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Native Son

Richard Wright

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

In what ways does Wright portray Bigger’s day-to-day existence as a prison, even before his arrest and trial?

The crowded, rat-infested apartment Bigger shares with his brother, sister, and mother is, in a sense, a prison cell. Bigger is imprisoned in the urban ghetto by racist rental policies. Likewise, his own consciousness is a prison, as a sense of failure, inadequacy, and unrelenting fear pervades his entire life. Racist white society, Bigger’s mother, and even Bigger himself all believe that he is destined to meet a bad end. Bigger’s relentless conviction that he faces an inevitably disastrous fate indicates his feeling that he has absolutely no control over his life. Society permits him access only to menial jobs, poor housing, and little or no opportunity for education—on the whole, he has no choice but a substandard life.

2.

Describe the real estate practices that were applied to black families in Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s. With these practices in mind, why is Mr. Dalton—an avowed philanthropist toward blacks—a hypocrite?

Although ample housing was available in most sections of 1930s Chicago, white property owners imposed agreements that enabled blacks to rent apartments only on the city’s South Side. These limitations created an artificial housing shortage, allowing landlords to increase rents on the South Side despite the deplorable conditions of many of their buildings. Mr. Dalton has earned much of his fortune from such racist rental policies, which he considers customary and does not even think to consider unethical. In this manner, Mr. Dalton contributes significantly toward the social disparities that terrify, oppress, and enrage blacks such as Bigger. Given his actions, Mr. Dalton’s charitable donations to the black community are merely meaningless tokens—condescending and patronizing gestures. Mr. Dalton expresses his so-called benevolence by giving Bigger a menial job, but, as Max says, Dalton does so only in an attempt to erase the guilt he feels for his role in oppressing blacks in the first place.

3.

Describe Jan and Mary’s attitude toward race relations. In what ways does their more subtle racism resemble the more overt prejudice of other whites?

To Jan and Mary, breaking social taboos is a thrill. They derive an odd satisfaction from eating in a black restaurant with Bigger. They clearly want to experience “blackness,” yet come nowhere near an understanding of the frustration and hopelessness that constitutes blackness for Bigger. Mary and Jan are, in effect, merely entertaining themselves by slumming in the ghetto with Bigger. Like the Daltons, then, they are blind to the social reality of blackness. Moreover, Mary uses the same language that racists such as Peggy use to describe black Americans. When talking to Bigger, Mary uses the phrase “your people” and refers to black Americans as “they” and “them.” Her language implies that there is an alien, foreign aura to black Americans, that they are somehow a separate, essentially different class of human beings. Mary’s remark about “our country” is also telling, as it indicates that she assigns ownership of America to white people in her mind. In the act of claiming that “[t]hey’re human,” Mary still maintains a psychological division between white and black Americans. Although she briefly seems to recognize Bigger’s feelings, she still has not reached the point at which she can say, “We’re human.”

4.

How does Bigger’s desperate flight from the police symbolize his existence as a whole?

The manhunt, which is conducted entirely by whites, literally corrals Bigger in an shrinking cross-section of Chicago. “Whiteness” pursues Bigger through an intense building-by-building search of the entire South Side. Like a cornered rat, Bigger desperately moves within this ever shrinking square, trying to evade the “whiteness” that has, in a sense, cornered and corralled him his entire life. This “whiteness” has always pursued Bigger, policed him, and stood ready to punish him if he crosses the “line.” The snowstorm that rages during the manhunt is a literal symbol of this metaphorical “whiteness,” surrounding and crippling Bigger by preventing him from leaving the city. Like the waves of white men searching for him, the snow falls relentlessly around Bigger, locking him in place. Literally and symbolically, “whiteness” falls on Bigger’s head with the power of a natural disaster.

5.

As Wright portrays it, how does the psychology of racial prejudice contribute to Bigger’s transformation into a murderer and a criminal?

In killing a white woman, Bigger does what the white American majority has always feared he might do. The whites are convinced that he raped Mary first—a violation of the ultimate social taboo that separates black men from white women. In an effort to keep Bigger from doing what they have feared, the empowered majority of whites have narrowed the boundaries of his existence and kept him in constant fear. Instead of ensuring his submission, however, this confinement has caused Bigger to respond to his overwhelming fear of “whiteness” by doing exactly what the empowered majority always feared he would do. In response to his crime, the white-dominated press and authorities incite mob hatred against him. They portray Bigger as bestial, inhuman rapist and killer of white women. This viciously racist portrayal of Bigger—and the white mob fury it engenders—gives the whites a justification to terrorize all of the South Side in an attempt to frighten the entire black community. In this chain of events, Wright depicts the irrational logic of racism, effectively a vicious cycle that reproduces itself over and over again.

6.

Is Bigger’s trial a fair one? In Wright’s portrayal, how does racism affect the American judicial process? What role does the media play in determining popular conceptions of justice?

Bigger’s trial is unfair from the start, and it is clear that the proceedings are merely a spectacle. Bigger’s guilt and punishment are decided before his trial ever begins, perhaps even before he is arrested. The newspapers do not refer to him as the suspect or the accused, but rather as the “Negro Rapist Murderer.” There is no question that Bigger will be sentenced to death. Nonetheless, the public still feels the need to go through the motions of justice. The public may desire to build a wall of hysteria surrounding Bigger in order to justify its racist stereotypes, yet it also attempts to deny its racism by creating the illusion of equal treatment under the law. As Max argues later, there is a component of guilt in this hateful hysteria, as it represents an attempt on the part of the empowered majority to deny its responsibility in Bigger’s crimes. The illusion of equality under the law disguises the economic inequality that has condemned Bigger to a hopeless, impoverished urban ghetto and a series of menial low-wage jobs. Edward Robertson, an editor of the Jackson Daily Star, states that keeping the black population in constant fear ensures its submission. However, as Bigger’s life demonstrates, this constant fear actually causes violence. In this sense, the empowered majority sows the seeds of minority violence in the very act of trying to quell it.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Describe the psychological and behavioral change that overcomes Bigger during the interview with Mr. Dalton. Why does he change in the presence of Mr. Dalton? In what way is it significant that Bigger goes to the movies before going to the Daltons’?

2. What are some of the real historical events that occur or are mirrored in Native Son? How does Wright weave these events into his fictional narrative, and how does this technique affect the novel as a whole?

3. What role does imagery of vision and sight play in Native Son? Think especially of Mrs. Dalton’s blindness and Bigger’s murder of Mary.

4. How does popular culture serve as a form of indoctrination throughout Native Son?

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by owobusingye, January 17, 2014

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