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.
The most striking characteristic of Wright’s method in Native Son is the stylistic shift in the last third of the novel. “Fear” and “Flight” are driven by violent, fast-paced action and terse, concrete prose that has been called some of the best suspense writing in American literature, but “Fate” is static, and Wright’s prose moves toward the formality of exposition, explaining rather than showing the reasons for Bigger’s behavior. This final section is often openly propagandistic, as Wright uses Boris Max to articulate the theoretical basis for Bigger’s rebellion. In effect, “Fate” is as much an explication of what has preceded it as it is a conclusion to the narrative.
Called the black version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Native Son more closely resembles the naturalistic works of Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis than did Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright’s previous book. Bigger’s willful violence makes him at best an anti-hero, and any hope for improvement seems remote. Wright’s careful documentation of Bigger’s condition and his reproduction of newspaper accounts are reminiscent of the popular social novels written by John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and James T. Farrell. At its worst moments, Native Son echoes the cold, analytical prose of much proletarian literature.