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Native Son
by Richard Wright

Bigger Thomas is doomed, trapped in a downward spiral that will lead to arrest, prison, or death, driven by despair, frustration, poverty, and incomprehension. As a young black man in the Chicago of the '30s, he has no way out of the walls of poverty and racism that surround him, and after he murders a young white woman in a moment of panic, these walls begin to close in. There is no help for him--not from his hapless family; not from liberal do-gooders or from his well-meaning yet naive friend Jan; certainly not from the police, prosecutors, or judges. Bigger is debased, aggressive, dangerous, and a violent criminal. As such, he has no claim upon our compassion or sympathy. And yet...

A more compelling story than Native Son has not been written in the 20th century by an American writer. That is not to say that Richard Wright created a novel free of flaws, but that he wrote the first novel that successfully told the most painful and unvarnished truth about American social and class relations. As Irving Howe asserted in 1963, "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. It made impossible a repetition of the old lies [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture."

Other books had focused on the experience of growing up black in America--including Wright's own highly successful Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of five stories that focused on the victimization of blacks who transgressed the code of racial segregation. But they suffered from what he saw as a kind of lyrical idealism, setting up sympathetic black characters in oppressive situations and evoking the reader's pity. In Native Son, Wright was aiming at something more. In Bigger, he created a character so damaged by racism and poverty, with dreams so perverted, and with human sensibilities so eroded, that he has no claim on the reader's compassion:

"I didn't want to kill," Bigger shouted. "But what I killed for, I am! It must've been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder.... What I killed for must've been good!" Bigger's voice was full of frenzied anguish. "It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something... I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em. It's the truth..."

Wright's genius was that, in preventing us from feeling pity for Bigger, he forced us to confront the hopelessness, misery, and injustice of the society that gave birth to him. --Andrew Himes




Jump to concurrent topic "Discussion Questions for Native Son"

Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (1 of 15), Read 30 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Friday, March 01, 2002 12:59 PM March 1 is the official start of the discussion of Native Son by Richard Wright. Please post your notes here. I'm still reading, but hope to join in soon. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (2 of 15), Read 27 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Friday, March 01, 2002 02:25 PM It's been several months since I read this book. One thing that struck me was the constant references to color and the ingenious, subtle way Wright used them to emphasize his story. White appeared most frequently, followed by its contrast with black and the coal (black) hot red of that ungodly furnace, otherwise known as Bigger's conscience. Ultimately, though, the contrast is always with white. Everywhere Bigger turned, there was white. White tablecloths, white snow, white moon. Every aspect of Bigger was determined by his relationship to the white people. Even his white hot rage was created by his interaction with the white world. He never once felt an impulse that wasn't somehow dictated by the white world that surrounded him. I found that overwhelmingly sad. Bigger's story had an impact on me. Until I read it, I thought I had a reasonable understanding of what it would be like to grow up black in a white dominated world. I was wrong, despite all the conversations with friends and despite all the documentaries I've seen and novels I've read. What I admired about Wright's work was how he pulled me into Bigger's mind and made his actions seem reasonable - at least at the time. When I would close the book, I would be shocked at how much empathy I felt for a murderer and dismemberer. I felt as if I was Bigger, not just someone reading a story about him. I would love to know how this novel was originally received. Did its readers see themselves, and was the lesson taken to heart? How much flak accompanied its publishing? I know parts were edited out. Does anyone know what Wright's take on that was? K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (3 of 15), Read 26 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta rbavetta@prodigy.net Date: Friday, March 01, 2002 03:00 PM It must be 30 years since I read this book, but your note brought it back to me in an emotional way, Kay. That contrast between black and white, that sympathy for a killer... Ruth "Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, then you do it for money." Moliere
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (4 of 15), Read 25 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Saturday, March 02, 2002 10:06 AM I think it will continue to resonate emotionally for me too, Ruth. In addition to the power of Bigger's story, the novel issued all sorts of ethical challenges for me. One was my stance on "Thou shalt not kill." I tend toward holding each of us to the choices we make - good or bad. I'm big on accepting responsibility for what we do - no matter the circumstances. Having a bad childhood is not an excuse. Poverty is not an excuse. "I just couldn't stop myself" is not an excuse. Nor is, "He made me do it." Don't get me wrong. I know all those situations are factors, but ultimately, I believe we have a choice, no matter how difficult the situation. But I can tell you, I would not want to sit on Bigger's jury with the insight I gained from NATIVE SON. From his perspective, he truly did not feel he had any other options. It takes a gifted author to make me feel that. That was a major quandary as I read this novel. Did anyone else find themselves trying to resolve conflicting personal ethical stances? K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (5 of 15), Read 25 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Saturday, March 02, 2002 05:04 PM Wasn't the thing with the rat in the beginning of the book just a shocking, absolutely chilling, symbolism for Bigger, himself, and the events that transpired within this novel? As a said before, this book had me spellbound. I didn't agree with some of Wright's philosophy, but wow, what a punch this book packed. When did this story take place? In the 30's? I didn't realize women were not permitted to be part of a jury as late as the 30's! Incredible! When did women get the right to be on jury duty? Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (6 of 15), Read 25 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Sunday, March 03, 2002 08:35 AM Beej- What part of Wright's philosophy did you disagree with? K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (7 of 15), Read 22 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Sunday, March 03, 2002 12:25 PM Beej and Kay, I finished Native Son last night. I agree with you both that it is a very powerful story. I admire Wright for choosing a protagonist who has almost no redeeming qualities and then forcing his readers to recognize this man's basic humanity. Make no mistake about it -- Bigger Thomas is a vessel of rage and frustration who is programmed to hurt other people. Mary and Bessie just happened to get into his way early on. If they had escaped, he almost certainly would have killed someone else later. Bigger is so damaged that he has no feeling for anyone other than himself, including his own family and friends. He never feels remorse for his actions - an unprovoked attack on a friend, the inadvertent killing of a white woman, and the planned murder of a girlfriend after he forces sex on her. He feels no remorse because he feels he has no choice. He hurts others to protect himself. Paradoxically, these acts are the only thing that makes him feel like he is in control of his life. So how can the reader feel sympathy for such a man? Wright argues that a racist society is responsible for creating stunted and twisted human beings like Bigger Thomas because it gives them no hope and treats them as less than human. By showing how disgustingly racist the white power structure is, he demonstrates that Bigger Thomas is also a victim. To a large extent, this book is polemical. The sections which explain the complicated tangle of emotions which motivated Bigger Thomas succeeded for me. This was difficult for Wright because he is dealing with a character who is so inarticulate that he has almost no understanding of self. However, Wright made me understand the extent to which fear and shame can warp and destroy a human being. Other parts of the book, especially Max's long courtroom defense of Bigger at the end were not so successful. I felt this speech was so long and disjointed that it detracted from the dramatic impact of the story. How did the rest of you feel about this? All and all, however, I will never forget Bigger Thomas. He is certainly one of the most alive and interesting characters I have met in literature in a long, long time. