Misc. Thoughts on Realism and Empathy

For class on Wednesday, we read two duelling essays about Native Son. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin decries Wright’s depiction of Bigger as disconnected from the true human condition. Baldwin claims that all protest novels “are fantasies, connecting nowhere with reality.” Wright’s retort, in “How Bigger Was Born,” claims just the opposite. According to Wright, there have been many true “Biggers” in his life, and Wright drew on these acquaintances to create the main character. In class, I felt the need to ‘choose a side’ –– to choose whether or not I believe in a “real” Bigger. This is a pressing question, with implications for how one interprets Native Son. But upon further reflection, I am inclined to ask a different question entirely: regardless of whether Bigger “exists,” did Wright have deep empathy for the character? Did Wright try to create a complex character with the same humanity as himself? 

The reason I ask this question is because of an article I read on a tangentially related topic. In “White Writer,” Sarah Schulman investigates the ethics of white writers who depict characters of color (typically they do so very poorly). The article focuses primarily on one author, a contemporary of Wright and Baldwin: Carson McCullers. A white writer assigned female at birth (though McCullers’ gender identity is hotly contested today), McCullers wrote extensively about the South and racial politics in America. Many critics applaud McCullers thoughtful portrayal of characters of color, and I, too, consider McCullers to have been far ahead of their time. Consider the following passage, which even includes a quote from Richard Wright:

“For almost twenty years, I have tried to understand how McCullers embodied what Richard Wright called “an attitude towards life” that “cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically”—one that enabled her to imagine and create consciousness that was not her own, and also one that was not widely available in other novels or movies.”

I do think that Wright, like McCullers, had deep empathy for Bigger. After all, this is the true focus of “How Bigger Was Born” –– Wright’s own relationship to Bigger; his attempt to bring to life Bigger’s “peculiar type of being and consciousness.” At the end of the day, Bigger is nothing more than a creation of Wright’s imagination, regardless of whether Wright claims to have had realistic source material. Still, Wright attempted to imbue the character with tremendous complexity and humanity. 

I am curious if you all agree. Does it matter whether Bigger “exists”? Did Wright successfully enable us, as readers, to feel the same empathy for Bigger that he did as the author?

3 thoughts on “Misc. Thoughts on Realism and Empathy”

  1. On the existence of Bigger I have to say, no I do not believe Bigger exists. But this is because I do not believe someone can exhibit the constant swell of hate and disregard for humanity that Bigger feels twenty four hours a day. As I read the novel more, I see “Bigger” not as a person per say, but as a mindset. I believe the novel gets something right: that humans have a deeply rooted tendency for violence that comes out when pushed to extremes. But I do not believe this is a constant persona or a character trait for people in the real world. It is a mode of the mind that happens every once in a while, but not for the extent to which Bigger displays this mode. Wright depicts Bigger as constantly hating because he believes Bigger has a right to be constantly angry with his situation. But in reality, peoples’ moods swing up and down, and hatred can sometimes have a larger or smaller role. I believe that Wright has felt the hatred that Bigger consistently feels, and thus can empathize with the character, but also believe that Wright incorrectly ascribes all his hate towards his black identity when a lot of it stems from his inability to deal with his identity as a man.

  2. I find the Baldwin quote you mention very interesting. Tied up with his critique of protest novel as fantasy is an accusation of sentimentality. Baldwin sees protests novels as failing to reach their higher aim, dwelling instead in zeal, reduction, and the systems of oppression. However, Baldwin also offers this parallel line of logic: protest novels are “a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream” (19). This critique, to me, does not seem to adequately negate Wright’s project or his appeal to the reality of Bigger. Baldwin’s issue rather seems to be that the protest novel is not a reimagining, nuanced, or freeing force. I don’t know if Wright would disagree. To me, this analysis does negate the call for empathy for Bigger’s very real struggles and very real challenge to access his own humanity. Baldwin even seems to perform this empathy in his own paper. He acknowledges how “all of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear” (22). Even to witness that pain and the story Wright is trying to tell seems to be an act of empathy. I think Baldwin actually shows us how to read Wright. By seeing Bigger, truly, and then proceeding to thoughtfully engage with the text’s limits. While I would disagree with Baldwin’s assessment of Wright’s text failures, as I think its function as a mirror allows the reader to see and hold space for the terror of a life like Bigger’s, I do think Baldwin’s reading can still allow empathy for Wright’s character, real or imagined.

  3. David, I think you make a great point that empathy is a major part of Wright’s project in Native Son, and I agree with you—while there are valid critiques of the novel, it is effective in challenging readers to have empathy for Bigger.
    I love that you bring up McCullers and how white writers portray people of color, because it’s an issue that Wright was grappling with and trying to get white readers to notice. In particular, the role of the newspapers is such a major motif in the novel. I’m struck by how Wright pushes readers to pay attention to how they see people of color depicted in the media. His engagement with media is one aspect of the novel that I found really effective in asking me to have more empathy for Bigger—whether or not Bigger “exists” outside of Wright’s imagination.

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