What Was the Purpose of Native Son?

Native Son, a book by Richard Wright, tells a harrowing tale of a black man in 1930s Chicago. Though the story may focus on one specific individual, the existentialist concepts in the novel reflect the idea that some of the crimes committed by Bigger Thomas, the main character, were a result not of purely intrinsic motives, but also were caused by the constant societal forces he had faced from the moment he entered the world of Chicago.

Richard Wright’s novel follows the story of Bigger as he accidentally murders a white woman while trying to avoid getting caught in her room alone with her, even though the white woman had dragged him into the room, because he knew he’d immediately be punished for being in that kind of proximity with a woman who wasn’t his skin tone. He flees when threatened with capture because evidence of his crime is discovered, and rapes and kills his girlfriend after reasoning that he couldn’t take her with him. While Bigger is on trial for these horrific murders, his lawyer makes the argument that some of the forces that pushed Bigger to the point of murder were from the white society around him that constantly oppressed him, that by placing a man and woman of segregated races together suddenly would create a volatile situation because these people have been kept apart by society their whole lives   The lawyer’s case revolved around the discrimination that Bigger faced and how factors like segregation of whites and blacks into neighborhoods of good and bad quality contributed to a temperament that was driven by fear and anger.

Ironically, the father of the murdered white woman owned the real estate that Bigger and his family lived in. Considering that Bigger was paying $8 rent, he should have found a decent living space, however he was forced lived in a rat infested, one room apartment with three other people because  that was the only living space made available to black communities. Black people were unable to receive the same kind of education, or get higher paying jobs. For example, Bigger wanted to be a pilot, but since he was black he could not get the education required for that job  This led to the defense in court that Bigger was driven to his aggressive state by a life where he was constantly held down by a racially driven society. In Bigger’s own words:

“Naw. But I just can’t get used to it. I swear to God I can’t. I know I oughtn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knothole in the fence. . . .”

Wright wanted people to see the status and life of blacks in that time period and place from the black point of view. The purpose of Native Son is to illustrate the social stratification based on race that occurs from the moment people become part of society.

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