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (8 of 15), Read 24 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Sunday, March 03, 2002 01:30 PM Kay, I tend to bristle a bit when any author blatantly uses a book as a soapbox for personal philosophies. Anne, that entire defense speech at the end irked me to no end. Tho I understand the point he was making, I felt uncomfortable with the idea that Bigger had any justification for his actions (an explanation, yes, but not a justification.) Granted, Mary's death was accidental, but Bessie's was premeditated, and yet Wright makes his beliefs very clear, that even tho the premeditated murder of Bessie was a far worse crime than the accidental killing of Mary, Bessie's death would be less important than Mary's, in the eyes of the law, simply on the basis of race. Granted, I am not really knowledgeable as to the laws of that era, and how they would relate to the murder of a Black person, especially by another Black person, but I have a difficult time believing it wouldn't carry any legal consequences. Two of the more altruistic characters were members of the communist party. Of course I'm aware of all that celebrity communists went thru during the following McCarthy era, but I do not believe the prejudice, fear and frenzy aimed toward this group can nearly compare with what the Blacks in our country went through. Wright was a member of the Communist Party at the time he wrote NS. Apparently he re-thought his stand, because he later left the party. But, the legacy of his former beliefs were made immortal because of this book. I think I do understand why these murders made Bigger feel free for the first time. In the words of Kris Kristofferson, Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Bigger had crossed the line of no return and had nothing more he could lose, so from that point forward, consequences were a moot issue. Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (9 of 15), Read 23 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Sunday, March 03, 2002 02:47 PM Beej, Good point that Bessie's murder was by far the more chilling crime. I think that Bigger could easily have been convicted of that alone if the police had cared enough to investigate the murder of a poor black woman. Her murder certainly would not have attracted any attention in the press. I think the point was that white society didn't much care about black on black crime, but they became absolutely rabid if they felt a white person were being threatened. Wasn't it interesting that the whites were certain that Bigger had raped Mary even though there was not a shred of evidence that this had happened? This hysteria about the sexual violation of white women has cropped up a lot in American history and many black men have suffered horribly because of it. In reality, it was almost always the black women who were being sexually exploited by white men. I wonder what the psychological source of this white hysteria was. Any ideas? Wright didn't make me like Bigger Thomas, but he made me understand him and people like him a little. I think that was a major accomplishment. He could have taken the easy way out and written about a case of very obvious legal injustice, like Gaines's A LESSON BEFORE DYING, but he purposely picked a protagonist who was both dangerous and unlikable. I wonder if he was trying to shake up white society and scare it a little. And I wonder if he succeeded. I find his attraction to Communism in the 1930's very understandable. It was a time of great social suffering and the lure of an organization which preached racial equality must have been very strong. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (10 of 15), Read 28 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Sunday, March 03, 2002 03:15 PM I think the wealthy whites in this novel, had a terrible fear of Blacks, born out of guilt for such horrendous treatment in the name of 'Making Money,' that the easiest way to justify this fear was to blame it on the potential danger Blacks posed to the 'helpless' white women. It allowed them to keep their unjust practices under an emotional barrel. And that way, they could continue, with a clear conscious, to scam the Blacks and prosper financially. I suppose this is all part of what Bigger's attorney was attempting to say, in his summation. And, what a laugh to charge these people exorbitant rents for substandard housing and then appease feelings of guilt by donating ping pong tables to black community boy's clubs. Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (11 of 15), Read 14 times Conf: Classics Corner From: S. Bohinka bohinka@riconnect.com Date: Sunday, March 03, 2002 11:42 PM I'm lagging behind in my reading. I do kinda know the story and so I agree that the scene with the rat is a precursor of things to come. I saw the PBS show on Ralph Ellison a couple weeks ago and I have to admit that I haven't read either him or Richard Wright. The program contrasted them in an interesting way. (Ellison wrote The Invisible Man) They described Wright and many other of his successors as writing "protest literature". Whereas Ellison didn't fit into this category (and was criticized by Wright and others because of it.) Ellison felt as though he was writing more about people like Wright who actually achieved a lot more in their lives than the characters that Wright wrote about. I found this an interesting concept to contemplate while reading Native Son. Why did Wright choose Bigger and his particular story? BTW, did any of you see the discussion questions for Native Son posted with the book on Amazon? When I get a chance I can copy them over here. And for the person asking about Black Boy. It's out individually in a paperback in the restored version and is also in the collection Later Works by Richard Wright in the restored version. Bo
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (12 of 15), Read 10 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Monday, March 04, 2002 05:48 AM Beej- I also tend to bristle when an author lectures to me. For some reason, until the trial, I did not feel that way with NATIVE SON. Perhaps that was because each step Bigger took seemed logical. Wright had me living in Bigger's shoes, seeing the world as he saw it. I was shocked that I could have any inkling of understanding of such an unlikeable and enraged person like Bigger. Remember, he did have the love of his family and Bessie, but was not able to make that enough. In fact, that seemed to make him even angrier. Why was that? Would Bigger have been a better person if he had better opportunities? Or was he inherently a misfit? How much of his basic nature was due to his heritage and how much was just born with him? I kept wondering if an education would have made the difference. It would have given him a channel for his rage and ambition. I agree. The trial was definitely a lecture of the obvious. K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (13 of 15), Read 9 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Monday, March 04, 2002 06:55 AM Ann, I agree with you about Mr. Max's summation. I don't usually read fast, but I forced myself through that at lightning speed. It seemed to take up an inordinate amount of space. None of what he said was particularly astounding (maybe it was in the '40's) but when he said the murders were an act of "creation" I