2007: 23. Native Son


An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked.  A woman’s voice sang out impatiently:

‘Bigger, shut that thing off!’ ”

Native Son, Richard Wright

This book was not at all what I had expected. I went into it knowing almost nothing about it, and as such, was shocked when the story went from telling the tale of a small time criminal to a brutal murder.  It is a quite a book - the story of how Bigger Thomas does such a terrible thing, and how the act of committing murder is the one thing that finally makes him connect to society is extremely powerful, all the more because it seems true, and extremely important today (50+ years after the book was written).  This is the best kind of novel of ideas, the kind of book that makes you really question why society is the way it is, and whether it couldn’t be better.  It is depressing that the same problems that led Bigger to kill (racism, grinding poverty, generally aimlessness and worthlessness) have changed so little, and if you want insight into why so many young people throw their lives away, this is the book to read.  It can be a little preachy and talky (as all novels of ideas are), but what it has to say is pretty damn powerful.

Below is a passage that struck me - where Wright lays out what the first part of the books is about.  Bigger has been arrested for his crime:

“Having been thrown by an accidental murder into a position where he sensed a possible order and meaning in his relations with the people about him; having accepted the moral guilt and responsibility for the murder because it had made him feel free for the first time in his life; having felt in his heart some obscure need to be at home with people and having demanded ransom money to enable him to do it -- having done all this and failed, he chose not to struggle any more.”

Pg. 255-56, Modern Library Edition.

The only remaining question for Bigger is, even jailed and condemned, are there still things worth struggling for?  

Recommend for: People who want to understand crime and race and poverty in America, people who want to try to do something about those things.

Date/Place Completed: 02/18/07, D.C.

Categories: Fiction; Modern Library Top 100

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017