The Motif of “Blindness“ in Richard Wright’s 'Native Son'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

17 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of the Term “Motif”

3. The Motif of “Blindness” in Richard Wright’s Native Son
3.1 Mary’s and Jan’s “Blindness”
3.2 Mr. and Mrs. Dalton’s “Blindness”
3.3 Max’s “Blindness”
3.4 Bigger’s “Blindness”

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The motif of “blindness” is an idea that recurs many times in Richard Wright’s masterpiece Native Son. Thus it has got a significant meaning to develop the novel’s general theme. This motif, next to others (such as “whiteness”), supports an idea: referring to James Nagel, it is “[…] operative throughout the novel […]” and provides the impression of “[…] a lack of understanding and of a tendency to generalize individuals on the basis of race. It is both a rationalization for those who are looking and a disguise for those who are looked at.”[1]

Almost all the characters, occurring in the novel, are “blind” in a figurative sense, which makes them prejudiced or apparently charitable not knowing what they are actually causing. They provoke hatred and are not able to see reality as it is. In fact, Bigger is considered to be a stereotype representing the whole black mass. Not until the end of Native Son (“But what I killed for, I am!” 429), he does realize his being an individual with particular needs and emotions. Conversely, he sees himself through the eyes of others, especially through those of the white people surrounding him. As a consequence, he is not able to develop an own identity. Thus Alan W. France points out:

[T]o Bigger, all the other characters who are not conscious of the predatory economy in which they are immersed are blind. It is, in fact, the killing of Mary Dalton that makes Bigger aware of the general blindness. After Mary’s murder, he notices that those around him did not want to see what others were doing if that doing did not feed their own desires![2]

Obviously, “blindness” plays an important role in the novel. This seminar paper will deal with this motif that underlines the character’s “lack of understanding”, as Nagel would call it, and their tendency to consider an individual to be just an example of a whole mass, namely Bigger as the stereotype of the whole black community. In that way, microcosm is turned to macrocosm with no respect to Bigger’s individuality.

For this analysis, it is, at first, necessary to focus on the definition of the term “motif” to continue with the main part. The latter is planned to include the “blindness”, either in a literal or figurative sense (or both), of certain characters. Therefore, Mary and Jan will be considered at first. Secondly, we look at Mr. and Mrs. Dalton to go on further with Boris Max, Bigger’s lawyer in the trial of the third book. These figures are chosen because of their significance for the plot and Bigger’s personal development. Furthermore, they represent the meaning of “blindness” and its effects, mentioned above, best. The protagonist Bigger himself will be the last character who will be analysed according to his “blindness” to end up in a brief conclusion.

2. Definition of the Term “Motif”

A motif in literary terms is an idea that recurs several times in a narrative. Thus a motif is a “unit of meaning which may have a discursive function.”[3] This device is elaborated into a more general theme. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary a motif illustrates “[…] a situation, incident, […] image, or character-type.”[4] The so-called leitmotif is a specific kind of motif that is meaningfully repeated within a single literary piece. Moreover, this means of literature serves “as a basis for expanded narrative […] that tend[s] to unify the work.”[5]

3. The Motif of “Blindness” in Richard Wright’s Native Son

3.1 Mary’s and Jan’s “Blindness”

Mary is Mr. and Mrs. Dalton’s only child. Due to the family’s relatively high status as white landlords in Chicago together with their decent wealth, life offers her a physically comfortable standing. Furthermore, this status leads to several possibilities and privileges that Bigger does not experience. Nevertheless, it is exactly this background, according to Butler, that “[…] has stunted her growth” and made her “blind” to reality, “[j]ust as Bigger has been walled off from many aspects of life by his stark poverty and his status as a black man in a white world.”[6] Thus both Jan Erlone, Mary’s boyfriend who lives in similar circumstances like the girl, and Mary herself, as Butler states, “[…] are blinded by environmental conditioning and emotional intensity.”[7] Mary, especially, is parted from “real experience by overly protective parents and her privileged status as a white girl.”[8] The two people, convinced of their charity, do not even recognize Bigger’s terror when the latter drives them across the city. In that moment, Bigger feels completely uncomfortable to which Jan and Mary are totally “blind.”[9]

The couple believes to be sympathetic towards the black boy and, simultaneously, towards the whole mass of the black community. As a consequence, they entirely forget to see Bigger as an individual with individual emotions and a particular way of thinking, which forces their chauffeur to feel pressurized and misunderstood and proves the couple’s tendency to generalize individuals. As a consequence, Roger Rosenblatt is convinced that they “cannot see the emptiness of their charity.”[10] Again, this exemplifies their full blindness to reality, also indicating a lack of understanding. Later in the novel, Jan detects his inappropriate behaviour towards Bigger Thomas when he visits the latter in prison[11]: he tells him that he “[…] was kind of blind” and that he “didn’t know that [they] were so far apart until that night.” (287)[12]


[1] James Nagel, “Images of ‘Vision’ in Native Son,” Critical Essays on

Richard Wright’s Native Son, ed. Keneth Kinnamon (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997) 88.

[2] Alan W. France, “Misogyny and Appropriation in Wright’s Native Son,” Modern Fiction Studies 34.3 (1988): 416.

[3] “Motif,” A Dictionary of Literary Devices, ed. Bernard Dupriez (Toronto:

University of Toronto Press, 1991).

[4] “Motif,” Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, ed. Chris Baldick

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[5] “Motif (Motive),” A Handbook to Literature, ed. Barbara A. Heinssen (New

York: Macmillan, 1992).

[6] Robert J. Butler, Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero (Boston:

Twayne Publishers, 1991): 65/66.

[7] Butler, New Black Hero 43.

[8] Robert J. Butler, “The Function of Violence in Richard Wright’s Native

Son,” Black American Literature Forum 20.1/2 (1986): 12.

[9] Joseph T. Skerrett, “Composing Bigger: Wright and the Maging of Native Son,”

Modern Critical Interpretations: Native Son, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988) 135.

[10] Roger Rosenblatt, “Bigger’s Infernal Assumption,” Modern Critical Interpretations: Native Son, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988) 135.

[11] Paul N. Siegel, “The Conclusion of Richard Wright’s Native Son.” PMLA

89 (1974): 519

[12] All page numbers within the text refer to this edition: Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005).

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The Motif of “Blindness“ in Richard Wright’s 'Native Son'
College  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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richard, wright, bigger, thomas, blindness, motif, motives, mary, jan, dalton, max, race, stereotype, character, development, double, consciousness, blind
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David Stehling (Author), 2008, The Motif of “Blindness“ in Richard Wright’s 'Native Son', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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