think he went way too far. I just don't get it, no matter how much I empathize with Bigger and his situation. As far as the book as a whole, I was spell-bound, with reservations. I think Wright cheated a little bit. In order to put Bigger in as much peril as possible, I think he was illogical in several instances. The most obvious one, to me, was the murder itself. Picture yourself in Bigger's place. You don't want to be discovered with a drunk white girl, her blind mother shows up (It also seems to me that Wright made her blind solely for this plot device). If I were the "intruder", I would want the mother to hear the girl, because not hearing anything out of her would be more suspicious. And smothering someone probably isn't as quiet an activity (especially to a blind person) as portrayed in the book. Wouldn't there be sounds of gasping and struggling? I had a hard time with that. It seemed like a plot device more than something that would naturally occur. The next illogical thing to me was: why have a press conference in a basement where the furnace is? This seemed highly unlikely, and done purely for dramatic purposes so that Bigger could get discovered. I guess I've just read too many mystery stories, where I'm always trying to figure things out. As I said before, I was spellbound by the book (except after he was caught -- it lost its drive and was too political after that), but I could see the author pulling strings too much for me to call it an unqualified success. Having said that, however, I think it was a brave book. It reads much later than the forties to me. The language is clear and concise and I did empathize with Bigger. Sherry
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (14 of 15), Read 10 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Monday, March 04, 2002 08:07 AM Sherry, the constant scenes in the basement puzzled me, too. Then, when I went back and read Rampersad's intro, and the first line of that dealt with the symbolism of the 'sound of the alarm clock that opens Native Son' as a wake up call to America about the reality of race relations, I began to think of the basement as a place not to be taken literally at all. It's entirely symbolism, I think. Then, it made more sense to me. So very much in this book is symbolic..the rat in the beginning of the book, the basement, Mary's inability, as a sympathizer, to make a difference with being heard, the mother's blindness, even the chute Bessie tries to climb out from..that it just boggles my mind trying to see all Wright is saying. Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (15 of 15), Read 1 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Monday, March 04, 2002 09:53 AM Beej, I'm sure you're right about the blindness being a symbol because late in the book Bigger looks at everyone he knows and thinks how blind they are. Sherry, now that you mention the plot devices I can see how obvious they are. I have to admit, however, that I was so wrapped up in the story that I didn't notice when I was actually reading the book. Kay, you asked an interesting question about what Bigger would have been like if he had grown up in a less racist society. Wright attributed his rage and destructiveness to the racist society that nurtured him. While not denying society's contribution, I think that more personal factors are just as important in molding individuals like Bigger Thomas. For example, I wondered what influence the never mentioned father might have had. Why do you suppose Wright called him "Bigger?" Was it irony? Bo, I tried to wade through Ellison's The Invisible Man but I don't think I ever finished it. I think its social significance was more important than its literary merit. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (16 of 29), Read 32 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Monday, March 04, 2002 10:14 AM Despite various flaws ( I agree that Max's speech is too long and unwieldy) I still feel that this is an eye-opening novel that has changed my perception. Like Ann, I will not forget Bigger Thomas, nor the experience of looking at the world from his eyes. What a gutsy choice to present such an unsympathetic protagonist; and then to pull it off sympathetically! How did he do that? I suppose it comes from the depth of Wright's own sympathy for Bigger (rhymes with "nigger") Thomas and his life predicament. The central achievement of the novel was the degree to which I became aware of and sympathetic to the black predicament beyond my own liberal viewpoint. Being gay I find parallels there but after reading NATIVE SON I am more aware of how much I don't know what it's like to be a black American and never will. It's a start to realize what you don't know. At times the novel flew and I felt raw and mesmerized. At other times I wearied of the crime drama formula with which we have become so familiar. There were echoes of Dostoevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, which predates it, and Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD and Alan Paton's CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY which were possibly influenced by it. I've also read the first three of Maya Angelou's autobiography series and am in the middle of the fourth. I'm interested to find out how they compare to Wright's autobiography BLACK BOY. Robt
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (17 of 29), Read 29 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherri Kendrick sheval@hotmail.com Date: Monday, March 04, 2002 11:42 AM I didn't reread this, having read it twice, once in high school, and then later. I don't recall many specifics. But I have been left with a sense of it being a powerful story. I feel sorry for Bigger, despite all the horrendous things that he does. Like him, I have the feeling that so much was out of his control. Even the communists were using him for their cause and not really trying to help him. I feel that Wright was a strong writer, for his times, and always wanted to read something else, but have been a bit scared because his images are strong. Sherri Not all who wander are lost - Tolkien
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (18 of 29), Read 23 times, 2 File Attachments Conf: Classics Corner From: Karen Slongwhite bookworm@greeneland.com Date: Monday, March 04, 2002 09:02 PM Someone on this thread or the thread from prior to the official discussion wondered how this book was received at the time. I own Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas and Literature which is a collection of the New York Times Book Review published at the time 100 works of literature were published. Attached are two documents -- one in text format and one in Microsoft Word format -- of the review for Native Son. Karen NATIVE SON.DOC (29KB) NATIVE SON.TXT (7KB)
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (19 of 29), Read 26 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Tuesday, March 05, 2002 07:25 AM Karen, thanks for that review. I think it is quite fair and even-handed and has stood the test of time. Beej, on the subject of symbolism, I agree that there is a whole lot of symbolism in NS, but I think in a novel that seems as realistic as this one is, it would be even more powerful if the symbols served the logic of the story. I was pulled out of the story several times by wondering how something could have happened the way it did. Another example brought up in the Introduction, was the scene in Bigger's jail cell where everybody in the book shows up. I remember wondering at the time, what kind of cell he was in. Wright acknowledged that it was unlikely for everyone to be there simultaneously, but he did it on purpose for the emotional impact. I'm not sure that I think this is good writing. I found it confusing. Even is this had been an allegory, the symbolism works better when it follows the internal logic of the story. Sherry
