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Copy of Native Son - Literary Analysis
Transcript of Copy of Native Son - Literary Analysis
Born Richard Nathaniel Wright on September 4, 1908 near Natchez, Mississippi. The grandson of slaves and the son of a sharecropper, he went to school in Jackson, Mississippi only until the ninth grade, but had a story published at age 16 while working at various jobs in the South.
Editor on the Communist newspaper, Daily Worker
Became so disillusioned with both the Communists and white America that he went off to Paris, where he lived the rest of his life as an expatriate.
Acclaimed novels include Uncle Tom's Children (1938), Native Son (1940), Black Boy(1945 - autobiography), The Outsider (1953), The Long Dream (1958), Black Power (1954), and White Man, Listen! (1957)
"Bigger" was conceived based on the author's interactions with African-American males who struggled with themselves and society
About the Author
Great Migration - several African-Americans migrated from the South to the North for greater economic opportunity (1915-1930)
Pre-Civil Rights Movement - African-Americans were "free", but were treated with contempt, denied basic priveleges, and used as scapegoats
Post-Great Depression - Country was recovering from period of economic downturn
World War II (pre-US involvement) - Blacks were entertained by the thought of minority groups enslaving others; thoughts of power and conquest
Red Scare - Americans were fearful or hateful towards Communism and its supporters
South-Side Chicago (1940s)
Thomas' One Room Apartment - Impoverished, Lacking, Depressing
Daltons' Home - Extravagant, Nurturing, Upscale
"'They don't let us do nothing.'..."The white folks."
"'"You know one thing?'...""Sometimes I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me," Bigger spoke with a tinge of bitter pride in his voice."
"The shame and fear and hate which Mary and Jan and Mr. Dalton and that huge rich house had made rise so hard and hot in him had now cooled and softened. Had he not done what they thought he never could? His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength. What his knife and gun had once meant to him, his knowledge of having secretly murdered Mary now meant."
"Bigger tiptoed up the steps, one at a time, hoping that the roar of the furnace and the men’s voices and the scraping of the shovel would drown out the creaking sounds his feet made. He reached the top of the steps and breathed deeply."
"Burn that black ape!" - Mob towards Bigger
"Protagonist; Young "Negro" male; made a living through crime and deception; slaughters the daughter of an aristocrat
Age: ~20 years old
Traits: Impulsive, Renegade, Hopeless, Reflective, Cunning, Fearful, Aggressive; Undereducated
Characters - Bigger Thomas
Vera -Bigger's younger sister
Fearful, timid, paranoid, feminine (sewing classes at the YMCA)
Represents fear present in Bigger, and other fellow African-Americans
"I ain't no dog!"
Buddy,Vera, and Mrs. Thomas
Buddy - Bigger's younger brother; aspires to be just like Bigger
Calm, Cheerful, Enthusiastic, Encouraging
Represents bliss; blind conformity and the limited spectrum or view of African-Americans in general
Mrs. Thomas-Bigger's mother; constantly hounding Bigger to do for himself and for the family; believes she has raised her children to the best of her ability
Deeply religious, motherly, miserable
"Even when the relief offers you a job you won't take it till they threaten to cut off your food and starve you! Bigger, honest, you the most no-countest man.."
Mr. Dalton - Bigger's employer; donates large sums of money to "uplift" African-Americans and to promote "progress"; loves his family very much; misunderstanding of social issues and the impact of his actions; Lacks a sophisticated understanding of social realities.;Philanthropist, Kind, Sympathetic
"He looked round the street and saw a sign on a building: THIS PROPERTY IS MANAGED BY THE SOUTH SIDE REAL ESTATE COMPANY. He had heard that Mr. Dalton owned the South Side Real Estate Company, and the South Side Real Estate Company owned the house in which he lived. He paid eight dollars a week for one rat-infested room...""
Mrs. Dalton - Mr. Dalton's wife; she's blind and a very caring woman; NAACP member; misguided on some issues: much of the family’s ongoing wealth is gained through exploitation of the very people she claims to help
Blind, Kind, Caring, Motherly, Religious
Mary Dalton - Dalton's rebellious daughter; makes several attempts to break free of family wealth and help others; Jan Erlone's girlfriend; gets slaughtered by Bigger
Represents naivety of upper class; closed view of social realties
Sweet-hearted, naive, rebellious, impulsive, selfish
"It’s all right, Bigger" she said. "Jan means it."
