The beginning of Native Son we are introduced to Bigger, the main character in this novel by Richard Wright, he is a 20-year-old who lives with his family in a one-bedroom apartment, in the South Side of Chicago. During the beginning of this book, Bigger needs a job, and sets out to find something but has trouble finding the motivation. Soon Bigger finds a great job paying 25 dollars a week which is a considerably large amount for that time. Bigger had gotten a job working for Mr. Dalton, a very wealthy man, the main job duties are to drive him, his wife, and daughter around when they need to go somewhere. Working for the Daltons is a far cry from the one-bedroom he shares with his mom and siblings. But Bigger does not think things through, and this leads him to commit a terrible crime.
One of Biggers duties is to drive Mr. Dalton’s daughter, Mary, to and from college, while on his drive to drop Mary off she tells Bigger to take a different route and he soon realized that they were far from the college. Mary wanted to go out and have a good time, Bigger went along with it and they ended up with Mary’s friend Jan and went drinking, now sometimes drinking can be a good time but this was not one of those times. At the end of the night, Bigger is trying to get Mary into her house, into her room but Mary’s mom walks in, but she is blind so she didn’t know Bigger was in the room. Bigger then grabbed a pillow and put it over Mary’s face, suffocating her to the point where she dies. This was, of course, was never the plan but it happened, the only reason it happened was because of his extreme paranoia.
Book one is titled ‘fear’ and the fear is mostly Bigger’s. Certainly, his fears of invaded white territory are matched with his fears of never having a free territory of his own. A second source of Bigger’s fears come from his slightly inflated masculine ego and the concept of ‘Manhood’ is one of four major themes that Wright presents in Book One. Bigger detaches himself from his family’s misery, not because he doesn’t care about them, but because he knows that can’t support them. When his mother nags Bigger and questions his ‘manhood,’ her words spark one of the day’s refrains: in Doc’s pool room, in the theatre with Jack, in Dalton’s car and Mary’s bedroom, Bigger seeks opportunities to display and change his masculinity, usually unsuccessfully. While the episodes in the theatre and Mary’s bedroom were more sexually motivated, Bigger primary definition of ‘manhood’ is one of violence. He relies on his gun and knife as physical displays of his masculinity and even if most of Bigger’s violence stems from the racist hanging of his father and his present socio-economic condition, Bigger is biased towards displays of strength and oppression. Bigger is happiest when he is dangling the bloody corpse of a newly killed rat or frightening his weaker friends to tears. Bigger is more than a bully, for despite his oppression Bigger roots for tyrants and enjoys hearing stories of Japanese invasions and Hitler’s murderous oppression of the Jews. Bigger hopes to reassert his deflated manhood by tyrannizing those around him.
Book One’s second theme initiates a discussion of youth and innocence. Early on, we learn that Bigger is only twenty years old. One of Wright’s efforts in Book One, is to juxtapose Bigger’s favorite youthful activities with the grim adult activity that he unwittingly and then, knowingly commits at the end of book one. As much as Bigger has hardened himself into an adult, his criminal efforts end his youth in that they are educated by fantasy and not by reality. Bigger kills by accident and afterward, he tries to make something out of what he has done. Bigger does not want to rob Blum’s deli, but he perceives the heist as an adult thing to do. Even though the Daltons have offered him a nicer room, after burning Mary’s body, Bigger flees home to his bed with his brother, mother and sister surrounding. When Bigger wakes up in Book Two, he will be an adult and his ‘FLIGHT’ is an effort to escape the Chicago police and also an attempt to undo the adulthood that has been foisted upon him. Neither of these endeavors succeeds, of course, but Bigger is able to mature once he honestly assesses the ‘adulthood’ that has been forced upon him. Again, the title Native Son resonates in the loss of innocence that the ‘native son’ suffers.
Blindness is the third theme in Book One, and Wright’s initial treatment of ‘blindness’ is partially that use physically and spiritually blind characters to foreshadow tragedy and fuel tragic fate. Certainly, Mrs. Dalton fits within this rubric, as the only physically blind character in the novel. It is her blind presence that causes her daughter’s death and provides much of the suspense of Book One’s conclusion. Mrs. Dalton’s physical blindness is, of course, the physical manifestation of a ‘blindness that she shares with her husband, her daughter Mary, Jan and much of Wright’s America. Wright makes deliberate efforts to suggest that America is self-blinding, seeking to address the symptoms of racism while remaining deliberately incognizant of reality. Jan’s reverie at the lake, when he promises Bigger an ensuing revolution reflects a ‘lake view’ blindness that is as glaring as Mary’s insistence that Bigger join a labor union. And just as Bigger murmurs that his self-deluded family is blind to his reality that a job at the Daltons’ is not going to improve their economic condition he too, blinds himself with intense anger and rash acts of violence. All of Wright’s characters blind themselves, one way or another so that they do not have to look at life’s realities; and as a Naturalist, this blindness is just another one of the details that Wright uncovers.
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Finally, the theme of ‘territory’ is initiated in Book One and this will emerge as the most important theme of Book Two. In regards to the title of the novel, Wright is a little sarcastic in depicting Bigger as America’s ‘native son.’ While Wright wants to make the argument that Bigger is a creation that can only be created in American territory, he also argues that part of Bigger’s ‘native son-hood’ is being treated as a non-native creature. As a result, the ‘Black Belt’ ghetto of Chicago is what Bigger considers to be his ‘territory.’ All other areas of the planet excluding Harlem, but including Lake Michigan, the ditches of the US Army and the entire sky are part of what Bigger considers to be ‘alien, white world.’ Bigger tries to maintain the idea that the white world is ‘alien’ and that there is a fixed barrier between his space and the white space, but this construction proves faulty. Bigger is afraid to rob Blum because his deli is in a white neighborhood but afraid or not, Bigger must trek into a white neighborhood to collect his menial chauffeur job. If this does not prove the permeability of the ‘color line,’ the idea of fixed territories is surely destroyed when Bigger drives Jan and Mary into the Black Belt so that they can ‘play black’ at Ernie’s Kitchen Shack. In effect, Bigger is forced into a realization that the ‘territory’ that he considers his own, is not. The region to which black living space is confined is merely a ‘belt’ within the city and in a most literal sense, Bigger’s family continually faces eviction by the South Side Realty Company owned by their landlord, Mr. Dalton. The relationship between America and her ‘native son’ is little different from the medieval scheme that attached a feudal landlord to a throng of serfs. Trapped at home, in the streets and oddly enough, even while he is driving, Bigger has no ‘native’ territory and Wright’s effective thematic treatment of this question rightly reduces Bigger’s thoughts of ‘flight’ to the realm of impossibility.