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2 Bigger Thomas – victim of society, tragic hero or subhuman monster?
Soon after its publication on 1 March 1940 it seemed to be clear that “Native Son” was the great breakthrough in the career of the young black author Richard Wright. Within the first 4 weeks more than 250,000 copies of Wright´s novel were sold. Wright´s masterpiece was not only incredibly successful in America, but also translated into approximately 50 languages to make it accessible to readers in other countries as well.
The power of the work, that according to Kinnamon (1997:1) “is now widely recognized as the culminating work of the socially conscious fiction of the Great Depression and as the most important watershed in the history of African American literature.”, seemed to be tremendous. More than 423 reviews, notices, essays etc. appeared alone within the first two years after the novel´s publication. Although the critics´ opinions were wide apart they almost all agreed on the fact that the novel is powerful enough to grip the reader with or against his will.
Despite the success of “Native Son” literary America was not yet ready to award a black writer a major prize in fiction. But the frequency with which Richard Wright was nominated was a further evidence of the strong impact his novel had on the American society in the twentieth century.
Wright himself grew up poor in Mississippi and faced racism and humiliation many times in his own life. His experiences enabled him to write a novel that confronted the (predominantly white) readers with the harsh and unpalatable truth as it shows authentically what it means to be a Negro in a racist and segregated society that provides no real chances for its 12 million black citizens. By using a language that illustrates the brutal reality of the protagonist´s life, Wright avoided to make the same mistake as in his earlier work “Uncle Tom´s Children”. Wright himself said that “When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I made an awfully naïve mistake.
I found that I had written a book which even bankers´ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” (Kinnamon 1997:2) Wright´s intention to create a painful awareness of the terrible dimensions of racism and segregation was accomplished by the success of “Native Son”.
Although many critics praised Wright´s approach to the theme of racism and social injustice there were also many that feared that “Bigger was so unrepresentatively brutish that he would shame blacks and alienate whites.” (Kinnamon 1997:3)
Indeed, the novel´s protagonist Bigger Thomas seemed to arouse a lot of controversy in most of the reviews whereas only few publications dealt with the linguistic and aesthetic aspects of the novel.
One of the most important early critics of “Native Son” was James Baldwin. The author of the essay “Everybody´s protest novel” (1949) argued that Wright´s novel reduces complex human beings to stereotypes and criticizes the oversimplification of characters. Beside Baldwin, many others objected to the way Wright had presented the character of Bigger Thomas.
Harsh critic was also expressed by David L. Cohn, who argued that Wright had written “a blinding and corrosive study in hate.” (Kinnamon 1997:45) Cohn furthermore doubted that life was really as hard for Blacks as presented in “Native Son”. For some white critics, including Maurice Charney, Bigger seemed to be a “subhuman creature” which is only driven by primitive motives e.g. hate, unable to control his sex drive and anger. Therefore they argued that Bigger alone is to be made responsible for his actions – especially the murder (and the assumed rape) of the white girl Mary Dalton.
Other critics took a completely different approach to the question whether Bigger is responsible for his actions or not and placed the novel within the tradition of naturalism. Charles Child Walcutt argued in his study “American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream“(1956) that “the naturalistic novelist transforms Darwinian determinism into literary thought. Human beings become victims of their environment, encaged by socioeconomic forces they cannot control and driven by fundamental drives they do not understand.” (Joyce 1986: 11)
They argued that Bigger is a mere victim of the racist and segregated society he lives in. He was never given a real chance and is determined by extreme fear that makes it impossible for him to live his life without becoming a murderer. He is lost from the first day of his life, because he is black. Therefore not he as an individual but society as a whole is to be blamed for the murders Bigger had committed.
But there are also critics like Joyce and Fishburn who see much more in Bigger Thomas than the mere victim of society. They argue that the character of Bigger Thomas is much more complex and thus goes far beyond from being just a passive victim, as he violently refuses to accept the limitations society had imposed on him.
In my paper I will analyse the complex character of Bigger Thomas and therefore take a closer look at the living conditions that have shaped his personality. I intend to show how he and his attitudes towards white people develop throughout the novel. Furthermore I will explain the differences that exist between Bigger and other black characters in the novel. At the end of my analysis I will draw a conclusion on the question whether Bigger is a subhuman monster, a victim of society, a tragic hero, a bit of everything – or none of it all…
2 Bigger Thomas – victim of society, tragic hero or subhuman monster?
Despite other approaches the idea that Bigger Thomas is a victim of his environment remains the prominent interpretation of Richard Wright´s characterization of him in “Native Son”. (see Joyce 1986:11)
Indeed, a major part of the novel (especially the first book entitled “Fear”) is concerned with the circumstances Bigger lives in and the experiences that have shaped his personality.
Richard Wright portrays the life of the 20 – year old protagonist Bigger Thomas who lives with his mother, sister and brother in a shabby, rat – infested one – bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago, known as the “Black Belt.” His father died long ago and his mother´s wage is meager. Consequently, he had to leave school early and grows up poor and uneducated in a segregated society in the late 1930s. His childhood has been filled with hostility and oppression and he seems to be destined to meet a bad fate.
The reader is immediately set into a situation that foreshadows the later events as it portrays Bigger from the beginning of the novel on as a killer. Wright opens his novel with the so – called “rat – scene” in which Bigger chases and kills the rat prowling his family´s one – room slum apartment. As Brignano (1970: 31) points out “the action is ironically symbolic. Later Bigger will assume the role of a hunted animal, and the rat will be interchanged in the minds of the whites with Negroes in general. ”
Bigger´s character is determined by his quick temper, destructive impulses, hate and rage as well as extreme fear. All these features seem to be a direct result from his experiences. Through his entire life he had been oppressed and controlled by whites. He is angry and also deeply hurt that white people wouldn´t give him the chance to make something out of his life. He hates the fact that his black skin keeps him from having the opportunities and luxuries of the white world. There are many scenes which illustrate Bigger´s comprehension of his disadvantaged position within society and the anger that arouses from this awareness.
- Quote paper
- Maxi Hinze (Author), 2006, Bigger Thomas - victim of society, tragic hero or subhuman monster, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/69059