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (20 of 29), Read 28 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Tuesday, March 05, 2002 08:08 AM Sherry, that cell scenerio struck me as completely unrealistic, too. And you're right about the symbolism not logically fitting in. The more I think about it, the less impressed I become with the book. Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (21 of 29), Read 26 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Tuesday, March 05, 2002 11:03 AM Some of the plotting was clumsy, but this book has such great emotional power that I am still very impressed with it. Thanks for the review, Karen. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (22 of 29), Read 32 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta rbavetta@prodigy.net Date: Tuesday, March 05, 2002 11:09 AM From my reading so many years ago I remember little of the details that are bothering people. I think everyone has hit on what I do remember. How that book made me empathize with an ignorant, bull-headed murderer. That's an accomplishment, even though the book is flawed. Ruth "Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, then you do it for money." Moliere
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (23 of 29), Read 26 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2002 06:32 AM I think it's an impressive book, too. Beej, I sure didn't mean to take away from your enjoyment of it (not exactly the right word for NS). I wish Steve would come by and post why he thinks this book is not as good as Invisible Man, which he alluded to in another thread. I've read IM twice, and the second time, I wasn't as impressed by it. This is the first time for NS and I know I would have liked it much better in my youth. I wouldn't have been as unforgiving about the plot devices (I probably wouldn't have noticed them), and when I was young, I saw things in black and white (no pun intended, really). Today I seem to live in shades of gray. I know some of you probably cringed at the blatant racism in the newspaper accounts and in the language of the prosecutor. But having grown up in the deep south, I know everyday speech was just as vituperative as that (and worse). It made for one-sided characters in the book, but people really did talk like that -- unfortunately. (My grandfather was one of them). So trying to grow up non-racist was an act of rebellion for me. I was fortunate that my parents did not spout that drivel, so I had a buffer, but just about everyone else I knew was as racist as they came. So that part of the book rang true for me. Sherry
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (24 of 29), Read 30 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2002 10:26 AM The timing of the publication of NATIVE SON adds to its important and stature, for sure, even though some of the novel doesn't age well. Reading the beginning portions of BLACK BOY I see that Wright's upbringing mirrors Bigger's upbringing and Wright's act of defiance was to write this book instead of act out violently, something he easily could have done. BLACK BOY contains strong, violent images right from the start. But the more I think about NS, the more I think it is a really important work, one that is illuminating to its readers, certainly to me. The choice of "Bigger Thomas" as the protagonist's name seems perfect: a blend of bigger-- as in trying to become bigger and intimidating in order to become a man because he felt, and was made to feel, smaller, insignificant-- along with rhyming with the odious epithet "nigger" which is an association almost branded into him given his setting and circumstances. "Thomas" reminds me of Uncle Tom, a type that Bigger is trying to expand beyond, hence, Bigger Thomas. Injustice is the villain of the novel. Although Max's rambling plea to spare Bigger's life lacks a coherent center, it still felt right to me in that it was perhaps impossible for Max to articulate the degree of outrageous social cruelty that precipitated Bigger's rage and action. There was a touch of rightness in Max's failure to say the right thing or to perfectly summarize America's shame. There was exasperation in Max's fulsome philosophizing, but given his audience and the public at large, how could there not be? It would be a rare man who would maintain his equanimity. Wright's courage to blast out with this book makes it noble and indispensable to our social evolution. Robt
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (25 of 29), Read 25 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ee Lin Kuan eelin@althor.fsnet.co.uk Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2002 03:38 PM Hi everyone, This is one of the few times I've actually managed to finish a book on time with the CR discussion and the discussion is enjoyable. This story didn't wholly grab me but parts of it did. I found myself being absorbed in some parts but skimming quite a bit of it too. Kay, in one of your notes you said that Bigger had the love of his family and Bessie, but was not able to make that enough. I'm not sure if Bigger really had the love of his family. In the beginning, I had a good bit of sympathy for Bigger since his mum and sister seemed to be picking on him all the time. Only Buddy seemed to worship him. And although Bessie seemed to love Bigger, he didn't love her in return. So, I think that consideration for her feelings wouldn't have influenced his decisions. The part of the story where Bigger first met Jan and Mary, and when they tried to show him that they were not racist and treated him as an equal felt real to me. They seemed so young and idealistic and perhaps bent on convincing themselves that they were supporters of equality for all despite race. But somehow, because of their lack of experience and understanding, they just didn't seem genuine to Bigger and he sensed that and felt that they were toying with him. This story made me think that it could be applied to a wider context than racial relations in the US. It could well be relevant to the violent conflict between Israel and Palestine, such as the thoughts expressed in the story about the divisive line between races and forcing people to stay on their respective sides of the line resulting in no other option but violence. That only with violence did they feel that they were in control of their own lives. The situation is more complex of course but it just made me stop and think for awhile. Ee Lin
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (26 of 29), Read 20 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2002 05:35 PM Robt, Thanks for that excellent analysis of Bigger's name. Ee Lin, Good to hear from you. I agree that the parts describing Jan and Mary's treatment of Bigger, and his negative reaction to it, were some of the strongest parts of the book. Jan and Mary were hopelessly naive, weren't they? Still, I did not anticipate either the strength of Bigger's resentment or the fear and confusion that their behavior evoked. Wright made me understand that, from Bigger's point of view, their attempt to ignore the normal standards of white/black interaction were more upsetting than outright white hostility. It was like Jan and Mary were pretending the rules didn't exist, when Bigger knew all too well how tightly they circumscribed his own life. Good point about Bigger's relationship with his family. He was the kind of character only a mother could love. By the time we met him at least, I don't think he was really capable of loving anyone else. He was too afraid and too twisted inside. I was very interested in the extent to which fear motivated his behavior. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (27 of 29), Read 22 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2002 06:06 PM Ee Lin- You're so right about Bigger's violence being the only means he had to direct his own life. Yet even that violence was dictated by the white world. He had no recourse in his own. Would any of us have trusted Jan and Mary if we were in Bigger's shoes? As a reader, I wondered about them myself. I think they considered themselves liberal and well-intentioned. Yet that whole scene in the restaurant had a ring of falsehood for me. They were playing a game, to a degree. Mary was hanging out with Bigger in defiance of her father. Jan wanted Bigger's allegiance for the Communist cause. Those were their ultimate motives, I think. Neither seemed to see Bigger as an individual. He represented a group of people to them. I'd forgotten how the mother and sister picked on Bigger. It seems the only person that ever really touched him was his brother. Robert - Loved the analysis of Bigger's name. K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (28 of 29), Read 15 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2002 09:59 PM Ann and Kay, Thanks! Regarding Jan and Mary: I was surprised by Bigger's reaction to them and learned a lot