Sep 15, 2009, 5:33 AM
Author: Richard Wright
Publisher and Date of publication: First published in 1940 by Victor Gollancz. Reissued in 2000 by Vintage Paperback; 454 pages
Richard Wright's masterpiece Native Son is divided into three parts - Fear, Flight and Fate. All the three parts are interconnected by the story of Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of the novel. The firstborn in a single-parent family of three children, Bigger lives in a rat-infested one-room apartment with his family in the slums of Chicago - the Black Belt. Unlike his religious mother and two siblings, Bigger takes to a life of crime. As a teenager, his petty stealing lands him in trouble with the law. And when he is released from the reform school, he is sent to Mr Dalton, a white millionaire philanthropist, to work as a chauffeur.
He is reluctant to take up the offer, but due to incessant nagging by his mother he accepts the job all the same. On his first day at work, he is asked to drive Mary Dalton, the only child of the Daltons, to the university. On the way, the wild and high spirited Mary changes her mind and asks Bigger to drive her elsewhere to meet her boyfriend, Jan Erlone of the Communist Party. They all eat and drink in the Black Belt until about 2 o'clock in the morning of the next day, when they leave for home.
When Jan gets off to see a friend, it is left for Bigger to help the drunken Mary up into her room. As he is settling Mary down in her bed, Mrs Dalton who is blind gropes her way into the room. Fearing that Mrs Dalton could suspect him of trying to rape her daughter, he gags Mary with a pillow. He applies so much pressure that Mary suffocates. He tries to cover up his unwitting murder by beheading Mary and then throwing her corpse into the family furnace.
Later in the day, the Daltons assume that Mary has already left for Detroit, as she had planned. So Bigger is asked to take her trunk to the station. It is when Jan calls to find out whether Mary is still at home that the family suspects that something is wrong. Then the search for her begins in earnest.
At first, nobody suspects Bigger of being the villain, especially after he has lied that he brought both Mary and Jan home in the night. It is when a journalist offers to help him clear the furnace of coal that a bone is found. Another journalist who has some training in medicine confirms it as a human bone. Afraid that he has been found out, Bigger takes to his heels. In the course of his flight, he unwittingly kills his girlfriend Bessie Mears as he fears that she may blab on him.
He is then arraigned before the court on a two-count charge of rape and murder. Ironically, it is Jan that he has tried to nail who asks his communist friend Mr Max to defend him in court. Though Max gives a spirited defence, he loses out in the end.
A literary critic says, "In this ideologically driven novel, Wright presents welfare-state liberalism, which for the rich, white Dalton of the novel, represents a mere mask for exploitative power and maintaining the status quo of keeping black families like Bigger Thomas's poor and huddled in ghettos."
This novel is worth reading, particularly in the light of the recent political advancement in the United States of America ? the election of Barack Obama, an African American, as the 44th president of the United States. It gives the reader an insight into the race relations in America.
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