Duality in Native Son

While Native Son is not my favorite book, Wright does an excellent job of depicting the duality of humanity and the different binaries prevalent in American culture. Wright tells a story about the negative implications of racial prejudice, toxic masculinity, and financial poverty through the heinous, violent, and erratic behavior and story of Bigger. Initially when reading Book One, I did not understand why Wright considered Bigger’s behavior specific or unique to the Black male experience. While reading Book One I considered the majority of Bigger’s actions to be consistent with toxic masculinity or the desire to conform to ideals of manhood promoted in dominant culture. Between his interactions with the Dalton’s, his friends, and Mary, Bigger exhibits violent behavior at times he feels he lacks control. Bigger actions are most extreme at times he feels people are challenging him, especially when he feels his masculinity is challenged. Because Bigger’s self-image is so distorted by societal prejudice, he does not know himself, and resents himself. This resentment is worsened by the struggles he faces because of his identity as a poor Black man from the SouthSide of Chicago. While the audience should obviously be disturbed by Bigger’s actions, even I found myself feeling sympathetic for Bigger at times- as it was clear he was set up to fail. All humans lack the freedom to choose who they are born as, and Bigger’s self-resentment was the consequence of being born into a life with no options, or only bad ones. It is often easy to judge the choices and actions of others when we have not been in their same position. While Bigger’s actions are heinous and inexcusable, the conditions of his life were far less than ideal and he was becoming mentally unhinged due to his lack of control.

Though initially it was hard for me to see anything but toxic masculinity, it is evident that Bigger faced many of his challenges not due to his gender and identity issues, but also because of his race. Bigger’s blackness in a time filled with blatant racial discrimination, certainly contributed to him living a life with less than ideal conditions. I believe that this intersection of Bigger’s identities represents Wright’s conception of struggles unique to Black male experience. Wright is able to depict both the struggles of man, that make audiences sympathize, and the worse of man, that makes audiences uncomfortable. This depiction of the duality of the human experience is what makes the book have depth.

4 thoughts on “Duality in Native Son”

  1. Hii Cassidy,

    I love the way that you framed this concept of the book in terms of dualities. I agree that while reading I felt angered at times and sympathetic at others, but overall, I think my feeling of empathy became exhausted. As Bigger’s character continued to unfold and his actions grew more deplorable throughout Book Two, I found it more and more difficult to attribute these actions to matters of race, upbringing, poverty, etc. I really want to feel empathetic for the man, but I think that his journey of growing in his masculinity was so disturbed and toxic that it took away from the influence of race in the matter. Let me know what you think.

  2. I found your argument extremely intriguing, especially that “Wright is able to depict both the struggles of man, that make audiences sympathize, and the worse of man, that makes audiences uncomfortable.” He does display the best and worst in a man, however he does so with the guise of race. I understand the story exploring different highs and lows of a man’s life. However, I am unable to fathom the exploration of heathen like behavior when that man represents a large part of a race in a book? I found this aspect hard to make my peace with.

  3. Your analysis of duality and intersection was really interesting, but one thing in particular stood out to me: “Wright is able to depict both the struggles of man, that make audiences sympathize, and the worse of man, that makes audiences uncomfortable.” This is such an astute point, in my opinion. Precisely what makes “Native Son” a Great novel is that it forces the reader to feel both empathy and extreme discomfort for the protagonist. I feel like the “best” books aren’t always likable––instead, they are highly controversial to many readers, and they force readers to think and think and think. Really good books might even alienate some audiences while captivating other audiences, and those two audiences are able to share their different experiences with the same text. We are able to have such extensive conversations and debates about “Native Son” due to the dualities contained in the book!

  4. I think you make a good point about the intersection of Bigger’s race and gender that I had not initially considered. Often, I viewed these two parts of Bigger’s identity separately, with one influencing him more than the other at times. But considering both his status as black and male makes me reconsider his violent tendencies. Many stories we read glorify violence and use it merely as a way to entertain the reader. But Bigger’s violence is ultimately a cry for help, an attempt to escape the world that he had no choice in being born into. And while Bigger’s actions are cruel and heinous, I now understand his tendency to rely on violence, as it is one of the few tools he actually has to exhibit agency in his life.

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