Book #20-Native Son by Richard Wright

The entire Thomas family is introduced on the first page of Native Son in what appears to be a typical morning ritual of a family’s arising.  We are then snapped out of our trance when Bigger Thomas battles a large rat that has snuck into the one room shack.  The fight is a bloody one with the rodent attacking Bigger when it is backed into a corner.

This riveting opening sets the stage for an honest and thought provoking novel.  Set in Chicago’s south side, Bigger Thomas is destined for catastrophe.  Hopeless and with no direction, he hides his fear behind a hardened mask and attacks anyone that even hints at uncovering it, including his family and friends.

Thrust into a job as chauffeur to the Dalton’s, a wealthy real estate tycoon’s family, he is uncomfortable from the start and acts as he believes he should with simple replies of Yessuh and Nawsuh.  When a well intentioned daughter and her communist boyfriend try to befriend Bigger, he becomes angry and agitated as he does not know how to act.

Without giving away the plot, things go awry, very awry and Bigger is jailed and awaits his sentencing.  He is defended by a Jewish lawyer from an organization affiliated with a communist group sent by the boyfriend of the girl he is accused of murdering.

Bigger Thomas has erected such walls around him, that he struggles with the help that is offered him even when he is in dire need of it.  His hopelessness has brought him to a place where he expects nothing and believes his imprisonment to be an inevitable outcome of his directionless life.

His girlfriend, Bessie Mears, deals with her life through a bottle.  Seeing no future for herself, she drowns herself in alcohol and allows Bigger to satisfy his sexual needs with her.

Bigger’s mother senses her son is headed for trouble, but does not know how to help.  Her armor is religion and she tries to share it with her family, but Bigger rejects it early on.

Jan Erlone, the boyfriend of the murdered Mary Dalton is a misguided, but well meaning man.  He is trying to understand Bigger’s actions and subsequent refusal for help and may be one of few who truly understands how he had felt cornered, like the rat in his family’s tenement shack.

Wright introduces several characters throughout Native Son and reveals both the good and the bad beliefs they held, both founded and unfounded.  With the intention of opening eyes, Native Son is a clear success.

I would love to talk with Mr. Wright and ask how he crafted such fine writing.  The ability to have the words flow so finely is a rare skill and one I’d love to learn more about.  I’d also love to discuss current race relations in America with him and believe he’d be quite sad to see the current state of affairs has not much improved in the 70 years since the publication of Native Son.


He shut their voices out of his mind.  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 fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair.  So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain.  And toward himself he was even more exacting.  He knew that the moment he allowed what this life mean to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.  So he denied himself and acted tough.

There was in his eyes a pensive, brooding amusement, as of a man who had been long confronted and tantalized by a riddle whose answer seemed always just on the verge of escaping him, but prodding him irresistibly on to seek its solution…

As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone.  The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled.  That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared.

He had lived and acted on the assumption that he was alone, and now he saw that he had not been.  What he had done made others suffer.  No matter how much he would long for them to forget him, they would not be able to…

He feared and hated the preacher because the preacher had told him to bow down and ask for a mercy he knew he needed; but his pride would never let him do that, not this side of the grave, not while the sun shone…

What he wanted to say was stronger in him when he was alone; and though he imputed to Max the feelings he wanted to grasp, he could not talk of them to Max until he had forgotten Max’s presence…

My rating for Native Son is a 9 out of 10.

To see the entire list,  visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

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Next up, Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King



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