The image that emerges from Richard Wright’s collection of autobiographical short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, is that of a lonely and troubled childhood. Born September 4, 1908, near Natchez, Mississippi, Wright was the unwanted son of sharecroppers. His father deserted the family when Wright was five years old, after his mother suffered a stroke. Wright’s mother became totally paralyzed when he was ten, and his domineering grandmother attempted to force her religious fanaticism on the boy, who rebelled. At fifteen, he left home for Memphis, Tennessee, and at nineteen moved to Chicago, where he began to write seriously. There, in 1931, he published the story “Superstition” in Abbot’s Monthly Magazine and became involved with the John Reed Club and the Communist party. Soon his poetry began to appear in leftist literary magazines such as the Anvil, Left Front, New Masses, and International Literature. While working for the Illinois Federal Writer’s Project, he wrote his first novel, Lawd Today, but did not try to publish it in deference to the potential objections of the Communist party. Some of the stories later collected in Uncle Tom’s Children and Eight Men (1961) did appear at this time: “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1936) in the New Caravan, “Silt” (1937) in New Masses, and “Fire and Cloud” (1938) in Story.
Although no specific city is mentioned, the setting resembles Chicago of the late 1930s. Wright points out the sharp contrasts between the black slum world and the affluent world of the Daltons, which has been built at the blacks’ expense. Wright sets the particular hardships of black residents of South Side Chicago against the background of the Great Depression, political and economic corruption, and urban blight. Native Son explores the social unrest created by the hard economic times and the attendant interest in radical political solutions represented by Marxists such as Jan Erlone and Boris Max.
The central theme of Native Son is the central theme of much black American writing, the duality of black existence in the United States. Bigger expresses his sense of exclusion as he and his buddies stand idly on a street corner watching a plane fly overhead: “They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail.” As in Uncle Tom’s Children, the central movement of Native Son is toward the development of self-awareness. Bigger’s development is warped by environmental pressures that make him feel that violence is his only way to escape the stifling limitations imposed on blacks.
In Native Son, Wright uses the same combination of direct, naturalistic prose and symbolism that he employed in Uncle Tom’s Children. He carefully reconstructs the physical reality of South Side Chicago, using materials gathered from sociological studies as well as from his own experience. He then skillfully invests objects with symbolic significance, a technique that helps him overcome the linguistic limitations of his inarticulate protagonist.
Native Son depicts a world that is psychologically and physically brutal. Wright graphically portrays the emotional trauma that his black characters suffer because of white dominance, and he describes in gruesome detail the violence that accompanies Bigger’s anger. Bigger saws off Mary’s head; he smashes Bessie’s face with a brick; he contemplates rape; he has no guilt for retribution against whites, no sympathy for religion or kindness. He is, as many critics have noted, one of the most despicable protagonists in literature. But Wright’s defenders also note that the absence of morality provides a vehicle for looking at the raw reality of Bigger’s world-a world that, for a part of his life, was Wright’s own reality. In the tradition of naturalistic fiction, Native Son examines the cruelty of nature’s indifference, and the evil that occurs because of humankind’s intervention. In spite of its positive ending, in which the reader understands that Bigger can die fulfilled because he has found his identity, the novel will offend everyone, which is its purpose.
Native Son is an extension of Wright’s work in Uncle Tom’s Children, and it is not difficult to imagine Bigger Thomas as a direct descendant of Big Boy from “Big Boy Leaves Home,” but Native Son is also a reaction against the sentiment of Wright’s earlier stories. Wright himself complained that Uncle Tom’s Children had been “a book even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about.” He wanted Native Son to “be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” Thus, he consciously worked to toughen his novel and the character of Bigger Thomas.