My edition of Native Son contains an introduction by Arnold Rampersadin in which he notes that the challenge for Wright was how to make sympathetic a protagonist—Bigger Thomas—who is possibly the least likable central character in all of literature. It also contains Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” wherein the author explains how the character is based on innumerable people he encountered in real life, tough, angry folks—mostly black, but some oppressed people of other groups—who openly defied the law and societal conventions and made themselves a thorn in the side of authority, until, usually, they came to an early demise.
Having now read the book, I find both of these points rather puzzling, though more so the second.
As to the first, while there are undeniably unappealing things about Thomas, Wright hammers home the message from the first to the last page of the book that the worst elements of him are all the result of the horrific racial oppression in the country. It’s shown through the events of the novel, and then in case it’s not clear, various characters articulate it. Thomas is presented as at least 90% victim to 10% perpetrator, so I wouldn’t think it would be all that hard to find protagonists less sympathetic.
What’s interesting about Wright’s inspirations for Thomas is that to me Thomas is not very much like how Wright describes them. Thomas isn’t defiant and hostile toward whites, goading and challenging them until they’ve had enough and slap him back down. He’s pretty much scared and intimidated by the white world, and plays by its racial rules. He toys with committing a robbery against a white person, but can’t bring himself to do it and finds a way out of it. When he finally does commit a crime, it’s completely accidental, and he understandably panics when he realizes what he’s done. It’s only after the fact that he decides—unconvincingly—that he’s a badass at war with the whites who would have done the same or worse on purpose if it hadn’t already happened by accident.
Thomas lives in a rat-infested apartment in segregated Chicago with his single mother and two siblings. He is given at least a small chance to get away from a life of petty crime and idleness when he halfheartedly accepts a job as a live-in driver for a rich white family. The white daughter and her boyfriend are radicals who oppose racism, and they attempt to befriend Thomas (who is more frightened and offended than anything by their efforts, as he has no frame of reference from which to judge them). Finding himself about to be discovered in the daughter’s room, he ends up inadvertently killing her in a panic. The remainder of the book relates his (poor) response to the manslaughter, flight, murder of his girlfriend to ensure her silence, capture, trial, and sentencing.
Obviously a big message of the book is that most whites don’t really see blacks as people, and most blacks don’t really see whites as people. Whites see blacks as fearsome savages, or convenient targets for sadism, or useful servants, or objects of pity to help in small condescending ways. (The exceptions are the Communists and labor activists and such, who see the injustice and are trying to right it, though the author shows that the younger and more naïve even of these can be tone deaf about racial matters and not understand how their actions will be interpreted and will inadvertently cause more trouble.)
The blacks see the whites as an inexorable, inexplicable malign force of nature that weighs down on them 24 hours a day. There’s little communication, little true empathy in either direction.
But what’s striking is that Thomas has lost a certain amount of his ability to feel even for other blacks. There’s a little affection for his family amidst the bickering, and he has some degree of camaraderie with his buddies (when he’s not beating the crap out of one of them), but I don’t know that he’s really all that close with any of them. He sullenly and resentfully moves through life, none too efficiently pursuing his own self-interest, showing minimal ability to truly connect with anyone.
And worst of all is his treatment of his girlfriend. Though she’s not the most appealing, admirable person in the world (she’s something of a pathetic drunk in fact), her humanity and simple goodness is made evident to the reader. I especially felt for her as things spiraled downward out of control and she was left to mutter in dismay that all she ever really did in life is work like a dog and try to survive, and had done nothing so bad as to deserve her fate.
Yet Thomas is so warped, so limited emotionally, that he can’t similarly see and respond to her humanity. He himself acknowledges that he’s only really with her because “everybody has to have a girl.”
He’s no great catch as a boyfriend before he murders, but after that, he pushes and manipulates his reluctant girlfriend into a hare-brained, poorly thought out ransom scheme, then when that falls apart and he’s on the lam, he brutally murders her on the flimsy pretense that he predicts her behavior will lessen his (already tiny) chances of escape.
The first murder is a terrible thing, as the victim is genuinely kind to Thomas, but it’s an accident after all. I was more affected by the murder of the girlfriend, as it was a premeditated vicious act. I thought this black-on-black crime was a more blatant instance of shocking indifference to another person’s humanity.
Interestingly, Thomas’s ill treatment once in custody is almost certainly understated. Judging by other things I’ve read, including Wright’s essay reprinted in this very book, brutality up to and including torture were commonplace in racially charged cases like this.
The political courtroom speeches (Thomas has a pro bono Communist defense attorney) are a bit heavy-handed, which makes that one of the few turgid sections of a book that mostly is a lively paced and gripping narrative.
Wright is very good at capturing the tension and suspense in scenes when Thomas is in peril. I found a decent portion of the book to be “edge of your seat” stuff.
Bertrand Russell once noted that one of the most common of political fallacies is to think of oppressed people as noble, virtuous victims, and indeed to condition one’s opposition to oppression on precisely their being such. When in fact, cruelty and injustice are a lot more likely, then and now, to create Bigger Thomases (just as abused children are statistically more likely to grow up to be abusers). Rather than lessening the justification and urgency of opposing oppression, that increases it.
I come away from Native Son believing it deserves its reputation as one of the most important literary depictions of 20th century American racism and its consequences, as well as a more timeless study of injustice in general.