus seem to have a purely expressive roleBigger doesn’t actually stab anyone, he simply demonstrates, “traces,” what he would do to a person. On the other hand, Bessie’s murder was both a demonstration of Bigger’s power and an actual murder. Bigger pretended to gut Gus as a way of demonstrating that he was the truly “solid” character who wasn’t afraid. The fact that Bigger smashed Bessie in the head seems to hint at the fact that Bigger is still trying to escape from (and if necessary, destroy) the mind. This is also substantiated by Bessie’s role as one of several “escape” characters in the novel. In all, Wright seems to make a special argument that madness is a distinct, albeit compounded, effect of poverty and racism. While Bigger’s madness is the product of several factors, it becomes a separate burden for Bigger to carry.
This theme is very much related to the theme of madness and it recurs in all three books of Native Son. It is worth noting that many of Wright’s moral and political ideas, derived from Communist ideology, never achieved common acceptance among his largely American readership. While Wright does draw some superficial distinctions between Bessie and Ma, his philosophy reduces both Bessie’s alcoholism and Ma’s ardent religion to “escapes” from reality. Through Bigger, Wright sums up Ma’s religion as a sense of resignation in regards to the present, only permissible and justified by faith in heaven, a life after death. The “escape” aspects of organized religion are exaggerated by the Reverend’s antics and when this “holy fool” is juxtaposed with the Dalton’s frigid, unstinting compassion, much of Society’s morality seems to be only surface-deep. While Bigger avoids Ma’s escapism, he is less successful navigating through the Black Belt’s “underworld” of sex, violence and drugs, portrayed in the Book One and Book Two. The ransom note, the half-attempts to escape to Harlem, the alcoholic atmosphere at the Paris Grill, like the movie-house in the beginning of the novelall of these are escapes that offer a temporary relief from life’s misery, even as they leave the characters worse off and increasingly ill-equipped to get their lives in order. Ironically, these escapes both intensify and add to the miseries of the Black Belt. Mr. Dalton’s ping-pong tables are farcical in comparison to religion and alcohol, but this donation indicates that Dalton is well aware that the Bigger Thomases of the world are in need of a diversion.
The very title of the novel, Native Son, invites the reader to think about ideas of “nativism” and “territory.” From the opening scene of the novel, where Bigger is killing the rat-invader, to Bigger’s execution at the novel’s end, there is a tension between Bigger’s “native” status and his lack of political rights. Bigger was born in Mississippi, not Chicago, and the idea of a “native son” applies more to Bigger’s status as an American as opposed to his status as a Chicagoan. Indeed, for all of the squalor of the Black Belt, Wright continually presses the argument that Bigger would be no better off in Mississippi or in Harlem. As America’s “native son,” Bigger is born an American, but perhaps more important, the Bigger that he becomes, is a product of America’s native soil. The novel continually presents Bigger’s “trapped” feelings and his lack of personal, physical freedom. While this seems to contradict Bigger’s title role as a “native son,” Wright ultimately makes the argument that poverty and American racism has remade Bigger into the “native son” that he has become. When Wright presents a detail that seems particular to Chicago or the Black Belt, there is usually a larger argument or ideology that is attached to it. One example is the fact that Mr. Dalton is Bigger’s employer and landlord. While this might have been a common occurrence, Wright fashions this detail within the rubric of Marxism. In this regard, Mr. Dalton is evidence of the essentially feudal relationship (property-owner vs. laborer) that is masked by and intertwined within capitalism. In his treatment of the “property” theme, Wright argues that capitalism and racism reify one another, conspiring to insure Bigger’s poverty and misery.