Tuesday, 8 August 2000

Richard Wright: Native Son (1940)

Edition: Picador, 1995
Review number: 567

The best word to describe this novel of black civil rights in the USA is grim. The main character, Bigger Thomas, has no hope, condemned by the inequalities of his upbringing as well as the prejudice he suffers from others. The resentment his inferior treatment causes leads him to a belligerent attitude when he can get away with it, and eventually to murder. A one-sided trial, only marginally more concerned with legality than the lynch mob outside the courthouse, sends him to the electric chair. Never given a chance, the closest he ever comes to feeling that he means anything is in a conversation with his lawyer who treats him like a person. The best his family can offer him is the Christianity that he sees as a consolation of the defeated, without dignity, and not offering him any real hope.

The novel is motivated in part by Wright's Communism, though even the Party does not escape criticism. Native Son deals with a serious and emotive subject, and is a campaigning novel, but Wright takes himself too seriously at times, becoming boring and preachy.

The worst part of the novel in this respect is the summing up made by the two lawyers at the end of the trial. The arguments given amount to emotive rhetoric; it is clear what both of them will say long beforehand. The establishment position put, of course, by the prosecutor, is barely rational, rather a travesty of what any competent lawyer would say (I hope). (The issue, but this point, is not the guilt of Thomas, but whether any mitigating circumstances could save him from the death penalty.) What he has to say is motivated mainly by the knowledge that a successful outcome to the trial (from his point of view) will inevitably boost the standing of conservative candidates in the imminent municipal elections.

By contrast, the best section of the book is the introduction, a straightforward essay (by Wright) explaining the origins of the character of Bigger Thomas. The journalistic retelling of events which influenced the formation of the character in Wright's mind is almost as effective as the whole novel in putting the case for civil rights, and has the definite merit of being a good deal shorter.

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