Hard and Soft Determinism in Native Son

Richard Wright’s Native Son follows Bigger Thomas as he navigates the precipitous race relations of 1930s Chicago. Bigger’s impoverished lifestyle and exposure to systemic racism each inform the events of the novel, most notably his murdering both Mary, a wealthy white heiress, and Bessie, his black girlfriend. Native Son and, indeed, Wright himself argue that Bigger’s actions are not his own; rather, the text employs the philosophical doctrine of determinism.
The hard determinism which characterizes Native Son asserts that all behavior is governed by forces beyond our control: free will is only an illusion. It is Bigger’s upbringing, socioeconomic status, and environment, rather than Bigger himself, which decide his fate: he is followed by “the feeling of being always enclosed in the stifling embrace of an invisible force” (150); in Wright’s eyes, Bigger, then, is not responsible for his crimes. I tend to disagree with this approach, because I believe Bigger does exhibit some degree of autonomy and that he is thus culpable for his actions. What Native Son and Wright neglect to address is the existence of soft determinism.
Soft determinism is a level of determinism which allows for the existence of free will, if only a somewhat restricted form. This would mean that Bigger’s lower class origins do not force him to rob as he has prior to the events of the novel, but rather increase the likelihood that he will rob out of desperation. I would argue that we see Bigger demonstrate this free will when he sabotages the robbery of Blum’s shop: he cleary faces a crossroads and makes a decision that, while strongly influenced by numerous internal (e.g. race) and external (e.g. society) forces, is ultimately his own (41).
Likewise, Bigger’s decisions to kill Mary and especially to rape and murder Bessie, while largely influenced by the racial tensions and intense misogyny which shape the landscape of his life, are still just that: decisions. I may be biased because I admittedly find Bigger a reprehensible character (oop), but I do believe that he is responsible for his crimes. For Wright to take a purely deterministic approach seems both heavy-handed and extreme. It only validates Bigger’s constant victim-blaming and sadism in a way that overshadows what I interpret to be the novel’s entire point, which is to expose the ways in which society cruelly manipulates and dehumanizes black lives.

2 thoughts on “Hard and Soft Determinism in Native Son”

  1. Your criticism and dislike of the hard determinism displayed in this book is accurate and I agree with it. If Bigger is a symbol for the Black community, I feel that Richard Wright did more to highlight weaknesses in the black community’s foundation than he did to expose white people’s corrupt power. Almost every aspect of his life is controlled and dominated by white people, which is seen in the fear they cause him. This is shown in his actions in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton or Mary and Jan, as he is constantly uncomfortable and submits submissive body language in every encounter. When it comes to black people, almost every encounter is tainted in some light. The differences are also evidenced in the different ways in which he kills Mary and Bessie. With Mary, he took his time to cover his tracks and think about what he had done to devise a plan; however, with Bessie, he blindly bludgeons her and then tosses her in the garbage with no thought. While fear is responsible for the respect he gives to white people; his actions seem to point to a dislike and a perpetuation of destruction for his own community.

  2. I think you hit the novels main point precisely; highlight how the current system is wrong and oppressive and leading to these tragic outcomes. That being said, I believe Wright’s point was to take blame out of Bigger’s hands. His decisions to murder were, in my opinion, meant to be less decisions and more a warning to the white community about what their role as oppressors could mean for them. I think a lack of agency is inherent to Bigger’s character as a means to drive up white guilt, because at the end of the day the novel is a message for a white audience, not a black one.

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