Back to: LITERATURE IN ENGLISH SS2
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In today’s class, we will be talking about reading and textual analysis of the plot of the non-African novel: Native Son by Richard Wright. Enjoy the class!
Reading and Textual Analysis of the Plot of the Non-African Novel: Native Son by Richard Wright
Bigger Thomas, a poor, uneducated, twenty-year-old black man in 1930s Chicago, wakes up one morning in his family’s cramped apartment on the South Side of the city. He sees a huge rat scamper across the room, which he corners and kills with a skillet. Having grown up under the climate of harsh racial prejudice in 1930s America, Bigger is burdened with a powerful conviction that he has no control over his life and that he cannot aspire to anything other than menial, low-wage labour. His mother pesters him to take a job with a rich white man named Mr Dalton, but Bigger instead chooses to meet up with his friends to plan the robbery of a white man’s store.
Anger, fear and frustration define Bigger’s daily existence, as he is forced to hide behind a façade of toughness or risk succumbing to despair. While Bigger and his gang have robbed many black-owned businesses, they have never attempted to rob a white man. Bigger sees whites not as individuals, but as a natural, oppressive force: a great looming ‘whiteness’ pressing down upon him. Bigger’s fear of confronting this force overwhelms him, but rather than admit his fear, he violently attacks a member of his gang to sabotage the robbery. Left with no other options, Bigger takes a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons.
Coincidentally, Mr Dalton is also Bigger’s landlord, as he owns a controlling share of the company that manages the apartment building where Bigger’s family lives. Mr Dalton and other wealthy real estate barons are effectively robbing the poor, black tenants on Chicago’s South Side — they refuse to allow black to rent apartments in predominantly white neighbourhoods, thus leading to overpopulation and artificially high rents in the predominantly black South Side. Mr Dalton sees himself as a benevolent philanthropist; however, as he donates money to black schools and offers jobs to ‘poor, timid black boys’ like Bigger. However, Mr Dalton practices this token philanthropy mainly to alleviate his guilty conscience for exploiting poor blacks.
Mary, Mr Dalton’s daughter, frightens and angers Bigger by ignoring the social taboos that govern the relations between white women and a black man. On his first day of work, Bigger drives Mary to meet her communist boyfriend, Jan. Eager to prove their progressive ideals and racial tolerance, Mary and Jan force Bigger to take them to a restaurant in the South Side. Despite Bigger’s embarrassment, they order drinks, and as the evening passes, all three of them get drunk. Bigger then drive around the city while Mary and Jan make out in the back seat. Afterwards, Mary is too drunk to make it to her bedroom on her own, so Bigger helps her up the stairs. Drunk and aroused by his unprecedented proximity to a young white woman, Bigger begins to kiss Mary.
Just as Bigger places Mary on her bed, Mary’s blind mother, Mrs Dalton, enters the bedroom. Though Mrs Dalton cannot see him, her ghostlike presence terrifies him. Bigger worries that Mary, in her drunken condition, will reveal his presence. He covers her face with a pillow and accidentally smothers her to death. Unaware that Mary has been killed, Mrs Dalton prays over her daughter and returns to bed. Bigger tries to conceal his crime by burning Mary’s body in Dalton’s furnace. He decides to try to use the Daltons’ prejudice against communists to frame Jan for Mary’s disappearance. Bigger believes that the Daltons will assume Jan is dangerous and that he may have kidnapped their daughter for political purposes. Additionally, Bigger takes advantage of Daltons’ racial prejudices to avoid suspicion, continuing to play the role of a timid, ignorant black servant who would be unable to commit such an act.
Mary’s murder gives Bigger a sense of power and identity he has never known. Bigger’s girlfriend, Bessie, makes an offhand comment that inspires him to try to collect ransom money from the Daltons. They know only that Mary has vanished, not that she is dead. Bigger writes a ransom letter, playing upon the Daltons’ hatred of communists by signing his name ‘Red.’ He then bullies Bessie to take part. Bigger is not a traditional hero by any means. However, Wright forces us to enter into Bigger’s mind and to understand the devastating effects of the social conditions in which he was raised. Bigger was not born a violent criminal. He is a ‘native son’: a product of American culture and the violence and racism that suffuse and characterise it.
