Native Son by Richard Wright follows Bigger Thomas through a series of bad decisions that lead him to being sentenced to death in the gas chamber. He murders one woman and severs her head, rapes and murders another, blames his crimes on someone else, and tries to extort money from the wealthy parents of one of the murder victims. Throughout all of these distasteful actions perpetrated by the main character, Richard Wright has the confidence to know that the reader will continue reading to the end of the book. One could just assume that the world is populated by morally bankrupt looky-loos that get their kicks from human suffering, and that may be the case. However, Richard Wright does not rely on untested pseudo psychology; he places his confidence in time tested literary technique. Richard Wright uses sentiment, characterization, and a portrayal of racism to make the reader feel like Bigger Thomas had no other choice; these techniques keep the reader emotionally invested in Bigger even though he is a highly unlikeable character.
Richard Wright uses character interaction to mold Bigger into a fully formed and believable character. Bigger comes fully furnished with family, friends, and goals. His goals clash with the goals of the other characters. Early in the story, Bigger argues with his mother over the possibility of taking a job that had been offered to him. Even though he lives with his mother, Brother, and sister in a small studio apartment, Bigger does not want to take the job (11). This argument with his mother paints a complicated picture of who Bigger is. Although Bigger’s choice to hang out with his friends rather than look for work does not paint him in a very appealing light, the poor conditions in which he lives and the constant arguments with his mother–not to mention the absence of his father and his relatively young age—work to create sympathy for this troubled young man.
However, a troubled family life can do little to excuse the murder and decapitation of a young woman. But this wasn’t just any young woman. It was a rich white woman and he was a young black man. He knew that he could not get caught in a room alone with her and live through the experience. He had years of experience dealing with whites and he knew what kind of contact was acceptable and what was not. Wright writes, “There were white people to either side of him; he was sitting between two vast white looming walls” (67-68). The scene had already shown Jan and Marry getting into the car on either side of Bigger. If he had ever experienced anything like this before, Wright would not have to repeat the statement nor would there be an explicit emphasis on the race of the occupants to either side of Bigger. Not only was this a new and unusual experience for Bigger, but also it was a frightening experience. The imagery of two white walls looming creates a claustrophobic feeling in the mind of the reader, and the feeling is attached to the scene. This anxiety at just sitting next to Marry in the presence of a white man is only a small fraction of the anxiety that he would feel as he was nearly caught alone in her room with her by her blind mother. Bigger’s fear of being close to white people does not excuse him killing Mary and chopping off her head but, one could clearly understand why he accidentally killed her. And after Mary’s death the reader’s empathy for the emotional turmoil that Bigger is going through allows the reader to accept the extreme actions that bigger is forced to take while maintaining the reader’s disapproval of those actions.
The anxiety that Bigger has at the presence of white people is not a mere character quirk. It is a symptom of the institutionalized racism that Wright imbues his novel with. A newspaper report that Bigger reads once he becomes a suspect and is on the run says, “Police reported that many windows in the Negro sections were smashed out” (244). The smashed out windows show the poverty and poor conditions that Bigger and all other blacks were forced to live in. And probably the most telling of all is that there is a Negro section of town. One of the best ways to make people feel inferior is to separate them into a ghetto and surround them by poverty and crumbling infrastructure.
After reading the quote about the Negro section of town, no one will be surprised to learn that Bigger’s childhood dream to become a pilot could never be fulfilled because whites did not think that black people were qualified to be pilots (16-17). Being caught up in this society, Bigger does not recognize these problems right away. He can only feel them in the abstract form. When speaking with Gus, Bigger asks him, “You know where the white folks live?… Right down here in my stomach… It’s like fire” (21-22). This is his inexpressible reaction to the racist society in which he lives. Gus admits that he shares this same feeling (22). The way Gus understands this uneasy feeling about their treatment by white society allows the reader to assume that the rest of black society probably feels this stress too. The stress of living among a people who constantly have their hopes dashed due to an unfair society creates a kind of social pressure, and Bigger is pushed to do all of the vile acts that he does in this novel. And again the reader’s empathy for Bigger’s plight is reinforced.
The longest and probably least effective use of sentiment takes place in the courtroom. While Max gives his statement to the court (382-405). He uses pleas to people’s emotion indiscriminately. One moment he is building up sympathy designed to save Bigger’s and the next he is building up sentiment that is likely to get bigger killed. Max says, “Your Honor, in our blindness we have so contrived and ordered the lives of men that the moths in their hearts flutter toward ghoulish and incomprehensible flames” (401)! The one element that shows without any question that this statement is meant to persuade the emotions of the people of not only the fictional people hearing it and the real people reading it is that it ends with an exclamation point even though it is not an exclamation. The next thing that one notices is that the statement makes no sense. The pointless and difficult nature of this statement is another indication that it is intended to persuade the audience. But no matter how confusing the writing is a patient reader can break it down and decode the actual meaning. “In our blindness” indicates that what we have done was done in innocence. Starting out by minimizing the blame that you are placing on the people that you are accusing of wrongdoing is usually a good tactic when appealing to emotion. “Contrived and ordered the lives of men” means that we have built society. The use of two synonymous words serves to tone down the negative connotations of the word contrived. In this case, “the moths in our hearts” refer to our ever fluctuating and somewhat suspect emotions. Or since the statement is meant as an excuse for murder and rape the use of moths rather than butterflies is a nod to the heinousness of the crimes that max is asking us to excuse. And the “ghoulish and incomprehensible flames” are the suicidal actions that people take such as killing and decapitating rich white women. So what this statement is essentially is saying is that we are at fault (but not really) for making society a trap where the disenfranchised are forced to do things that are against their best interest. This flimsy little statement is what Max thought was going to bring sympathy for Bigger. And not only does Max’s ploy not elicit empathy in the judges eyes, but also it does not elicit empathy in the eyes of the reader. In fact, Max’s statement serves to remove all of the empathy that the reader had built up through the course of the novel.
And then Max goes on to make a statement like this one which is also meant to make people feel sympathy for Bigger. Max says, “Every time he comes in contact with us, he kills!… Every thought he thinks is potential murder” (400). This quote is much easier to understand and again the exclamation mark is used on a sentence that is not an exclamation as proof that the statement is meant to persuade. However this quote does nothing to bring sympathy for Bigger. Even though Max has made it clear that society at large is slightly at fault for creating this condition in Bigger, stating that murder is an inevitability does not help his case. While this 23 page rant against the evils of society was clearly intended as the highpoint in the novel and proof that Bigger should not be killed, I believe that it falls very short of the mark. In fact, no one in their right mind would excuse a murderer just because he should have murdered more people.
But just because the longest and most intentional use of sentimentality backfires and further alienates the reader from the character it was intended to excuse, does not mean that sentimentality is not used to great effect in other places in the novel. When speaking to Bigger in the jail cell Max makes a statement to Bigger that does help the reader to identify with him even though he has done all of these terrible things. Max says, “They hire people and they don’t pay them enough; they take what people own and build up power. They rule and regulate life. They have things arranged so that they can do those things and the people can’t fight back” (428). This quote effectively sums up Max’s failed 24 page argument in three lines. Had Wright omitted or otherwise reduced Max’s statement in court, this short and beautifully simple quote could have worked to make the novel end on a bittersweet scene. But after competing with the court room scene, not even Wright’s use of sentiment, characterization, and racism can bring back the sense of empathy that Bigger originally has. Richard Wright’s book, Native Son, serves to prove that even a confident and competent writer can be made to look like an amateur in the presence of a large enough mistake.