Thomas Pluck is a writer living in Montclair, New Jersey. He is the editor of the Lost Children charity anthologies, and his work has appeared in Spinetingler Magazine, Pulp Modern, Shotgun Honey, Beat to a Pulp, The Utne Reader and Plots with Guns. His home on the web is Pluck You Too.
Here’s Thomas on Richard Wright’s Native Son…
A man plans a robbery with some friends, and once he knows it will go sour, he starts a brawl with the ringleader to get out of it. He takes a steady job in a rich home, tries to do their daughter a favor and she winds up dead…
Sound like a good hook for a crime novel? That’s part of one Native Son by Richard Wright. The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, and the girl dies by his hand. He is her chauffeur for a drunken evening, and when he carries her to her room, her blind mother comes to check on her. Terrified of being caught in a white girl’s bedroom, Bigger muffles her drunken mumblings with the pillow and suffocates her.
Fear and the hate that comes of it is a constant chilly undercurrent in this controversial tale. James Baldwin dismissed Bigger as an Uncle Tom. To some degree, Bigger has internalized the racist image of a subhuman brute who deserves his lot, and he wears his hatred openly. Native Son is not a novel that offers hope for healing. It puts Bigger in a hopeless situation. If he is discovered in Mary Dalton’s bedroom, he believes he will be murdered. He reacts with desperation and fear, and plunges himself into a worse dilemma.
Bigger covers up his crime by stuffing her body in the furnace and telling Mary’s parents that he last saw her when she came downstairs with two suitcases, with her radical boyfriend, Jan. The family sees it as a kidnapping, and reporters linger, playing up the class warfare angle. When one of them orders Bigger to put more coal in the furnace, he panics and shovels in too much to cover her bones, and he runs. They assume he raped and killed her, and print a lurid tale from their own imaginations, setting the blacks in town against him for shaming his race.
The novel also attempts to show how white radicals like Jan also see their own image of a black man instead of an individual, and how the fear of commingling makes their visit to a diner in a black neighborhood nearly as dangerous as if Bigger wandered into a whites-only one, but the core of the novel is his how his internalization of what others see him as limits his choices, and blinders him down a path of brutality. That core is how one is affected by a steady diet of fear and self-hatred from birth. Bigger tries to plan an escape with his girlfriend on a snowy evening. He is so overcome with emasculation, hopelessness and self-loathing that he rapes and kills her, sealing his own capture and doom. He has become the beast he’s been expected to be.
Is society to blame? Bigger is surely responsible for his own actions, but what the novel describes is how your environment limits your comprehension of the choices you can make. Rob, or work for the white man. Be caught with a white woman and die, or kill her and hide the body. When you’re caged in a yard with only one exit, it’s hard to see you can dig your way out under the fence, especially if you’ve never seen a shovel.
Native Son is a powerful novel that still resonates today, and serves as a window into the rat maze of poverty.
- Thomas Pluck
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.