- The dangers of racial oppression: Beyond all reasonable doubts, it is convincingly established by Max in court that the gruesome crimes of Bigger are not in any way far from the intimidating weight of racial inequalities that permeate the American society. That is, by extension, this work proffers to readers that there are dangers concomitant to act of oppression, and particularly, racial oppression. We see young Bigger who enjoys his freelance attitude and gangsterism becoming a deadly emotionless murderer just within twenty-four hours he got to the Daltons. This is truly not surprising to Max, who understands the psychic of an oppressed mind and person. No wonder, he and his communist group fight for the emancipation of the black race from white dominance to assure a safer American society for all.
- The theme of poverty and penury: Considering the economic standard of the Thomas’ family, who also represents other black character mentioned in the work, we will come to terms that poverty and penury have taken over the black neighbourhood that they find it difficult to groom a proper child with qualitative education and wellbeing. This is why Thomas’ family find themselves under the care of the relief home. And this was the reason why Bigger had to come in contact with the Daltons in the first place, for they were threatened by the relief home not to supply them with food any longer. The look of the apartment the black people occupy reveals the level of poverty and penury that has conquered them.
- The theme of deceit and greed: After the revelation in court by Max that the black race pays rent for houses obviously in bad conditions at a fee twice the amount the whites pay for their own houses in good conditions and that Mr Dalton who coincidentally stands as the Thomas’ landlord is a major player in the atrocities, we realise the deceit in the charity displayed by people like Dalton to the black people as the money they give is only the excess of what they have squeezed out of the black people in America. What this fact shows us that the donations made by Mr Dalton celebrated in court by the state attorney hold no moral standing. This is what the communists decide to kick against, as they see the relationship of the white and the black to be that of the predator and the prey.
- Suspense: This is one narrative technique that any reader will easily and quickly identify with as it runs through the work. In a nutshell, this technique helps readers to go through the volume of the pages of the novel with getting tired. Richard Wright has cleverly entwined Bigger with an aura of suspicion as readers tend to suspect every move he makes. This is not alien to the circumstances that surround Bigger and the mess he got himself into. After killing Mary, readers read with rapt attention to know if he has any hope of escape or pardon for his crimes. Suspense is strongly felt in the courtroom as Max puts up a seasoned argument for Bigger in the face of threatening whites in the majority.
- Tragedy: This technique is deployed by the writer to effectively betray the tragic presence of racism and inequality in a land. Besides the death of Mr Thomas, Bigger’s father, which is also a tragic one, we see Bigger unconsciously manifesting into an emotionless killer. Though Mary’s death was accidental, it satisfies Bigger’s desire to be able to inflict pain and fear on the white folk. After the killing of Mary, Bigger sees himself losing it completely that he felt nothing bad in his decision to kill Bessie, his girlfriend. By this, the writer tries to make readers understand that the same consideration given to Bigger’s crimes should also be that which is given to what had stirred such thoughts in Bigger in the first place, which is no other than racism.
- Flashback: Though used on a low scale, flashback comes in time to help tell about the death of Bigger’s father and what efforts his mum had deployed before they found themselves in their present house. Through it, we were exposed to other crimes Bigger had committed in the past which as a result of one of them he was sent to the reprimanded home.
- Dramatic Irony: The writer also utilised this technique to help Bigger to hide for a longer time in Mr Dalton’s house after committing such a gruesome crime. When Mr Britten, a private investigator, was called upon by Mr Dalton when he realises that his daughter has been missing, he considers Bigger the first suspect, which would have helped to unravel the situation at a lesser time period but Mr Dalton intervened by asking Mr Britten not to involve Bigger, who actually was the criminal who had killed Mary, his supposed missing daughter.