from it. Your comments about them are excellent: Ann: "I did not anticipate either the strength of Bigger's resentment or the fear and confusion that [Jan and Mary's] behavior evoked. Wright made me understand that, from Bigger's point of view, [Jan and Mary's] attempt to ignore the normal standards of white/black interaction were more upsetting than outright white hostility. It was like Jan and Mary were pretending the rules didn't exist, when Bigger knew all too well how tightly they circumscribed his own life." Kay: "I think [Jan and Mary] considered themselves liberal and well-intentioned. Yet that whole scene in the restaurant had a ring of falsehood for me. They were playing a game, to a degree. Mary was hanging out with Bigger in defiance of her father. Jan wanted Bigger's allegiance for the Communist cause. Those were their ultimate motives, I think. Neither seemed to see Bigger as an individual. He represented a group of people to them." The parallel that I see between NS and Alan Paton's CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY is that Paton has a well-intentioned white man murdered by a black man in racially divided South Africa. Both authors start out with unsympathetic black crime and by the end of their stories they have the white reader hold the injustice of the system as culpable. Ahh, I'm indulging in speculation of authorial intent and also I'm assuming how readers will respond; I should rework my last comment but I'll let it stand for now. Robt
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (29 of 29), Read 12 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Thursday, March 07, 2002 06:17 AM I was surprised by Bigger's reaction to Jan and Mary's overture's, too. But I'm sure that's because I'm looking at the situation from my white, friendly, accepting viewpoint. Even though I think Jan and Mary were naively well-intentioned, their overtures were patronizing to Bigger. They were blind to his feelings of discomfort and wanted to force him out of his "role." They should at least have asked him if he wanted to participate in the "show" at dinner, and not spring it on him like they did. They assumed, in their youthful exuberant rebellion, that Bigger would be happy to be treated that way. They had no idea how it would make him feel. This part of the book was a big revelation to me, too. One of the more valuable lessons. Sherry
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (30 of 34), Read 19 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Saturday, March 09, 2002 10:11 AM On the back cover of my restored edition of NS one of the quotes says: "This new edition gives us a NS in which the key line in the key scene is restored to the great good fortune of American letters." Does anyone know what that line is? Robt
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (31 of 34), Read 16 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Saturday, March 09, 2002 06:23 PM Not sure, Robt, but I wonder if it's in the scene where Bigger smothers and dismembers. I remember reading that many of those lines were edited out of the original publication, due to the sexual innuendo. K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (32 of 34), Read 20 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Saturday, March 09, 2002 10:07 PM I sympathized with Bigger right up until he murdered Bessie. Mary's death was an accident. I could understand why he destroyed the body. I could even understand why he attempted to blackmail the Daltons. And I can most certainly understand why Baldwin calls NS a protest novel, but the minute Bigger kill Bessie, Wright lost me, at least as far as any psychobabble defense went. Wright HAD to have included the murder of that young Black woman for a reason, but I just can't fathom his purpose. I don't believe she was merely a literary tool to show how differently a black woman's murder is treated from a white woman's. Wright damages the reader's perspective of Bigger too much for the answer to be that simple. Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (33 of 34), Read 19 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Sunday, March 10, 2002 07:56 AM Beej- I wondered about that, too. Again, it was as if Bigger couldn't help himself. The only way he had ever felt control in his life was to take another's. It was the only way he could feel alive. If that's the case, then my vote goes to Bigger being one sick puppy from the get-go. Bessie was an opportunity for him to gain something good in his life, and he chose not to take it. In fact, he chose to destroy it. At that point, I wondered if he wasn't just one mean son of a bitch. I questioned early on in the discussion how much Bigger's plight was due to nurture and how much to nature. Of course, it's both, but in Bessie's case, I think the answer is "nature." If a person is inclined toward meanness, then a bad situation will simply feed that. I don't think Bigger changed by the end of the novel. He did begin to glean the option of reaching out and connecting to others. However, for me, it seemed he was realizing a missed opportunity rather than a real internal change. Bigger never felt a responsibility to anyone other than himself. I would vote to convict. K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (34 of 34), Read 17 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Sunday, March 10, 2002 11:16 AM Beej, Interesting question. I think that Bessie's murder was integral to Wright's vision of Bigger Thomas. Bigger was not just some some poor kid caught up in a outrageously biased legal system. Bigger was bad - Wright knew it and he wanted to make that very clear to the reader. He could kill Bessie without a qualm because she was just someone he used to satisfy his own needs. He never really cared about her, just as he never cared about his family or his friends. He was too twisted and damaged inside to form any real bond with another human being. Wright would say that the system was responsible for creating people like Bigger Thomas. Bigger acts out the inarticulate rage that so many others merely feel. He represents a danger both to his own community and the larger white community. I think part of Wright's purpose was to shake people up and scare them into making some changes. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (35 of 52), Read 29 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Monday, March 11, 2002 09:36 PM Thanks, Ann. So, basically, Wright is saying the effects of this dehumanizing treatment went deeper than to generate rage, but actually, in some cases, abetted the development of an amorality? This makes sense to me, that Wright would be saying the very fiber of personalities were being (negatively) altered as opposed to 'merely' effecting emotions. Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (36 of 52), Read 23 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Tuesday, March 12, 2002 01:09 PM I agree with that, Beej. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (37 of 52), Read 29 times, 1 File Attachment Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 01:22 AM Recently I purchased (inexpensively) at a local auction a box lot of correspondence and memorabilia including a letter from Carl Van Vechten. After some Googling I have discovered that Van Vechten was a writer, music critic and photographer who, among other achievements, had a passion for photographing many of the great black writers, actors, artists, and musicians of his day (photos circa 1932-1964.) I'm attaching a Van Vechten photograph from the Library of Congress collection of Richard Wright (1939.) Robt RICHARD WRIGHT BY CARL VAN VECHTEN.JPG (18KB) Richard Wright
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (38 of 52), Read 21 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Joe Barreiro barreiro4@attbi.com Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 04:40 AM Has anyone here seen either of the filmed versions of Native Son? I have not, but from what I have read the first, released in 1950 and featuring a middle-aged Wright portraying Bigger, was embarrassingly amateurish. The 1986 film looks like it would be much better, with Oprah Winfrey, Carroll Baker, Geraldine Page, Matt Dillon and Elizabeth McGovern in featured roles. I haven't seen either film available for rental at Blockbuster or Netflix, though both are available for sale in VHS video format.
