Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
By frequently reminding us of the problem of his physical hunger, Wright emphasizes his hunger for other things as well—for literature, artistic expression, and engagement in social and political issues. Though there are indeed many instances in the novel when Richard does physically hunger for food, he eventually concludes that food is not as important as the other problems facing the world. He asserts that the world needs unity more than it needs to cure physical ills. Both Richard and the world have a more important need: understanding of and connection with one another. Physical hunger is merely a symbol of the larger emptiness Richard’s brutal, inhumane life causes him to feel. Throughout the autobiography he exhibits a strong desire to carve out a richer, more satisfying existence by connecting with the world around him. Just as literal hunger works to undo itself by making a person want to eat, so the motif of hunger works in Black Boy. Richard’s greater emotional and intellectual hunger serves as a sort of literary magnet that pulls us through the story, making us just as anxious to see Richard succeed as he is.
Throughout the text, Richard seeks out reading with a passion that resembles a physical appetite. Indeed, these two sensations—the desire to read and the desire to eat—are closely allied. At times, this alliance breaks down and the two sensations flow together. In Chapter 5, for example, Richard catches the smell of meat frying in a neighbor’s kitchen while he is reading. From his bookish daydreams, Richard drifts into a fantasy of having plenty of meat to eat. There is also the image, in Chapter 15, of Richard simultaneously devouring food and Proust’s novel A Remembrance of Things Past, hoping to flesh out his body and his writing. It is as if Proust is part of Richard’s weight-gaining plan. This blurring of literary and physical appetite is most explicit when Richard remarks, “I lived on what I did not eat,” suggesting that, at some level, reading takes the place of food. As such, reading works as a counterpoint to the motif of hunger in the novel. While hunger represents the spiritual and emotional emptiness within Richard, reading represents Richard’s bread and water, giving him the energy he needs to persevere.
Richard is cursed, beaten, or slapped every time he stands up to Granny, Addie, or other elders, regardless of how justified he may be in doing so. When whites believe Richard is behaving unacceptably in their presence, they berate, slap, or manipulate him; in one instance, they smash a whiskey bottle in his face. When Richard acts out of line with the Communist Party, they denounce him and attempt to sabotage his career. Clearly, then, violence—which here means all the abuse, physical or mental, that Richard suffers—is a constant presence in Black Boy. Violence looms as an almost inevitable consequence when Richard asserts himself, both in the family and in society.
However, violence takes over Richard’s mind as well. Richard learns that he must demonstrate his violent power in order to gain respect and acceptance at school. Additionally, he reacts to his family’s violent, overbearing treatment with violence of his own, wielding a knife against Addie, burning down the house, and so on. More broadly, violence infects the black community in general, whether from within or from the white community’s imposed violence.
Perhaps the most important violent sequence in the novel occurs when Olin makes Richard and Harrison suspect each other of murderous intentions. Even though they acknowledge to each other that they mean each other no harm, they cannot escape the reality that the racist culture demands they fight viciously. One root of this violence between Richard and Harrison is Olin’s feigned friendship toward each of the men. Thus, we come to see that violence in a racist world often goes beyond physical attacks.