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Native Son

An American Tragedy, his

a novel by Richard Wright, published in 1940. Bigger Thomas, a black youth from the ratinfested squalor of Chicago's South Side ghetto, is hired as chauffeur by the wealthy white Dalton family. Late the first night, having been coerced into socializing with his employers' daughter Mary and her communist boyfriend, he has to help the intoxicated girl to her bedroom; when blind Mrs Dalton appears, Bigger, terrified of being discovered, accidentally smothers Mary while trying to keep her quiet. In a series of desperate stratagems, he stuffs her body into the basement furnace, fakes a misleading kidnap note, hides out briefly, and brutally murders his own girlfriend Bessie before he is hunted down. At the trial, his communist attorney blames society, arguing that the crimes were an inevitable outcome of racial and economic oppression. The prosecution's inflammatory case, however, secures a conviction, and Bigger is sentenced to death. A landmark of black American fiction, the novel has been variously regarded as social protest in the deterministic mode of Dreiser's An American Tragedy, as a blistering manifesto of race hostility, as communist propaganda, and as an existential drama of self-realization. While the use of contemporary court records and newspaper reports, the tense foreshadowing of inexorable destiny, and the grimly realized urban landscape reflect Wright's literary naturalism, it was his Marxist ideology which shaped an understanding of Bigger's behaviour as both typical and predictable, given the material and psychic stresses of a dehumanizing environment. Since this analysis underpins the argument of Bigger's defence counsel, it is often assumed that the trial scene is a vehicle for Wright's own communist conclusions. But the novel's central perspective is Bigger's, and ultimately it is his reality, rather than his lawyer's interpretations, which Wright endorses. Refusing all socio-political excuses and explanations, Bigger embraces his monstrous violence as the affirmation of a long-suppressed identity: ‘What I killed for, I am.’ If this anticipates the existential themes of Wright's later work, it also embodies, as his preface warns, a more immediate social truth: ‘the moral horror of Negro life in the United States’.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Mr Polly to New France