Marxist Criticism of the Characters in Richard Wright's Native Son Essay

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Marxist Criticism "Native Son"

A Marxist Interpretation of Richard Wright's Native Son

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In Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, it is stated that history is a series of class struggles over the means of production. That is to say that whoever controls the means of production also controls society and is able to force their beliefs onto the lower class. It is clear from reading the first few chapters of Richard Wright's Native Son that Bigger is a part of this lower class Marx spoke of. Early on in the book Bigger states, "They get a chance to do everything…it's funny how the white folks treat us, ain't it?" (Wright 16-17). There is not a blatant mentioning of communism in the beginning of Native Son, but from the very beginning, the reader gets the sense that Bigger is working against something much larger than himself -- a capitalist society where alienation is the result of widespread oppression of blacks. Bigger certainly desires a better life just like the rich, white people, but discrimination is much too rampant and Bigger could only improve his situation, it seems, if he were white. Gus says, "If you wasn't black and you had some money and if they'd let you go to aviation school, you could fly a plane" (17). From a Marxist perspective, these words are indicative of the capitalist structure that keeps Bigger and his people in a hard-working, poor-paying proletariat class. This paper will analyze Native Son using a Marxist perspective of criticism, attempting to show how Wright was clearly sending a message about the ills of capitalism.

Wright's novel is shaped to a certain extent by his own experiences with the Communist Party of the U.S., first in Chicago and then in Harlem (Grinnell 145), but whatever commitment to the Party Wright may have felt in the early 1930s is hardened at the end of the decade by his depiction of the nightmare of Bigger Thomas' life (145).

TOPIC: Essay on Marxist Criticism of the Characters in Richard Wright's Native Son Assignment

For in writing Native Son Wright imagines a Communism in the United States that quite capable reproduces processes of social dehumanization that exile Bigger into the shadowy role of what Wright once ironically referred to as 'the Negro's uncertain position in America' (Grinnell 145).

The very first notion of communist ideology in Native Son is brought to light when we meet Jan Erlone, the lover of Mary Dalton, who works for the Labor Defender office and who also happens to be white. Jan, Mary and Bigger eat dinner in a one of Bigger's haunts and Jan doesn't feel out of place. For Mary, the dinner is important because it gives her the chance to see if black people live how she does.

'We know so little about each other. I just want to see. I want to know these people. Never in my life have I been inside of a Negro home. Yet they must like we live. They're human…There are twelve million of them… They live in our country… in the same city with us' (Wright 70).

This passage from Native Son illustrating Mary's curiosity is important for her as well as for the reader it seems. It is a way for the reader to also confirm that African-Americans are human. The way that Wright italicizes "human" suggests that there is some uncertainty about what that actually means. "Whether Bigger is imagined by Communism to be a living corpse, ghost, or a worker, the question remains, is he human?" (Grinnell 162).

Jan and Mary treat Bigger just as they would any friend, regardless of the fact that Bigger is black and refuses to allow Bigger to say "yessuh" to them, which shocks Bigger in a way that confounds him rather than pleases him. Jan gives Bigger some pamphlets on the Communist Party and explains to him, "After the revolution it'll be ours…There'll be no white and no black; there'll be no rich and no poor" (Wright 68). Jan wants to show Bigger that there can be a way for blacks and whites to have equality, but it is only through communism that it can be achieved. Bigger is surprised by the kindness with which Mary and Jan treat him, though he is not comfortable with their kindness. The mere idea of a friendship with a white person is something that makes Bigger quite uncomfortable. He sees Jan and Mary and their actions as being a bit crazy. His confusion and unease with Jan and Mary's benevolence quickly turns to feelings of anger and intense loathing for them.

Marx's theory of alienation, which is a result of capitalism, is when people are alienated from aspects of their human nature (Marx 11). Bigger is so caught up with the differences between blacks and whites that he has become alienated and the thought of having white friends is detestable to him. Bigger's killing of Mary is not something intentional, but it is a direct result of this alienation that he feels. Bigger never regrets what happened; he actually sees it as some kind of personal success and he tries to benefit from the whole thing by faking a kidnapping. Bigger's loathing has completely colored his sense of morality, which is what Marx stated happens when a capitalist society alienates people.

Despite the fact that Bigger has killed the woman Jan loved, Jan decides to help Bigger after he is arrested by introducing him to his Communist lawyer friend, Boris Max. Though Bigger's conviction seems certain given the historical weight of those charges and contemporary practices of legal-lynching (Grinnell 145), there is quite significant importance given to Bigger's trial. "…Max offers an impassioned and complexly rendered portrayal of racial discrimination in the United States. Max examines the ways in which charges of rape policed and sanctioned violence against African-Americans" (145-146). He states that the 'hunt for Bigger Thomas served as an excuse to terrorize the entire Negro population, to arrest hundreds of Communists, to raid labor union headquarters and workers' organizations' (Wright 356).

Wright speaks of ghosts when discussing the trials in Native Son. In the conclusion of his defense of Bigger, Max attempts to understand those 'disembodied spirits' (Wright 366) like Bigger and Bessie by "employing rhetoric of ghosts… Indeed, placing Bigger among the 'wailing ghosts' of Chicago's South Side during the Depression, Wright's Communists imagine the life of Bigger Thomas to be nothing less than spectacular than the life of a 'corpse' (Grinnell 146-147). Wright solemnly notes, however, that Bigger will potentially always come back to haunt "our souls in the deep of the black night" (Wright 361).

Max's words form an impassioned rhetoric that is as severe an indictment of racism in America as it is a complicated performance of such strategies of dehumanization by the Communist Party in the United States. Max's other-worldly rhetoric of corpses and ghosts renders Bigger strangely and complexly present and absent at the same time, seemingly hovering between two worlds unable to be either full visible or invisible (Grinnell 147).

At one point in Native Son, Jan and Mary insist that Bigger show them life on the South Side of Chicago. For Wright, how a person speaks and how a person lives may be that which "most irreducibly separates white communists from their black comrades' (Grinnell 161). This scene depicting a sort of cultural exchange shows a noteworthy contribution to Wright's interest in the possible limitations of interracial class affiliations (161).

Wright creates a very specific image of the type of lives African-Americans were forced to lead. They are pushed into crowded housing that is over-priced and is substandard. They are given jobs that last for little time and they pay very little so they have no way of making a good living or living in a place that is not substandard. African-Americans are also cut off from education as well as being the victims of racist media misrepresentation that lessen their humanity and warrant their further exploitation and deprivation. Marx would have argued that when Bigger kills Mary and then gets rid of her body without any sort of remorse, he is only acting in a way that he has been conditioned to act.

Bigger Thomas is of the poorest class without pretense to a sophisticated education or anything more than basic reading. "Bigger is occasionally cunning, but there is little that is subtle about his intelligence or refined about his emotions. Knowing almost nothing about books or serious magazines, intellectually he is an easy prey to fantasies concocted by Hollywood for the gullible" (Rampersad xi). In Cruse's book, the Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership, he states that the works of Marx and Engels were not written for the proletariat, but rather, they were written for the intelligentsia -- the class that interpreted Marx to the proletariat (182). This idea makes it difficult to imagine that Bigger, no matter how hard he tried, could understand the propaganda that Jan and Mary were trying to deliver to him.


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Marxist Criticism of the Characters in Richard Wright's Native Son.  (2010, December 7).  Retrieved November 27, 2021, from

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"Marxist Criticism of the Characters in Richard Wright's Native Son."  December 7, 2010.  Accessed November 27, 2021.