Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Throughout Native Son, Wright depicts popular culture—as conveyed through films, magazines, and newspapers—as a major force in American racism, constantly bombarding citizens with images and ideas that reinforce the nation’s oppressive racial hierarchy. In films such as the one Bigger attends in Book One, whites are depicted as glamorous, attractive, and cultured, while blacks are portrayed as jungle savages or servants. Wright emphasizes that this portrayal is not unique to the film Bigger sees, but is replicated in nearly every film and every magazine. Not surprisingly, then, both blacks and whites see blacks are inferior brutes—a view that has crippling effects on whites and absolutely devastating effects for blacks. Bigger is so influenced by this media saturation that, upon meeting the Daltons, he is completely unable to be himself. All he can do is act out the role of the subservient black man that he has seen in countless popular culture representations. Later, Wright portrays the media as one of the forces that leads to Bigger’s execution, as the sensationalist press stirs up a furor over his case in order to sell newspapers. The attention prompts Buckley, the State’s Attorney, to hurry Bigger’s case along and seek the death penalty. Wright scatters images of popular culture throughout Native Son, constantly reminding us of the extremely influential role the media plays in hardening already destructive racial stereotypes.
Religion appears in Native Son mostly in relation to Bigger’s mother and Reverend Hammond. Bigger’s mother relies on her religion as a source of comfort in the face of the crushing realities of life on the South Side. Bigger, however, compares his mother’s religion with Bessie’s whiskey drinking—an escapist pastime with no inherent value. At times, Bigger wishes he were able to enjoy the comfort religion brings his mother, but he cannot shake his longing for a life in this world. When Reverend Hammond gives Bigger a cross to wear while he is in prison, Bigger equates the cross with the crosses that are burned during racist rituals. In making this comparison, Wright suggests that even the moral province of Christianity has been corrupted by racism in America.
Wright’s portrayal of communism throughout Native Son, especially in the figures of Jan and Max, is one of the novel’s most controversial aspects. Wright was still a member of the Communist Party at the time he wrote this novel, and many critics have argued that Max’s long courtroom speech is merely an attempt on Wright’s part to spread communist propaganda. While Wright uses communist characters and imagery in Native Son generally to evoke a positive, supportive tone for the movement, he does not depict the Party and its efforts as universally benevolent. Jan, the only character who explicitly identifies himself as a member of the Party, is almost comically blind to Bigger’s feelings during Book One. Likewise, Max, who represents the Party as its lawyer, is unable to understand Bigger completely. In the end, Bigger’s salvation comes not from the Communist Party, but from his own realization that he must win the battle that rages within himself before he can fight any battles in the outside world. The changes that Wright identifies must come not from social change, but from individual effort.