I have found Native Son off-putting since we began reading. However, besides the heinous violence, I found it challenging to articulate what exactly I did not like about Wright’s novel. In our class discussion about why “Biggers” exist, I finally understood the title, Native Son. Still, I strongly disagreed that Bigger’s behavior represented anything innate or native to a person. Baldwin’s critique of “Native Son” as “a failed protest novel, that rejects life and fails to accept humanity” articulates how this novel is unnecessarily dark, twisted, and brutal. Baldwin explains that Bigger’s biggest problem was not his race or class but that his feelings of constraint caused him to reject his humanity and others’. The most heinous elements of the novel reflect a complete lack of understanding or empathy for humanity on Bigger’s part, and arguably Wright in some instances. While it’s clear that the structural and systemic oppression Bigger faced is native and institutionalized in American society, Wright’s creation of Bigger seemingly reveals more about his psyche and perception of people than about the reality of being a “native son.”
This may sound strong, especially considering Wright’s extended defense of this character in “How Bigger was Created,” however, Wright himself admits that Bigger was a product of his imagination and thought process. He writes,
“So, with this much knowledge of myself and the world gained and known, why should I not try to work out on paper the problem of what will happen to Bigger? Why should I not, like a scientist in a laboratory, use my imagination and invent test-tube situations, place Bigger in them, and, following the guidance of my own hopes and fears, what I had learned and remembered, work out in fictional form an emotional statement and resolution of this problem?”
I understand that Wright is passionate about revealing the consequences or results of systemic oppression; still, the book’s extremity, violence, and sexual nature may have been influenced by his own emotional state. In this quote, Wright seemingly embraces his creation of Bigger and defends it by crediting his imagination. The sexual violence, murder, misogyny, and racism depicted in the novel often appear senseless and the brutality unnecessary. I agree that American society has these issues, but not every person who faces Bigger’s conditions exhibits the same behavior. The creation of this monstrous character and this tragic story do little to aid the effects of this oppression. Instead, it emphasizes a lack of humanity and attempts to explain unjustifiable violence.
Baldwin’s notion of Native Son as a failed protest novel led me to consider the novel a failed protest from Richard Wright. The structures that create conditions of inequity are, if anything, promoted in this novel. Wright perpetuates the same lack of humanity these structures do in his creation of Bigger. I agree with Baldwin that valuing humanity is innate, so Native Son missed the mark.