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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 6).

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

Publishers, 1988.

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