Who lives, who dies, who rebukes society

Knowing the familiarity that both Richard Wright and James Baldwin had with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and having finished reading Stowe’s novel only a week before finishing Native Son, I expected to find a number of similarities and comparable points. For instance, in Wright’s Mr. Dalton, I recognized Stowe’s Miss Ophelia, a New England debutante who hates slavery but recoils at the sight of Tom holding her young white niece. Each character wants to help the race as a whole, but refuse to recognize the personhood of the individual African-American. While this character comparison served as a significant connection between Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son, the most significant comparison was a lack of satisfaction at the end of the book. At the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom succumbs to his injuries and dies beside his former master, George Shelby. Moments later, George knocks Tom’s murderer to the ground with a punch. Stowe writes, “As [George] stood over him, blazing with wrath and defiance, he would have formed no bad personification of his great namesake triumphing over the dragon” (Stowe 355). With such grand language, Stowe likely intended for this moment to give the reader great satisfaction after having to endure the slave owner’s malice in the preceding chapters. And, while initially I felt such satisfaction at the image of Legree on the ground, I wondered why Tom could not have done same. Why does Tom’s satisfaction have to wait until the next life? Tom, the victim, should rise up and strike Legree, not George. Tom’s docility is painstaking; he should not need the magical appearance of George Shelby to defend himself. Though he makes a choice not to fight back, he still seems to lack the agency to address his current situation.

In a similar way, at the end of Native Son, Mr. Max gives a lengthy speech in defense of Bigger, exhibiting the ways in which society has shaped and created this man. The media portrayal of Bigger deserves a rebuke and Wright allows Mr. Max to give it. Yet, again, while Max’s critique is welcome, the African-American character should have made it instead. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George’s fist carries the indignation of knowing his friend was murdered. Yet Tom’s fist would have carried so much more: the pain of being separated from family, the beatings for no reason, the purchase of his body as a good at the auction block, the toll of making decisions between one’s own survival and the survival of others. Though the punches might have felt the same to Legree, one had the potential to rebuke society more personally. Similarly, Mr. Max’s speech elaborated on the fact of inequality and the treatment of African-Americans in the country. Yet what Mr. Max describes is present whereas what Bigger could describe is personal. Bigger’s fear and anger hold more weight than a simple recognition of the situation. 

Yet, of course, Tom’s punch and Bigger’s speech are impossible. These actions would force them to do something they, by their nature, cannot do; it would require them to be human and dynamic. Baldwin’s critique is correct. In refusing to allow for the humanity of their characters, the reader leaves unsatisfied. More importantly, Tom and Bigger’s deaths seem to have no profound effects on their environments. Bigger’s actions make life worse for African-Americans in the city and Tom’s death leads more slaves toward a docile lifestyle that offers no solution to their life on earth. Understanding these limitations, we must wonder what impact Native Son could have on the white liberal environment toward which Wright seems to write.

One thought on “Who lives, who dies, who rebukes society”

  1. I agree that it feels disappointing to see Max make the closing argument for Bigger rather than Bigger himself; it ultimately revokes Bigger’s agency in his own fate, confirming Wright’s foreshadowing from the beginning of the novel that Bigger is doomed to die. But while you claim Max’s critique is welcome, I am not sure if I agree. I think Wright’s decision to have Max make this speech bolsters the idea of the white savior to white liberal readers. It feels like Max’s delivery is targeted not at the true racists of the world, but at the Jans and Marys who claim they are just trying to help, but are in reality making the situation worse by using it for their own notoriety. Max himself wants to embolden himself during the speech to vindicate the communist party, not solely to help Bigger. The white reader wants to confirm that they are a good person, devoted to “helping” and that is what Max’s speech does; he is, in a way, trying to help Bigger, but he is also trying to help himself to affirm that he, as a white man, is a good person.

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