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

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BOOK 3 -"Fate"

Notes

Several times in the novel, Wright explores a parallel of the situation in the modern United States to the situation of Christ of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Book II ends with Bigger on the ground in the posture of the crucified Christ. Both of his arms are spread apart and pinned to the ground. In Book III, Jan acts as a Christ-figure when he goes into Bigger's jail cell and forgives him of his lie which threatened Jan's life. Jan says he wishes he could die for Bigger, that he feels responsible for the sufferings of millions of African - Americans. When Mr. Dalton comes into the interview room where Bigger is held, he tells Max and Jan that he cannot understand what they want of him. He asks them surely they do not want him to die and atone for the injustices of others who came before him. When Bigger sees his family, he thinks for a moment that they should feel relieved and contented because he has stood in for them and taken away the blame from them. However, when he finds out that Vera has lost her chance at her sewing school because of his actions, he realizes that he had never been alone, that he had always been a part of a family. The reader wonders what to make of all these scattered references to Christ's life and suffering on the cross as an atonement for the sins of humanity.


In light of Wright's critique of religion as an irrelevant and even dangerous method for dealing with the oppression of African-American people and poor people, these references must be read broadly. Wright seems to be adapting the story of Christ to the present-day circumstances of racist oppression in the United States. Anyone who stands up to the scorn of the masses is acting Christ-like. Anyone who takes on her or his shoulders the weight of other people's mistakes is Christlike. Wright seems to be calling for the kind of love of others and the sacrifice of self that the Christ figure embodies.

In Max's plea for Bigger's life, Wright places all the dominant themes of the novel. Max speaks for Bigger. He describes the overall system of race and class oppression in the United States. In combining a critique of race and class oppression, Wright complicates the issue of racism to something much larger and deeper than individual prejudice. Max describes all the institutions of power in the country, the press, the courts, the legal system, the psychiatric profession, the housing market, the entertainment industry, and other institutions as colluding in keeping people poor. For Max, race is used in the service of class oppression. The ideology of racism is useful to capitalism in Wright's theory. In order to exploit workers to the fullest extent, capitalism divides them up into racial groups and pays one group less than the other. In order to keep the workers from uniting against the owners of industry, the workers are convinced that their true enemies are other workers. In order that they never find out the contrary, they are kept strictly separate in housing, in work, and even in prison. Through the voice of the communist attorney Max, Wright critiques the larger system of oppression that he sees as having acted on people like Bigger to make them do the seemingly insane things they do.

Bigger is an inarticulate protagonist. Wright uses Max in the novel to speak for Bigger. Bigger barely conceives of his position in society. His imprisonment and trail take him a long way in understanding himself in relation to his larger society, but even at the end, Bigger has not reached full self-realization. In the last conversation he has with Max, he tries to tell Max how important Max's words have been to him. Bigger has been denied a voice in this society. He has not been given the education or even the basic language of self-determination, self-assertion, and self-pride. He certainly has not been given the kind of education Max has which would allow him to distinguish the truth of the society from the ideology that hides that truth. Nevertheless, he speaks in the end and he speaks a truth that Max cannot fully know. Max is utterly disturbed by Bigger's continuing to claim that the murders were worth all the cost. In depicting this split in perception between Max and Bigger in the end, Wright does something very important. He avoids casting the white as the one masterfully speaking for the brutish and transparent African-American. In the end, the European American cannot know the perception of the African - American because he has not had his experience. Even so, self-realization is denied Bigger at the end, the final tragedy of his life.


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