The sense of fatality that pervades Native Son interested me the most in these last two books. Like in an ancient Greek tragedy, this novel is defined by the looming sense of a determined doom. The first oracle of this doom, for Bigger, is his mother; for the reader, the foreshadowing of the rat scene; and for the white characters, the irony of the furnace.
Bigger tells his mom to “ ‘stop prophesying’ ” after she warns him that someday, he will, overwhelmed by regret, “ ‘set down and cry’ ”(9). Here Bigger does not offer a correction or attempt to see a different path. He simply asks his mom to stop espousing his fate. It is also interesting to note that the first direct depiction of Bigger’s fate mentions a weak, ‘hysteric’ regret. It seems, then, that Bigger is doomed to a fate, not of death, but of emasculation. Perhaps, Wright is attempting to say that there is no difference between death and emasculation? In a patriarchal white supremacy that deals in power, an independent and virile masculinity does provide a certain distance from one’s own pain. This interaction, combined with the line only a page earlier, where Bigger’s mother says “ ‘sometimes I wonder why I birthed you,’ ” connects the female presence in the book with the main character’s awareness of his damned fate (8).
Similarly, the incident with the rat triggers an awareness of a fatalistic tone for the reader. The rat is heard before it is seen as “a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room” (4). Before it is identified, the rat is a nefarious disturbance that looms in the very structure where one is supposed to feel the safest: one’s home. The first drama of the book, where Bigger kills this intrusive rat that has infiltrated their home and then uses its death to terrify Vera, embraces a sense of invasion and fatalism head on, then proceeds to make a mockery of it.
The sense of an ever present doom also extends beyond the novel’s Black characters, though. It resides in the twisted irony surrounding the investigation of Mary’s death, too. The disposal site of Mary’s body is a character in the investigation. As the investigation flounders, “the crimson luster of the fire gleamed on the white men’s faces” (196). In this image, as well as in the smoke scene, the irony makes a joke out of the white men’s search. The literal doom of Mary’s tragic demise burns onto their faces. It is an imminent and tragic discovery, but it is also a twisted joke. No character in Wright’s world seems exempt from the brutality of his fatalism.
2 thoughts on “Doomed”
You address this really interesting theme of prophetic doom throughout the novel, and I agree that readers see a great deal of foreshadowing of Bigger’s fate. Bigger himself predicts his fate before even meeting the Daltons telling Gus that he feels like “something awful’s going to happen to me” (20). He elaborates that it happens “every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there.” It’s interesting to read these lines through the lens of Bigger’s fate being one of emasculation, not of death. I initially read the “awful thing happening to him” was his moral falling to an act of violence, but it certainly could be his fear of emasculation.
I enjoyed all of your comments regarding the irony of the various situations foreshadowing Bigger’s fate, but I was especially intrigued by your question over whether or not Wright equates death and emasculation. I think to a certain extent he does because the reason Bigger tries to flaunt his masculinity is because he does not have agency over his own life. Bigger himself believes the violent outbursts that make him “manly” give him control over his reality, but in actuality, they lead him closer to the predetermined fate that he worries about throughout the novel. So because Bigger associates his lack of agency with emasculation, I believe that Wright believes this to be the case. The more Bigger tries to be a man, the less control he has over his existence, which leads to his eventual end.
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