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Free Study Guide: Native Son by Richard Wright - Free BookNotes

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Main Theme

The main theme of the novel is an argument that social conditions of deprivation motivate people to act in anti-social ways. Wright paints a clear picture of the impossible lives led by African-Americans in 1930s Chicago. They are forced into overcrowded, overpriced, and substandard housing, they are given such low-paying and transient employment that they cannot maintain a secure living, they are cut off from education, they are the victims of racist media misrepresentations that reduce their humanity and justify their further exploitation and deprivation, and they are blamed for all of their problems. When Bigger acts in an unfeeling way, killing and then disposing of the bodies of his victims, Wright argues that these are conditioned responses to overwhelming stimuli.

Minor Theme

A minor theme of the novel is in its relation between the social and economic disenfranchisement of African-Americans and the sexual mores of the time, which both prohibited African-American men from coming near or touching white women, thus inciting them to do so. Bigger is conditioned by the media images of white women as the most attractive and the most unattainable sexual objects. He is conditioned by the social taboo, which resulted in countless lynchings of African-American men for supposedly coming into sexual contact with European-American women. When he sees Mary Dalton, he is for the first time, in close contact with the repository of this contradictory message and instead of acting her part, holding her distance, Mary acts as his friend, and familiar. When he kills his girlfriend, Bessie, Bigger also acts out the logical extent of the conditioned relations between blacks and whites. Conditioned to regard her as less than precious, Bigger rapes, kills, and disposes of Bessie as if she were nothing to him.


The mood of the novel is melodramatic. It is written in the high emotional tone of high drama. Bigger is represented from the beginning as a victim of unremitting social forces. He never has a chance against them. The social system provides clear villains and unclear heroes and victims. The villains are the racists who hold power. The heroes are the communists who wish to redistribute wealth and establish and equality between rich and poor, black and white. The victims come from each of these groups.

Richard Wright - BIOGRAPHY

Richard Wright was born in Mississippi in 1908, a state which, according to Wright's biographer, was the most oppressive place in the country to be African-American. His father deserted his family and Wright was raised by his grandmother and mother. Like many poor families, the Wrights moved around during his childhood. He lived in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Wright graduated valedictorian in his class. He moved to Chicago and struggled to support himself with menial jobs. He joined the John Reed Club, a communist group. In the 1930s, the Reed Club sponsored Wright in his writing several short stories and essays. In 1937, Wright moved to New York to become the editor of the Communist Party publication, The Daily Worker. His first group of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), plays on the popular term for African-American men who accommodate themselves into a subservient position to white people. The protagonists of his short stories move from being Uncle Toms to positions of resistance to their place in a racist society.

A Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Wright to write Native Son, published in 1940. In 1944, Wright removed himself from the Communist Party. Wright wrote an autobiography, published in two volumes, Black Boy (1945) and American Hunger (1945). He died of a heart attack in France in 1960.


Richard Wright's novel Native Son challenged the dominant stereotypes of African-Americans. It also described how these stereotypes were perpetuated and whose interests they served. It was immediately popular, selling a quarter of a million copies in its first month of publication. Wright re-wrote it for the stage in 1941.

In Native Son, Wright adapts the literary naturalism, a school of literature in which the environment, rather than the individual will, determines the outcome of characters' lives. Naturalism applies sociology to literature. In fact, in the nineteenth century, scientists were called naturalists. Literary naturalism attempts to describe the determinism of a particular social environment in shaping characters' lives. The height of literary naturalism was in the 1890s, years before Wright wrote his novel; however its idea of the role of the novel to critique society fits perfectly with the kind of social analysis Wright would have learned as a member of the Communist Party.

In simple terms, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels theorized that literature reflects and sustains the material life of a society. To apply this theory to Wright's use of the novel and of literary naturalism, we would notice that the material conditions of Bigger Thomas's life--what he ate, how he paid the rent, what kind of work he did--determined his ideas. Moreover, the material conditions of Mr. Dalton's life determined his ideas as well. Both Bigger Thomas and Mr. Dalton are blind to the connection between Dalton's wealth and Thomas's poverty. The power of the ruling class is maintained when the working class is kept in ignorance. The conscience of the ruling class is eased when its members address the economic problems of a mass of people with individualistic charity. Richard Wright uses his novel to enlighten his readers of the connection between wealth and poverty. He does so by showing the connection between the images of the stereotyped brutish African-Americans and the sophisticated whites and the reality of that unjust gap in wealth.

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