- Bigger Thomas: The protagonist of Native Son. A poor, uneducated black man, Bigger comes from the lowest rung on the American social and economic ladder. As his lack of education has left him no option other than menial labour, he has felt trapped his whole life, resenting, hating, and fearing the whites who define the narrow confines of his existence. Bigger views white people as a collective, overwhelming force that tells him where to live, where to work, and what to do.
- Mary Dalton: The daughter of Mr and Mrs Dalton, Bigger’s wealthy employers. Mary identifies herself as a progressive, dates an admitted communist, and interacts with Bigger with little regard for the strict boundary society imposes between black men and white women. Mary’s transgression of this boundary leads to her death and the resulting development of Bigger’s character.
- Mr and Mrs Dalton: A white millionaire couple living in Chicago. Mrs Dalton is blind; Mr Dalton has earned a fortune in real estate. Although he profits from charging high rents to poor black tenants – including Bigger’s family – on Chicago’s South Side, he nonetheless claims to be a generous philanthropist and supporter of black Americans.
- Jan Erlone: A member of the Communist Party and Mary Dalton’s boyfriend – a relationship that upsets Mary’s parents. Jan, like Mary, wants to treat Bigger as an equal, but such untraditional behaviour only frightens and angers Bigger. Jan later recognizes his mistake in trying to treat Bigger this way and becomes sympathetic toward his plight. Jan becomes especially aware of the social divisions that prevent Bigger from relating normally with white society.
- Boris A. Max: A Jewish lawyer who works for the Labour Defenders, an organisation affiliation with the Communist Party. Max argues, based on a sociological analysis of American society, that institutionalized racism and prejudice – not inherent ethnic qualities – create conditions for violence in urban ghettos.
- Bessie Mears: Bigger’s girlfriend. Their relationship remains quite distant and is largely based upon mutual convenience rather than romantic love.
- Mrs Thomas: Bigger’s devoutly religious mother. Mrs Thomas has accepted her precarious, impoverished position in life and warns Bigger at the beginning of the novel that he will meet a bad end if he fails to change his ways.
- Buddy Thomas: Bigger’s younger brother. Buddy, unlike his brother, does not rebel against his low position on the social ladder. In fact, he envies Bigger’s job as a chauffeur for a rich white family. As the novel progresses, however, Buddy begins to take on a more antagonist attitude toward racial prejudice.
- Vera Thomas: Bigger’s younger sister. Vera, like Bigger, lives her life in constant fear.
- H., Gus and Jack: Bigger’s friends, who often plan and execute robberies together. They hatch a tentative plan to rob a white shopkeeper, Mr Blum, but they are afraid of the consequences if they should be caught robbing a white man. At the beginning of the novel, Bigger taunts his friends about their fear, even though he is just as terrified himself.
- Mr Blum: A white man who owns a delicatessen on the South Side of Chicago. Mr Blum represents an inviting robbery target for Bigger and his friends, but their fear of the consequences of robbing a white man initially prevents them from following through on their plan.
- Britten: A racist, anti-Communist private investigator who helps Mr Dalton to investigate Mary’s disappearance.
- Buckley: The incumbent State’s Attorney who is running for re-election. Buckley is viciously racist and anti-Communist.
- Peggy: An Irish immigrant who has worked as the Daltons’ cook for years. Peggy considers the Daltons to be marvellous benefactors to black Americans. Though she is actively kind to Bigger, she is also extremely patronizing.
- Doc: The black owner of a pool hall on the South Side of Chicago that serves as a hangout for Bigger and his friends.
- Reverend Hammond: The pastor of Mrs Thomas’s church who urges Bigger to turn toward religion in times of trouble.
- Summarise the plot of the work.
- Give a brief background of the novel.
- The expression, “Before Idi Amin breathed his last he admonished his children to shun violence” is a/an ________ A. anecdote B. metaphor C. euphemism D. onomatopoeia E. paradox.
In our next class, we will be talking about Reading and Content Analysis of African Poetry- “The Dining Table” by Elvan Gbanabon Hallowell. We hope you enjoyed the class.
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