Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Native Son - Richard Wright

Native Son
Title: Native Son
Author: Richard Wright
Publication Date: 1940
Pages: 520
Genre: Classic / Historical / Fiction
How I Found It: 100 Best Novels list
Date Completed: 3/2/16

Summary: Bigger's new job as a driver for a wealthy white family is his attempt to start life on the straight and narrow. When things take a quick downturn, however, he finds himself on the run.

What I Thought: I enjoyed this book. I mainly listened to it as an audiobook, which proved a great way to maintain the suspense of Bigger's fate. No glancing ahead in that medium! Of course, Wright does a good job all on his own of creating suspense. Once Bigger commits the pivotal act (I'm going to try not to spoil some of the plot points as I think not knowing made the book more enjoyable), Wright keeps readers on the edge of their seat. I loved that the three parts of the book were entitled "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate." That so perfectly captured Bigger's journey in both practical and existential ways. 

The big question of the book is whether Bigger's fate was inevitable. Did he very birth doom him to such a path and an ending? While things get preachy at the end (Bigger's defense lawyer delivers a fantastically long closing argument), Wright's story did make me think a lot about this topic. Thought the book was written over 75 years ago, so many of its principles are relevant today - a fact which I think would make Wright sad, but not surprised. We still face enormous divides between races, classes, and political parties in our country. To whom and where you are born determines much of your opportunities and advantages long before you understand the world. Wright uses Communist party members to argue against these inevitabilities, particularly for African Americans. This is particularly interesting as, of this writing, socialistic candidate Bernie Sanders is using much of the same rhetoric to gain voters.

The story made me think a lot about education, too, and how we interpret the world differently depending on our level of education. This is one of those things which is often determined for you based on your birth although now, unlike for Bigger, the ability to educate yourself is much more available because of the internet. Wright paints Bigger as a largely uneducated character; he's not very bright and definitely does not know how to quit while he's ahead. He seems to lack a lot of the critical thinking that I'm trying to teach my students: logic, rationality, etc. This, we can presume, is a result of little education and low expectations for his life - at least in part. This mentality, however, so drastically influences how he acts and carries himself and even understands his own predicament. There were so many moments when I wanted to reach into the pages and shake him for his stupidity, but I understood I only could see the problems because of my own experiences and education. It's a catch-22 and one that I found fascinating to think about throughout the novel. This particularly perspective and thought process is, no doubt, a direct result of my teacher brain, but it's one I definitely enjoyed.

The book is well written and definitely one that should be more widely read. As I read, I realized it would be a wonderful text to use in a literature course someday, should I ever have the pleasure of teaching one. It's messaging, so poignant so long ago, is still so relevant.

Rating: ★★★★☆
Will I Re-Read: Possible. I could see myself using this in a literature course someday.

A Reduced Review: Wright's uses good storytelling and great writing to discuss serious political and socio-economic inequalities; it's a bit preachy at points, but still enjoyable and thought-provoking.


  1. I feel like you got a lot more out of the book than I did. I read it for class when I was 15, and hated it. I don't think I was at all mature enough for it. Maybe I should reread it when I'm out of college.

    1. I definitely can relate. Since college, I've tried to go back and reread some of the books I hated in high school. Some I've come to appreciate and love in a way I never would have been able to at a younger age. Some, like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, I still hate.