When Richard Wright s Native Son was first published in 1940, its sensational, violent

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1 Rowley 1 Richard Wright s Empathetic Monster in Native Son When Richard Wright s Native Son was first published in 1940, its sensational, violent protagonist generated fervent responses from critics. Most praised Wright for his brutally truthful construction of a tragic black character caught in the stranglehold of American oppression. Others condemned the portrayal saying Wright imbued Bigger with such a monstrous personality and drove him to such unspeakable acts that he became repulsive. To be sure, Wright s depiction of Bigger is multifaceted. In his seminal essay How Bigger Was Born, Wright contends that it was necessary for him to create a volatile protagonist in order to awaken white readers to the effects of subjugation on the black consciousness. In order to achieve this, Wright constructed an empathetic character driven to commit monstrous murders by an oppressive society which made him feel isolated, afraid, ashamed, anxious and paranoid. Only by depicting Bigger s sympathetic, emotional vulnerability in this way could Wright make readers think deeply about what might have caused a character to commit atrocious crimes. One way Wright achieves this is by using an atypical writing style. In the novel, Wright uses the conflicting devices of realism, expressionism and modernism, as well as multiple narrative voices, to create dialectical unity of forms. By combining these unusual practices and presenting multiple sides of Bigger s situation, Wright is able to create a more complete and empathetic look at Bigger s monstrous character, thereby inspiring the kind of complex thought he hoped to invoke.

2 Rowley 2 Wright uses realism in the novel to humanize Bigger s monstrous character and to show how Bigger s environment adversely effects his psyche. Wright talks in Blueprint about his deep commitment to showing a true representation of Bigger s life and the underlying social forces which shape his actions: If the sense of the whole life [the Negro writer] is seeking is vivid and strong in him, then his writing will embrace all those social, political and economic forms under which the life of his people is manifest (46). Wright s commitment to realism is most evident in Book One where he shows how Bigger s everyday life is heavily influenced by the social influences of capitalist society. For example, early on in the novel, Wright shows Bigger watching working men put up a poster for a white politician, State s Attorney Buckley. Bigger looks at the poster and says, 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 (13). These two lines are an example of Wright s realist representation in Native Son. Wright shows a simple, straightforward portrayal of Bigger s life while at the same time subtly using the poster and dialogue to take this seemingly mundane slice of life and give it significant objective meaning. First, Bigger s use of the word sonofabitch shows his bitterness toward Buckley as a representative of the white race which he perceives to have everything. But, Bigger s words rakes off a million bucks in graft a day show that despite his hatred toward Buckley and his race, he also admires and lusts after Buckley s success and money. Finally, the line I d never have to worry again shows Bigger s frustration with his own lack of money and his wish for the blessed life he believes Buckley to possess. This is an example of the deep, informed and complex consciousness (Blueprint 43) Wright believed was necessary in the Negro writing effort. Presenting Native Son from a realist perspective makes readers think about how the social forces of capitalist society affect and influence the lives of black people in that society. This

3 Rowley 3 realist perspective, in turn, humanizes Bigger s character, making him seem sympathetic and relatable. Wright sets up this empathetic portrayal so that later, when Bigger commits the murders of Mary and Bessie, the audience understands what led him to commit such monstrous acts. But, that is only one side. Wright adds expressionist representation to his primarily realist text to show how Bigger s oppressive environment affects his inner thoughts and emotions. Wright uses expressionist dream imagery to heighten Bigger s explosive emotions, to give Bigger an outlet for those emotions or to give Bigger an escape from emotions he cannot control. This then presents the reader with another side of his monstrous personality and sparks additional debate, forcing the reader to contemplate why Bigger s emotions are so volatile, what situations cause these explosive emotions, whether or not they are justified and what might be the underlying causes of his violent responses. Wright uses expressionist dream-like language and imagery when Bigger is caught in the most angst-inducing situations. For example, when Bigger is driving in the car with Jan and Mary and they are asking him questions that make him feel confused, ashamed and angry, he channels his fury into violent fantasies in his mind: He wanted to seize some heavy object in his hand and grip it with all the strength of his body and in some strange way rise up and stand in naked space above the speeding car and with one final blow blot it out with himself and them in it (Native Son 70). The expressionist language and imagery Wright uses here shows how Bigger escapes into violent fantasies whenever he feels caged in or violated in a situation as a way of expressing the inner anger and unacceptable desires he cannot express outwardly because of societal taboo. Similar to dreams we have while sleeping, which can be interpreted upon waking to reveal our innermost uncensored desires, Wright gives us access to Bigger s interior wishes as a way of further revealing character and as a means of

4 Rowley 4 foreshadowing the upcoming times when Bigger s inner desires are expressed outwardly and result in the violent deaths of Mary and Bessie. In his book The Power of Political Art: The 1930 s Literary Left Reconsidered, Robert Shulman talks about Bigger s fight to keep his inherent violent tendencies at bay: Bigger not only fears whites, moreover, but also the violence of his own reaction, partly because of the retribution it will bring, partly because of his underlying humanity (144). In other words, Bigger is both intrinsically violent and at the same time afraid of that violence within him. Escaping into dream imagery is a coping mechanism, an outlet. Therefore, it only makes sense that Wright would relay this part of Bigger s personality using expressionism, which is by definition a distorted, dream-like form of representation. By inserting these momentary expressionist dream sequences into Wright s otherwise primarily realistic text, Wright forces the reader to contemplate a different and more complex side of Bigger s monstrous persona, thereby creating empathy in the mind of the reader and further complicating the reader s view of the African-American psyche. Once Wright has built audience empathy for Bigger s character using realist and expressionist techniques, he then shows how Bigger s environment and his inner emotions can lead to monstrous acts. He does this using sensational modernism. The most obvious example is when Bigger murders Mary, cuts off her head and burns her in the incinerator. In this scene, Wright shocks readers and shows them a perspective of the volatile nature of the black psyche they never considered before. But, if Wright had not built audience empathy for Bigger s character first using realism and expressionism, he would not have been able to make the statement about oppression that he wanted to make with this scene. Readers would simply have turned away in disgust. Instead, because Wright so expertly sets up Bigger s character and builds audience empathy for his persona, this scene both shocks and disturbs the reader, thereby

