Native Son, Richard Wright. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989 (first published in 1940).
Summary: The story of Bigger Thomas, whose unpremeditated murder of Mary Dalton and second murder covering up the first, fires rage and fear in Chicago, and in a strange way gives meaning to a young man who felt himself imprisoned in Chicago’s Black Belt.
This is an uncomfortable book to read from the moment Bigger Thomas wakes up until the last pages. It is uncomfortable to view the rat-infested tenement room a family of four share, where Bigger’s first act is to kill a giant rat with a pan.
It is uncomfortable to hear Bigger’s mother nag him about going to the job set up by the relief program. He already has a record for theft, some of which he’s involved his girlfriend Bessie in.
It’s uncomfortable to hear him plot to rob a white jeweler with his three friends. Then when one doesn’t show up on time, he nearly slits his throat in anger.
It’s uncomfortable to go to the Daltons and be treated so well by the family and other household staff. Mr. Dalton has an interest in the companies operating the tenement housing Bigger lives in, confining Blacks to one area of south Chicago known as the Black Belt. He also gives lots of money to charities for the uplift of Blacks and employs people recommended by the relief agency who sent Bigger–an uncomfortable tension of interests that emerges as the story unfolds.
It’s uncomfortable to see Bigger on his first chauffeuring job, supposedly taking Mary Dalton, the Dalton’s only daughter to a lecture, but in reality to a rendezvous with a Communist lover, Jan. We sense Bigger’s discomfort as he takes them to a south side restaurant to eat “his kind of food,” and invited to socialize with them while proselytized into the Communist cause. We sense his discomfort as Jan drives with all of them in the front seat, then as they drink while he drives.
It’s uncomfortable to see Bigger having to help the drunken Mary into the house, and up to her room, getting her to bed, only to have her blind mother come in to this incriminating scene. We sense his discomfort as he tries to silence her so her mother won’t discover his presence and think Mary asleep in a drunken stupor, and when Mrs. Dalton leaves, to find he has asphyxiated her and she is dead.
It’s uncomfortable to witness Bigger’s desperation which leads him to stuff her in the trunk she’s taking to Detroit, to haul it to the basement and stuff her body into the coal furnace, hacking off her head so it would all fit, and then feeding the fire but fearing to remove the ashes for what he might find.
It’s uncomfortable as Mary’s disappearance becomes known to watch Bigger deflect suspicions toward Jan while involving his girlfriend in a ransom plot, ultimately telling her what he’s done, and then as Mary’s bones are found in the furnace ashes, fleeing with Bessie to an abandoned building where he has sex with her then kills her with a brick and throws her down an airshaft, where she did not immediately die.
It’s uncomfortable to see the police cordon close around him, then the final futile efforts to elude capture. It’s uncomfortable to hear the racist vitriol, of crowds who would lynch him and a prosecutor who charges him with rape as well as murder.
It’s uncomfortable to hear him tell his communist attorney, Mr. Max, how, for a brief moment, when he killed, he felt his most free and alive, how in these moments, he found meaning, a momentary escape from the destiny to which his birth and race, in his own mind, had imprisoned him.
His relationship with his attorney, who made an impassioned plea before the court for his life, is the one shining moment. Someone who asked him questions, and listened, and treated him as a man. No one understands more of his life than this man. But he is not a confessor. While Bigger tells the truth of what he had done, there was no remorse, no repentance.
We want to argue that Bigger could have made different choices. Yet the sense is of a human being trapped–in a tenement, into reliance on white charity, in an awkward social situation with two people with no clue who “mean well,” in Mary Dalton’s bedroom where no good explanation could be made for his presence. We’re rightly horrified by the murders, but also at the logic by which Bigger finds meaning in them.
We’re left uncomfortable with social structures that the execution of this young killer will not change. We’re left uncomfortable with the thought of how many other Biggers lurk in such structures–also wanting to do things with their lives, also questing for meaning, perhaps in distorted ways that will end badly for them and others. And this is as it should be. A minister friend of mine once remarked that he believed the gospel not only offered comfort to the disturbed but also disturbed the comfortable. This book does the latter. Don’t read it if you want to remain in comfort.