"Bigger," she said, "you don’t have to come in unless you really want to. Please, don’t think. . . .Oh, Bigger. . . .We’re not trying to make you feel badly. . . ."
"And their songs—the spirituals! Aren’t they marvelous?" Bigger saw her turn to him. "Say, Bigger, can you sing?"
Daltons' Irish-American houseworker; believes the Daltons have been great benefactors for African-Americans; a bit sympathetic towards Bigger
"Mr. Dalton’s a fine man. You know, he does a lot for your people."
Mary's boyfriend; union organizer; Communist; seeks to fight racial and economic oppression; befriends Bigger despite his situation; demonstrates that not all white men (or majorities for that matter) aren't out to make the minorities miserable
Although a bit mislead, he represents change and revolution
"Bigger extended a limp palm, his mouth open in astonishment. He felt Jan’s fingers tighten about his own. He tried to pull his hand away, ever so gently, but Jan held on, firmly, smiling."'We may as well get to know each other," Jan said. "I’m a friend of Mary’s.'"
"Bigger, please ! Don’t say sir to me. . . .I don’t like it. You’re a man just like I am; I’m no better than you. Maybe other white men like it. But I don’t. Look, Bigger. . . ."
"For God's sake, man! What're you doing? Don't shoot...I haven't bothered you..Don't.."
Bigger's "girlfriend"; trades sex for alcohol money; workaholic; rape/murder victim
Represents the injustice and prejudice present within American society and the justice system as a whole
Dedicated; miserable; loving
"But we ain’t never done nothing like this before. They’ll look everywhere for us for something like this. It ain’t like coming to where I work at night when the white folks is gone out of town stealing something. It ain’t. . . ."
Jewish Communist; "white-haired"; sympathizes with Bigger; represents Bigger during his court case
Helps Bigger see his own worth as a human being regardless of what others may say
"I know," Max said. "But those things don’t touch the fundamental problem involved here. This boy comes from an oppressed people. Even if he’s done wrong, we must take that into consideration."
"'Bigger, you should have tried to understand. She was acting toward you only as she knew how.'"
"What could Max do for him now? Even if Max tried hard and honestly, were there not thousands of white hands to stop Max? Why not tell him to go home? His lips trembled to speak, to tell Max to leave; but no words came." - Bigger Thomas
Britten - A racist, anticommunist private investigator who helps Mr. Dalton investigate Mary’s disappearance.
"..with a movement so fast that Bigger did not see it, grabbed him in the collar and rammed his head hard against the wall.."
"You are a Communist, you goddamn black sonofabitch!"
Buckley - The incumbent State’s Attorney who is running for reelection; viciously racist and anticommunist; pompous style of talking puts others down
""That’s Buckley!" He spoke softly to himself. "He’s running for State’s Attorney again." The men were slapping the poster with wet brushes. He looked at the round florid face and wagged his head. "I bet that sonofabitch rakes off a million bucks in graft a year. Boy, if I was in his shoes for just one day I’d never have to worry again."-Bigger Thomas
"we got evidence so you might as well talk" - Buckley
Wright's Characterization Style
Title-Native Son is ironic for a title; despite being American-born and raised the protagonist is not treated like an American
Name - Bigger sounds a lot like 'n..'; ironic name considering his fate; allows audience to sympathize with him
Buddy-represents the character's attitude; enduring friendship and loyalty
Jan Erlone - very foreign; 'un-American'; sets mood towards the character
Third-Person Limited - The audience always knows exactly how Bigger is feeling and what he's thinking
Setting-The characters that live in the urban ghettos fill their lives with things (Mrs. Thomas-religion, Bessie-alcohol); they are kept within a small corner of the city; inadequate conditions create hostile individuals
Dialect - The African-American characters speak in a manner that shows their lack of education, or simply their unwillingness to show that level of education for fear ("You the no count-est man..")