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (39 of 52), Read 20 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 07:05 AM Robt, that photograph was on the paperback copy of NS that I borrowed from the library or at least it looks just like it in angle and expression. I've returned the book, so I can't look it up. Sherry
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (40 of 52), Read 20 times, 1 File Attachment Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 09:20 AM Joe, I've not seen either film. I'm attaching another Carl Van Vechten photograph of Canada Lee (1941) playing Bigger Thomas in the stage production of NATIVE SON. Sherry, The photograph on the back of my paperback edition of NS is similar, too, but is a different photo. Robt CANADA LEE BY VAN VECHTEN.JPG (16KB) Canada Lee
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (41 of 52), Read 23 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta rbavetta@prodigy.net Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 12:22 PM That's sure not my mental picture of Bigger. Ruth "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them." Flannery O'Connor
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (42 of 52), Read 23 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 09:48 PM Did you picture Bigger bigger?
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (43 of 52), Read 18 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta rbavetta@prodigy.net Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 10:12 PM Guhroaaaaaan. Well, actually, wider. Stocky and scowling. Ruth "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them." Flannery O'Connor
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (44 of 52), Read 22 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 11:16 PM Oh, my gosh. Look what I just found. Yes, it's O.J. Simpson. God, that sends chills down my spine. Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (45 of 52), Read 23 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta rbavetta@prodigy.net Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 12:26 AM I.......... think........... I............. am.............. going............ to............... ............ ............. .................. ........barf... Ruth "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them." Flannery O'Connor
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (46 of 52), Read 21 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 06:48 AM What was this an issue of, Beej? Sherry
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (47 of 52), Read 22 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 07:34 AM Sorry. Don't buy it. Simpson was privileged and wealthy, with all sorts of positive international recognition. He was a wife beater and I think he killed Nicole and Goldman because he thought she was having an affair. No comparison. K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (48 of 52), Read 29 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 07:51 AM Sherry, This was from an e-magazine once called 'Meanderings' and now called 'Gravity.' Kay, I agree with you, but these folks are comparing OJ's youth to Bigger's and basically trying to use the same line of defense as Bigger's attorney. Check THIS out!: http://www.newsavanna.com/meanderings/me205/me20504.html Ruth, barf is right. Pretty disgusting to see this same line of crap applied to a real case, isn't it? Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (49 of 52), Read 13 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta rbavetta@prodigy.net Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 11:55 AM It's not that it's connected to a real case that barfs me, Beej. It's that the only way OJ's situation was comparable to Bigger's is that they were both black. Ruth "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them." Flannery O'Connor
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (50 of 52), Read 13 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 12:02 PM I must have missed the part in the book where Bigger marries Mary, becomes an international celebrity and runs through the airport. But then I'm often not a careful reader. Sherry
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (51 of 52), Read 18 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Beej Connor connorva@mindspring.com Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 12:09 PM Not to mention OJ's innocence and his devotion to spending the entire remainder of his life hunting down the REAL killer! I'll bet there are a whole lot of people who believe the Bigger/OJ comparison is a valid one. (rest assured, I'm not one of 'em.) And, with that, I'm keeping my big mouth shut before I get myself in a passel of trouble. Again. Beej
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (52 of 52), Read 11 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 11:12 PM Interesting---- Well, first of all, I agree with Ruth that physically Bigger didn't look like any of these pictures. They're too pretty. Leaving aside all of O.J.'s advantages and his crimes, his personality is completely opposite that of Bigger. O.J. is glib and loves to hear himself talk. Bigger was almost completely inarticulate and not nearly so smart. Ann
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (56 of 59), Read 14 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Mary Anne Papale mapreads@hotmail.com Date: Sunday, March 24, 2002 03:56 PM Sorry to join this discussion so late, but that's the way things have been recently. I have to say that I am rather amazed with this book: Amazed that it could conjure up such intense emotions in me. When I read about Mary's murder, I had to set the book aside for a day or so. Then, when I went back, I could hardly put the book down. I felt that the murders of Mary and Bessie were similar, actually. In both cases, Bigger murdered to keep the woman quiet. In both cases, Bigger didn't just stop at murder, but brutally disposed of the bodies. This second act, in both cases, got to me more than the first because it seemed so extreme. Why didn't Wright have Bigger stop with the acts of smothering or beating with a brick? The emotional pitch of this "piling on" the brutality is immense. I agree that Bigger didn't intentionally murder Mary, but he had plenty of anger welling up inside of him during that evening. The way they make him sit in front with them. The scene at the restaurant. Then when they return to the Dalton's, she passes out and Bigger has to carry her upstairs. This is all above and beyond what a driver should be expected to do. Once Bigger has murdered Mary, the hateful bigotry is unleashed. There is nothing to stop the torrent of white rage. Wright's depiction of the white reaction was brilliant expose of prevailing thought at the time. One of the racist views portrayed was that Bigger must have had help because blacks were too stupid to cunningly cover up such a murder. I think the courtroom speech Max made was a device to remind the reader that the author is black, and he's quite smart, thank you. That speech is the most intellectual thing in the book. O this learning, what a thing it is! - W. Shakespeare MAP
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (57 of 59), Read 12 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Sunday, March 24, 2002 06:40 PM MAP- I hadn't considered that Wright was trying to point out his own intelligence. If so, was that really necessary? For me, his brilliance shines in the text of the story. Perhaps that's another reason why the courtroom scene doesn't sit well. It's the only part of the book where I felt preached at. Wright had already made his point, I think. K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (58 of 59), Read 15 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta rbavetta@prodigy.net Date: Sunday, March 24, 2002 06:58 PM It's been years since I read this, so my comments may be a tad off base here, but everyone's reaction to the "preachiness" of the courtroom scene puts me in mind of the way much good poetry works. It works by putting the stuff out there with little comment, and then letting the reader bridge the gap to make the conclusion for himself. The image that always comes to my mind is that synaptical gap between the hands of God and Adam in Michelangelo's painting on the Sistine ceiling. In novels, as in poetry, there is writer's work and there is reader's work. When Wright uses the voice of the defense lawyer to tell us what the book is about, he has jumped the fence into our territory as readers, and we feel intruded upon. Ruth "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them." Flannery O'Connor
