Friday, November 24, 2006

45. Native Son

by Richard Wright

Richard Wright’s Native Son is a book essential to the U of C experience. Like Marx and Durkheim, I don’t think many people leave the school without having read it. It’s not only one of the classic texts of the twentieth century, but it’s also set smack dab in the middle of Hyde Park. I read it my first year for a general humanities course, but I never really finished it, getting thrown off by the political tirades at the end. I’d always planned to reread it, so eight years later that’s what I’ve done.

At #20 on the Modern Library 100, Native Son can be summed up as a really bad day in the life of Bigger Thomas. Of course, it’s much more than that under the surface, but the plot is interesting enough to make it an engaging read even if you’re unable to get much further than that. Poor and black in Chicago, Bigger gets work through relief aid as the new chauffeur to the Daltons, an affluent white family living near the university. On Bigger’s first day of work he meets Mr. Dalton, who assures Bigger that he’s all for helping blacks by donating his money to charities, Mrs. Dalton, blind and ethereal in the white dresses she wears, and Mary Dalton, the couple’s rebellious daughter who makes Bigger nervous by asking him if he belongs to unions. That night Bigger is tasked with taking Mary to a university lecture, but she changes the plans and has him pick up her boyfriend Jan, an admitted member of the communist party. They drive around and ask Bigger to take them a restaurant where his “people” eat, they get drunk, and Bigger takes them home. Once in the Dalton’s driveway, Bigger’s realizes that Mary is too drunk to get upstairs by herself. While helping her into her bed, Mrs. Dalton comes into the room. Bigger panics, knowing what people would think if he, a black man, were found in a white girl’s room, and in his panic he smothers Mary with a pillow. Subsequently, in a very brutal scene, he stuffs the body in a furnace and hopes he won’t get caught.

Bigger does get caught and the ensuing story is a telling response to racism in America. I remember discussing it in my first year Hum class and spending way too many minutes on a small scene in the beginning where Bigger kills a rat in the one-room apartment he shares with his brother, sister, and their mother. “A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger’s trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on,” the text reads. The instructor, and the rest of the class in their eagerness to prove themselves smart by agreeing with her, claimed that the rat symbolized Bigger’s life by the simple fact that Wright had called it a “black rat.” Which, to this day, I find ridiculous. I was the only person who questioned her, my argument being that the presence of the rat goes to show the squalor in which Bigger’s family lives, that it’s part of the setting and as for it being “black,” well, you just don’t see many white rats running around. One of my classmates them asked me what the rat meant to me, to which I said, “Nothing! It’s descriptive!” After having reread the book I’d also say the scene is a good opportunity to showcase Bigger’s violent nature, as he goes after the rat with an iron skillet and doesn’t relent until it’s dead, but I maintain that the rat does not equal Bigger.

I like retelling that story because it was the first of many times that I’d be surrounded by very smart people and realize, “Wow, you people think too much.” Not that I thought I was smarter than them, but there is a lot to dissect and analyze in this story, not the least of which is that whites start losing their trust in blacks as a whole once Bigger’s found to be the culprit (there’s a quite painful scene where one man reports that he’s lost his job because his white employer won’t risk having blacks around). In fact, I went back and looked through the paper I wrote for that class where I focused on Bigger’s relationship with the Dalton women and how his fear of them resulted in Mary’s murder and, I have to tell you, it wasn’t half bad. I also imagine much has been written on Wright’s view of communism and how it relates to racial equality, as Bigger finds his lawyer through Jan and there’s this fifteen page stretch that reads as a sort of communist manifesto (ah yes…that’s why I never finished it!). This is a book that can be examined from many different angles, but what makes it a literary staple is that it’s intelligent and suspenseful and heartbreaking all at the same time. It’s really just a very good read.

And we spent twenty minutes talking about a rat.


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