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Symbolism In Native Son Essay, Research Paper
The novel Native Son was published by Richard Wright
in 1940. The book represents the tragedy of Bigger Thomas,
a black boy raised in the Chicago slums during the great
depression. Wright uses symbolism extensively in the novel.
There is even symbolic meaning behind the titles of each of
the three parts of the novel. It is symbolism that allows
Wright to explain the entire novel in the first few pages.
Even though symbols are widely used in the novel, there are
only three that are very important. The three most
important symbols are the black rat, blindness, and the
One of the major symbols in Native Son is the black
rat in the first chapter of the novel. The rat symbolizes
the fate, feelings, and actions of the main character. The
parallels between the rat and Bigger Thomas are
unmistakable. The black rat is seen as an invader and is
killed. The same eventually happens to Bigger later in the
novel (Lee 50).
Robert Lee argues that the black rat is symbolic of
several things. According to Lee, one symbolic function of
the black rat is that it sets up a motif that resonates
throughout the novel. The rat points forward to the figure
Bigger himself will become, the part-real, part-fantasy
denizen of a grotesque counter Darwinian world in which
human life-his own, Mary?s, Bessie?s-seems to evolve
backward into rodent predation and death. Whether in
pursuit or the pursued, Bigger becomes damned either way,
just as he victimizes others while doubling as both his own
and society?s victim. These inner meanings of the novel
also lie behind Wright?s three-part partition of fear,
flight, and fate (Lee 51).
Secondly, the rat is symbolic of the terrified
helplessness of the Thomas family and Bigger?s response to
it: ?The rat?s belly pulsed with fear. Bigger advanced a
step and the rat emitted a long thin song of defiance.?
Bigger crushes the rat utterly and, in triumphant bravado,
flaunts the bloody corpse in his sister?s face, enjoying
her terror. Lee recognizes the significance of this
episode of fear, rage, and violent action. He states that
the entire novel is an extension, with the roles inverted
of this chilling metaphor (Lee 58).
Finally, the killing of the rat is symbolic of
Bigger?s attempt to assert himself as someone important.
Lee argues that Bigger actually hated his family. He hated
them because he knew that they were suffering and that he
was powerless to help or protect them. The killing of the
rat represents, perhaps, Bigger?s one chance to protect his
mother and younger siblings as the patriarch of the Thomas
family (Lee 68).
Edward Margolies views blindness, which affects
everyone throughout the novel, as the most important
symbol. He believes that Wright uses blindness to
illustrate the relationship between the races. His
symbolic use of blindness illustrates how blind whites are
to the humanity and existence of black people. Whites
prefer to think of blacks in easily stereotypical images-in
images of brute beast, or happy minstrel. They are
incapable of viewing blacks as having sensitivity and
intelligence. Even well meaning people like the Daltons
are blind to the suffering of blacks. The Daltons lavish
millions of dollars on black colleges and welfare
organizations-while at the same time they continue to
support a rigid caste system that is responsible for black
degradation in the first place (Margolies 45).
To support his belief, Margolies illustrates how this
symbolic blindness affects all of the characters. Bigger
is blind to the realities of black life as well as to the
humanity of whites. Bigger vaguely discerns the white
enemy as white tides, icy white walls, and looming white
mountains. He is therefore unable to accept Jan?s offer of
friendship, because he blindly regards all whites as
symbols of oppression. Mary, Jan, and Max are just as
blind to the humanity of blacks as the others-even though
they presumably want to enlist blacks as equals in their
cause. For Mary and Jan, Bigger is an abstraction- a
symbol of exploitation rather than someone whose feelings
they have ever tried to understand. Mrs. Dalton?s
blindness is symbolic of the blindness of the white liberal
philanthropic community (Margolies 50).
Margolies believes that in all cases but Mrs. Daltons,
blindness is psychosomatic. Like others, however, Mrs.
Dalton has a spiritual handicap as well as a physical one.
She and her husband, as Max points out, cannot see the
malevolent condition, which they serve and perpetuate.
Similarly, Mary and Jan cannot see the emptiness of their
charity. At different points in the novel Bessie is
blinded by tears and fright, while Bigger is blinded by
snow, light and rage. In the presence of Jan and Max he
feels transparent and invisible. At the end of the novel
Max groped for his hat like a blind man. The two abstract
conceptions, love and justice, which inform Native Son are
also traditionally blind (Margolies 52).
Finally, Margolies argues that only one person, Bigger
overcomes this symbolic blindness. Bigger gains a kind of
sight in the novel. The sight Bigger gains is distorted
though. It is made up of images that appear when one holds
a magnifying glass close to the face, and then moves it
further and further away from ones eyes until the picture
reflected in the glass comes in at once clearly and upside
down. Bigger begins the story seeing everything in a haze.
The sight, which he eventually achieves, is in sharp focus,
but out of whack (Margolies 55).
Dan McCall differs from both Lee and Margolies.
McCall argues that the most powerful symbol Wright uses in
Native Son is the kitchenette. He views the opening scene
as symbolic of how people driven so closely together are
driven violently apart. The kitchenette throws desperate
and unhappy people into an unbearable closeness of
association, thereby increasing latent friction, giving
birth to never-ending quarrels of recrimination,
accusation, and vindictiveness, producing warped
personalities. The full recognition of how the kitchenette
forms Bigger?s sensibility-or how it deprived him of one-
is what makes this symbol so important (McCall 3).
McCall points to the kitchenette as the reason why
Bigger thought the way he did. The kitchenette constantly
reminded Bigger that he is black, and that is how he is
supposed to live. The kitchenette is responsible for
making Bigger ?black crazy.? He is incapable of nonracial
thought. His obsession produces what McCall calls the state
of exaggeration. This state of exaggeration serves to show
the emotional intensity with which Bigger attacks ordinary,
daily problems (McCall 5).
This state of exaggeration is clearly seen in the
kitchenette, argues McCall. It is seen in the overwhelming
fear of being looked at that the Thomas family has. On
the first page of Native Son, when people get out of bed,
the first words are ?Turn your head so I can get dressed.?
Day after day in the ghetto that is the call to society;
and on the second day of Wright?s novel, Vera repeats the
line ?Turn your head so I can get dressed.? Even when one
is dressed, the fear and horror of being seen continues
McCall argues that Wright?s point is to show that for
those urban slum dwellers the folk culture was swallowed in
unbearable closeness. This emptiness and fear of being
looked at Bigger carries with him all day long. The scene
which begins the book is present at the very center of the
crime where Bigger is hysterical at not being able to get
the entire human form into a tight place. He has to cut
off the head. Bigger?s head, his sensibility, was cut off
in the kitchenette (McCall 7).
Without the use of symbolism, Native Son would not
have had the impact it did. Bigger Thomas symbolizes the
truth about the relationship between blacks and whites.
Native Son had a huge impact in America because it exposed
the horrible truth about that relationship. Bigger Thomas
symbolically represents the consequences of a relationship
based on abuse, inequality, and fear. However, in order to
understand Bigger Thomas, one first must understand the
symbolism behind the black rat, the kitchenette, and the
element of blindness.
Gallantz, Michael. Barrons Book Notes Richard Wrights
Native Son & Black Boy. New York: Barrons
Educational Series Inc, 1986.
Bloom, Harold. Blooms Reviews Comprehensive Research &
Study Guides Richard Wrights Native Son. New York:
Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations Richard
Wrights Native Son. New York: Chelsea House
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