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (59 of 59), Read 15 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Kay Dugan okaychatt@yahoo.com Date: Sunday, March 24, 2002 07:03 PM I like that analogy, Ruth. After all, if the reader hasn't gotten the point by the courtroom scene, nothing is going to penetrate that dense of a mind. K
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (60 of 60), Read 14 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Mary Anne Papale mapreads@hotmail.com Date: Tuesday, March 26, 2002 01:28 PM Kay, I didn't mean to say that Wright used the courtroom speech to wave his own intelligence. I do believe there's a difference between "intellectual" and "intelligent", and I agree that Wright had proven the latter before that in the book. O this learning, what a thing it is! - W. Shakespeare MAP
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR NATIVE SON:
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (1 of 10), Read 43 times Conf: Classics Corner From: S. Bohinka bohinka@riconnect.com Date: Thursday, March 07, 2002 05:51 PM Hi, I went back to Amazon and pulled this off their site in case anyone was interested. I thought there were some good thoughts here. Bo _____ About This Book Impoverished, angry, and poorly educated, Bigger Thomas drifts around the seedy South Side of Chicago until he finds work chauffeuring a wealthy, liberal white family named the Daltons. On his first evening of work, Bigger drives the Daltons' college-age daughter Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone around town while the two of them get drunk. Bigger carries the intoxicated Mary to her bedroom and becomes sexually aroused while putting her to bed; when Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, comes to the door, Bigger silences Mary by covering her face with a pillow and inadvertently smothers her to death. He burns her corpse in the furnace and desperately tries to destroy evidence of the crime and frame Erlone for it, but when a reporter discovers Mary's bones in the furnace, the police quickly close in on Bigger and take him to jail. The final section of the book recounts Bigger's trial. His lawyer, a Jewish-American Communist named Boris Max, pleads that Bigger is not responsible for his violent actions because social forces drove him to crime, and he urges the judge to spare Bigger the death penalty. The state's prosecutor responds that Bigger is a cold-hearted, depraved criminal and must die as the law requires. The judge rules for the prosecution and sentences Bigger to death. In the final scene, Max attempts to console Bigger, but Bigger rebuffs him. What I killed for, I am! Bigger insists, and Max leaves him to his fate. Discussion Questions Wright writes of Bigger Thomas: These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger--like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force. Does Wright intend us to relate to Bigger as a human being--or has he deliberately made him an unconscious embodiment of oppressive social and political forces? Is there anything admirable about Bigger? Does he change by the end of the book? James Baldwin, an early protege of Wright's, later attacked the older writer for his self-righteousness and reliance on stereotypes, especially in the character of Bigger. In his famous essay Everybody's Protest Novel, Baldwin compared Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom and dismissed Native Son as protest fiction with a naked and simplistic political agenda. Do you agree? When Bigger stands confronted with his family in jail, he thinks to himself that they ought to be glad that he was a murderer: Had he not taken fully upon himself the crime of being black? Talk about Bigger as a victim and sacrificial figure. If Wright wanted us to pity Bigger, why did he portray him as so brutal? Bigger repeatedly says to himself that the accidental killing holds the hidden meaning of his life: He had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had anything that others could not take from him. Discuss the disturbing concept of killing as a supreme and meaningful act. Is this Wright's own view of the killing--or are we meant to see it only as Bigger's internal conclusion? When first confronted with the accusation that he raped Mary, Bigger thinks: rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out. Discuss the group's reactions to this controversial passage. Does this redefinition of rape reveal an insensitivity on Wright's part to women and the oppressions that they experience in American society? How dated does this book seem in its depiction of racial hatred and guilt? Have we as a society moved beyond the rage and hostility that Wright depicts between blacks and whites? Or are we still living in a culture that could produce a figure like Bigger Thomas?
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (53 of 55), Read 19 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Monday, March 18, 2002 04:17 PM BLACK BOY by Richard Wright is a great read throughout; a sustained, taut, urgent, mesmerizing tale of courage against all odds. Wright's achievement was to reveal with clarity his evolving perspective as a black man first in the racially divided south (1908-1927) and then the ghettoized north (1927-1936) during the Great Depression. It is a perfect companion piece to Eudora Welty's autobiographical ONE WRITER'S BEGINNINGS as Wright and Welty both grew up in the south (they were one year apart in age and both lived in Jackson, Mississippi for awhile.) Both black and white perspectives gained my sympathy and revealed the races to be co-inhabiting two different planets. Part two of BLACK BOY chronicles Wright's enchantment and rejection of Communism. The whole book was a revelation to me and I've never been educated in a more entertaining manner. I can't recommend this book enough. Robt
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (54 of 55), Read 18 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Monday, March 18, 2002 06:36 PM I have to amend my comment about how entertaining BLACK BOY is. Engrossing, vivid, and swiftly moving is a better way to describe it. Most of the autobiography is focused on overcoming injustice and this necessarily brings to light sorrow and suffering. However, Wright transcends this through his life's story and his artistic vision. There is in all this a great victory. Robt
Topic: March Discussion - Native Son (55 of 55), Read 16 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Monday, March 18, 2002 07:45 PM Thanks for the review, Robt. I definitely hope to read this in the future. Ann
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (2 of 10), Read 28 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Thursday, March 07, 2002 11:01 PM Bo, Those are much better questions than those contained in the average reading guide. Thanks for posting them. I think we have to be careful not to confuse the character's feelings with the author's. I would certainly not confuse Bigger's feeling that the murders had given his life meaning with Wright's personal beliefs regarding killing. Nor did I think that Bigger's definition of rape meant that Wright lacked sensitivity to women. Did Bigger change at all? That's an interesting question and I would really like to hear what others have to say about that. At the end when he was with Max, he seemed to be reaching out of himself to make some kind of human connection, but I don't think he really succeeded. Are we living in a society that could still create a Bigger Thomas? I wouldn't have been nearly as interested in Bigger if I didn't think that there are still people around like him today who feel the same kind of fear and inarticulate rage. Look at some of the criminal types who seem to totally lack empathy with their victims. Is "society" and racial injustice responsible for their twisted psyches? Maybe in part, but I think individual experience is a lot more significant.