5 Rowley 5 prompting the kind of complex thought Wright hoped to invoke with his writing. The realism forces the reader to think about Bigger s everyday situation and the social influences that have contributed to it. The sensational modernist scene of Mary s murder and decapitation jolts the reader awake and invites an even deeper line of thought: How could the social influences lead to this kind of violent reaction? By starting the book with a realist representation of Bigger s life, which shows the underlying social forces which shape his actions, readers get a sense of why Bigger is as he is. Then, by adding distorted expressionist dream sequences which show how he reacts to and copes with this life, Wright gives the reader additional insight into Bigger s inner struggle. Finally, by using sensational modernist techniques to show what happens when Bigger finally loses control of these inner tendencies and commits monstrous acts as a result, the reader can start to make connections between all three forms of representation and contemplate how each contributed to Bigger s downfall. In this way, Wright s blend of realism, modernism and expressionism give the most well-rounded and at the same time multi-dimensional representation of Bigger as a person, thereby inspiring the kind of speculation and thought in the reader that Wright hoped to invoke. Another way that Wright uses conflicting devices to create dialectical unity of forms is by using multiple narrative voices. By blending Bigger s outer voice, Bigger s inner thoughts and Wright s interpretations of Bigger s thoughts, Wright is able to give a more fully developed vision of Bigger than one single perspective would have allowed. These multiple perspectives serve to develop audience empathy for Bigger s character, thereby giving richer insight into his monstrous persona. Wright s non-traditional narrative style is necessary to work in contrast to Bigger s outer voice, which he designs to reflect Bigger s angry, volatile personality. Bigger s

6 Rowley 6 outer voice generally relies on short, staccato phrases meant either to intimidate, as in his fight with Gus: You yellow bastard! You yellow! (Native Son 26), to express his elated violent tendencies, as after he kills a rat: I got im By God, I got im, (6), to express his frustration with his mother: Aw, for Chrissakes! (8) or to express his depressed tendencies, as when he responds to his mother s wish that she d never given birth to him: Maybe you oughtn t ve. Maybe you ought to left me where I was (8). By themselves these revelations of character show only Bigger s anger, frustration and self hatred. But Wright s use of a thirdperson narrator with a first-person point of view adds a more intimate look into the rich inner life of Bigger s mind, which Bigger s outer speech cannot reveal. For example, after the initial scene in Bigger s home where Bigger kills a rat and then fights with his mother about getting a job, Wright s intimate narrator shows Bigger s inner reactions: He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair (10). This narrative voice is written to sound as though it is Bigger s thoughts. In this way, Wright s intimate third-person narrator gives the reader access to Bigger s most private feelings and helps the reader to see that he is a more complex individual than his outer persona allows. This builds reader empathy and helps to soften Bigger s monstrous personality. But, Wright is not satisfied to stop at this level of intimacy. He wants to give the reader an even deeper understanding not just of Bigger, but of the reasons for Bigger s atypical personality. Therefore, he interjects his own thoughts about Bigger using a more distant thirdperson point-of-view as though he were Bigger s psychologist: These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire;

7 Rowley 7 moments of silence and moments of anger Being this way was a need of his as deep as eating (Native Son 29). Wright in this passage acts as interpreter for Bigger who cannot know these things about himself, but which Wright believes the reader should know and contemplate. Wright talks about his decision to interrupt the narrative flow in this way: I d find it impossible to say what I wanted to say without stepping in and speaking outright on my own (HBWB 458). It is no surprise then that these interjections are written from a more distant point of view and in a different language from the one that conveys Bigger s own thoughts. Wright does this intentionally to make clear to the reader that these portions of the narrative are separate from Bigger s own perceptions. And though these interjections do disrupt the flow of the narrative at times, they also accomplish Wright s overall intention which is to give the reader a richer, more complex and well-rounded view of Bigger s monstrous character and to get the reader to pause and think about the deeper underlying issues contributing to Bigger s multifaceted personality. Wright uses conflicting devices to create a dialectical unity of forms in Native Son as a way to create empathy for Bigger s character and to show in explicit detail the deep and complex consequences of capitalist oppression on the African-American psyche: As I wrote, for some reason or other, one image, symbol, character, scene, mood, feeling evoked its opposite, its parallel, its complementary, and its ironic counterpart (HBWB 460). Wright s use of these oppositions allows him to depict Bigger in a more empathetic light, which in turn, prompts deeper introspection in the minds of readers. Wright uses realism to show the starkly oppressive world in which Bigger lives. He then adds expressionism to show Bigger s volatile inner reactions to his repressive situation. Finally, he uses sensational modernism to show what happens when Bigger loses control of his aggressive emotions and commits monstrous acts. The combination of these three opposing narrative devices allows Wright to depict Bigger in a richer,

8 Rowley 8 more complex light. To further complicate Bigger s character, Wright combines multiple narrative perspectives, including Bigger s stunted outer voice, his complex inner thoughts and Wright s commentary on those thoughts. This allows him to show the influences that have shaped Bigger s monstrous identity and what this stunted sense of self represents on a larger scale in regard to capitalistic oppression and its effects on the individual. Ultimately, therefore, Wright achieves with his blend of opposing narrative forms, a richer forum for empathy, thought and speculation, thereby raising class and racial consciousness to a higher level.

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