The Modern Library version of Richard Wright's Native Son

Native Son

  • Author:  Richard Wright
  • Rank:  #30
  • Published:  1940
  • Publisher:  Harper & Brothers
  • Pages:  394
  • First Line:  “Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!
  • Last Line:  “He heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut.”
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the Twentieth Century #20; All-TIME List
  • ML Edition:  #221  (1945)
  • Film:  1951,  1986  (***)
  • First Read:  Fall, 1998

The Novel:  I could point out that Bigger Thomas’ alarm clock was a wake up call to African-Americans and literature both, but it would hardly be original.  In one novel we have a combination of the stark existentialism of Dostoevsky, the hard naturalism of Thomas Hardy and the African-American experience in the first half of the 20th Century.

Look at the reaction at the opening of the book when the boys are looking away from the women dressing, but only until the sound of the rat.  “They forgot their conspiracy of shame and their eyes strayed apprehensively over the floor.”  The conditions in which they live leaves them without the basic human shred of privacy or decency.  To overcome one shame, you must deal with another, and it comes through crystal clear in Wright’s narrative.

But it is not for the narrative voice that Native Son is so talked about, not why it immediately became a best-seller, making Wright the most successful African-American writer of the time.  It is the story, the story of a rich, pampered white girl, wanting to explore the forbidden world, and the way that Bigger is drawn into killing her, almost accidentally, through a force of fatalism, in the manner of a Hardy protagonist, then forced to cover up and flee for his life.  He kills her, not to end her life, but to keep from being discovered in her room at night, where he has brought her, drunk.  “Mary’s body surged upward and he pushed downward upon the pillow with all of his weight, determined that she must not move or make any sound that would betray him.”  Living in a time in which black men were lynched for kissing a white women, he knows being found in her room is likely the end of him, but in trying to save himself, he manages to doom himself as well.  In a truly grotesque scene, he decapitates her so her body can be fit in the furnace and his deed done away with.  Then he manages to make it home and collapse into sleep.

His next waking moment is no gently than the one that opens the book.  The second part of the book begins, like the first, with him coming awake: “It seemed to Bigger that no sooner had he closed his eyes than he was wide awake again, suddenly and violently, as though someone had grabbed his shoulders and shaken him.”  These will both contrast against the opening of the third part: “There was no day for him now, and there was no night; there was but a long stretch of time, a long stretch of time that was very short; and then – the end.”

We watch him in these waking moments, watch the experience of a man of his race and his socio-economic status at the time, and it is small wonder that he hurtles so quickly towards those final moments, where he will face no more sudden moments tearing him from sleep.