Third-person limited-the dialogue and narration we get is limited to Bigger's actions and his presence; only we (the audience) can see his inner workings
We learn how and why Bigger does the things he does
We know why exactly he is fearful or impulsive
We're better judges of his character than he is of him himself
Represents irony present in society
"Because he could go now, run off if he wanted to and leave it all behind, he felt a certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live. He was conscious of this quiet, warm, clean, rich house, this room with this bed so soft, the wealthy white people moving in luxury to all sides of him.."
"He closed his eyes, longing for a sleep that would not come. During the last two days and nights he had lived 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."
Native Son - POV
Bigger is the main protagonist
He gets a job as a chaffeur
Takes Mary to see Jan Erlone
They all get drunk; Bigger carries her upstairs
Bigger murders Mary by accident; covers it up; turns into one large 'cat-mouse' chase
He gets caught
He is sentenced to death row
"You’ll regret how you living some day," she went on. "If you don’t stop running with that gang of yours and do right you’ll end up where you never thought you would. You think I don’t know what you boys is doing, but I do. And the gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, boy, Just remember that."
He spoke without looking. His entire body hungered for keen sensation, something exciting and violent to relieve the tautness. It was now ten minutes to three and Gus had not come. If Gus stayed away much longer, it would be too late. And Gus knew that.
"I know," Max said. "But those things don’t touch the fundamental problem involved here. This boy comes from an oppressed people. Even if he’s done wrong, we must take that into consideration."
Theme 1: "Are criminals born, or simply made by society?"
"I killed ‘em ‘cause I was scared and mad. But I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while." - Bigger Thomas
"But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness. He had fought Gus because Gus was late.."
"The very manner in which she sat showed a fear so deep as to be an organic part of her; she carried the food to her mouth in tiny bits, as if dreading its choking her, or fearing that it would give out too quickly.." - Vera eating at the table
"...that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control."
Theme 2: "Fear can often strip an individual of their own self worth."
"'I don’t know. I just feel that way. Every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me. . . .'", "Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships. . . ."
"Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything. . . . You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing."
Theme 3: "One's identity is often defined by others; not of one's own will."
Wooden Cross-Represents life and peace; turned upside down and burning it represents destruction, hatred, and the "backwardness" of society
Pigeon - represents freedom and unbridled joy
Mrs. Dalton's Blindness - social and cultural blindness of America
Mary's Severed Head - Power yet guilt
Snow - The nature of Western (White) society to envelop the world
Jail - limited freedoms; at least here Bigger is equal to everyone
Wright uses symbols to hammer home the point; being a black man in America automatically qualifies you to be a victim of subjugation
Literary Devices - Native Son
"Even today is my complaining rebellious, My stroke is heavier than my groaning." - Job (Bible)
Japan colonizing China
Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin: "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down"
Wright uses religious references, pop references, and historical references to pain Bigger's plight as an African-American man in society; he struggles against a racial system that he happened to be born into; the system provides little to no way for him to advance
Playwrights use this to develop tragic heroes (such as Bigger); at the end of Act I, the main character is drawn in completely to a conflict. During Act II, he is farthest away from his goals. At the end of Act III, the story is resolved (sorta...)
Act I - Fear (Bigger gets the job)
Act II - Flight (Bigger kills Mary; exploits her death for gain)
Act III - Fate (Bigger gets caught; sentenced to electric chair)
We get some of Bigger's backstory, he gets developed as a character, life seems to pick up (not much), and then he ends up put into a situation where he unfortunately has very little choices. Proverbially, we see that he's put into a concrete room with no exits or windows
Organization - 3-Part Story (ACTS)
Questions? Comments? Aspirations?
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Wright, Richard. Native son. S.l.: Perennial Library, 1940. Print.
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Theme 4: "Stereotypes are created by the oppressors, but embraced by the oppressed."
"'Let’s play ‘white,’" Bigger said, referring to a game of play-acting in which he and his friends imitated the ways and manners of white folks." "Well, you see, the n*ggers is raising sand all over the country," Bigger said, struggling to keep back his laughter. "We’ve got to do something with these black folks. . . ."
"He hated himself at that moment. Why was he acting and feeling this way? He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself
"She won’t. And, anyhow, she’s a crazy girl. They might even think she’s in it herself, just to get money from her family. They might think the Reds is doing it. They won’t think we did. They don’t think we got enough guts to do it. They think niggers is too scared. . . ."
Britten & Buckley