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (3 of 10), Read 36 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Friday, March 08, 2002 06:54 AM "Bigger repeatedly says to himself that the accidental killing holds the hidden meaning of his life: He had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had anything that others could not take from him. Discuss the disturbing concept of killing as a supreme and meaningful act. Is this Wright's own view of the killing--or are we meant to see it only as Bigger's internal conclusion? " This is the part of the book I had the hardest time with (besides the plot devices). Maybe I'm just too far removed from being able to feel Bigger's situation, but this felt like a kind of romanticizing of murder. I can understand how the act of murder could serve to wake up a soul half-dead with boredom and fear, but to place any kind of positive spin on it rubbed me the wrong way. However, it didn't keep me from being sad for Bigger, and hope (without reason) that he wouldn't get the death penalty. I agree with Ann, though, that I don't think this was Wright's view of murder. I wonder if this attitude is what made Baldwin call the book a "protest novel." Sherry
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (4 of 10), Read 28 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Friday, March 08, 2002 11:21 AM Discussion question: "James Baldwin, an early protege of Wright's, later attacked the older writer for his self-righteousness and reliance on stereotypes, especially in the character of Bigger. In his famous essay Everybody's Protest Novel, Baldwin compared Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom and dismissed Native Son as protest fiction with a naked and simplistic political agenda. Do you agree?" Without having read Baldwin's essay it sounds like he overstates a point which has some merit. NATIVE SON is definitely a protest novel. So are ABSALOM! ABSALOM! and BLOOD MERIDIAN. There's nothing wrong with a protest novel, per se. I agree with Baldwin that NS's agenda is naked but I give Wright more credit than to call his protagonist stereotypical and his writing simplistic. Bigger exemplifies a type that existed and still exists and he yet comes across as a unique identity, too. Stereotype denotes a lack of individuality. I'm inclined to see Bigger as more of a prototype of black rage and impulse. Perhaps there is a bit of semantic gaming here-- stereotype vs. prototype-- but the distinction is in whether or not one regards the character to be successful and Bigger lives in my imagination too firmly for me to dismiss him as a stereotype. Also, the fact that we are discussing NS 62 years after it was published speaks for the power of the character. Wright's ability to let me into Bigger's mind and motivations with sympathy despite his crimes is well beyond simplistic. However, I can't say that Bigger is as fully realized a character as ABSALOM! ABSALOM!'s Colonel Sutpen or BLOOD MERIDIAN's judge Holden. Also, I haven't read James Baldwin's GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN to see how well he fared with his character development. Robt
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (5 of 10), Read 23 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Friday, March 08, 2002 03:41 PM Sherry, I think there are still plenty of Bigger Thomases involved in gangs in the inner cities. When I read about the violence they inflict on innocent bystanders and on rival gang members, it is often difficult for me to understand their brutality. I think the protagonist of NATIVE SON provides us some insight into their psyches. Hurting or murdering another human being apparently provides a wonderful sense of power to some people, especially those like Bigger who are trying to act the total tough guy but who actually often feel confused and afraid inside. Also, I think they share with Bigger this feeling that their life has already been mapped out for them. It will almost certainly lead to death and destruction, so they might as well get the show on the road. Ann
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (6 of 10), Read 24 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta rbavetta@prodigy.net Date: Friday, March 08, 2002 03:52 PM Ann, I'm impressed by the insight of your last remarks about gang members. Makes me both feel sorry for them and be scared of them . Ruth "Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, then you do it for money." Moliere
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (7 of 10), Read 19 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Saturday, March 09, 2002 06:43 AM "Might as well get the show on the road." Wow. How fatalistic. This is a simplistic question, I know, but how would you compare the "chances" of boys in gangs today and boys in ghettos in Bigger's day? Sherry
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (8 of 10), Read 18 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Saturday, March 09, 2002 11:14 AM Sherry, Many years ago I spent 4 miserable years as a case worker for the welfare department. This experience left me with a permanent sense of cynicism and pessimism. How is the situation different today than it was in Bigger's time? From a black person's point of view I'm sure that we still have a considerable ways to go, but I believe that our country has made huge strides in overcoming racial discrimination. A kid from the ghetto in our own day theoretically has a world of opportunities open to him compared to a boy living in the 1930's, and many are succeeding wonderfully. However, there are still kids trapped in a culture of poverty who feel just as cornered and full of rage as Bigger Thomas. These are the kids whose mothers started having them at 14 or 15, kids who have parents on crack or other drugs, kids who are not sure who their fathers are or whose siblings all have different fathers. Some of them get involved in gangs and take it for granted that most of their buddies will end up dead or in prison at an early age. Maybe they assume they'll be the exception. The causes of their despair and anger might be a bit different, but I think their feelings are very similar to Bigger's.
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (9 of 10), Read 17 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Saturday, March 09, 2002 04:46 PM I can see why a job like that could make you cynical, Ann. I agree that the social climate is different now than in the thirties, just not different enough. The element of Native Son that I think is important and will probably be what keeps it in the "classic" category is Wright's ability to give readers (even middle-age white women) an inkling what it feels like to be Bigger. It is powerful stuff. Sherry
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (10 of 10), Read 17 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong rla@nac.net Date: Saturday, March 09, 2002 06:02 PM The first half of BLACK BOY is even better than Maya Angelou's I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. I find it even more powerful than NATIVE SON. It is an engrossing, swiftly moving memoir of a brilliant mind being mistaken as a mule. I rank it with the best autobiographies I have read. Robt, not sure which thread to post this in
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (11 of 12), Read 17 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ee Lin Kuan eelin@althor.fsnet.co.uk Date: Monday, March 11, 2002 05:10 PM Sherry, Despite the brutal acts, Wright's writing was so good that it made it easy for me to understand how these acts could make Bigger feel empowered. It was the only thing that he had ever done for himself that was outside the rules dictated to him for the whole of his life. For once, he'd broken free. Ee Lin
Topic: Discussion Questions for Native Son (12 of 12), Read 14 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Sherry Keller shkell@starband.net Date: Tuesday, March 12, 2002 06:56 AM It's just sad that that's the only way he had to break free. I suppose no other act would have had as much power and force behind it to create enough force to enable the break. How tragic. Sherry

 

 
Richard Wright
Richard Wright

 
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