David’s Native Son (3/3) Presentation Outline

Faith, the Law and Other Topics in Richard Wright’s Native Son




In Native Son, Richard Wright depicts a marginalized community through the lens of a hate-filled, violent protagonist. He delves into the forces that maintain this oppression, from the church and faith to the legal system. Wright examines the complex psychology of how these factors contribute to the loss of personal agency in the protagonist, and the attempts of other “outsiders” like Jan Erlone to make amends.




  1. The Church and Faith (the fourth “F”)
    1. The Church is an aspect of society not examined in previous class readings
    2. The role of religion is a conservative force in society. It helps maintain the established, oppressive order of things.
      1. Church’s message of salvation used to satiate black community.
      2. “’I didn’t like it. Aw, all they did was sing and shout and pray all the time. And it didn’t get ‘em nothing. All the colored folks do that, but it don’t get ‘em nothing. The white folks got everything.’” (p. 355)
      3. Bigger rejects the church in hopes of finding happiness in life: “’I wanted to be happy in this world, not out of it. The white folks like for us to be religious, then they can do what they want with us.’” (p. 356)
      4. Discussion question: Is this characterization of religion fair? In what ways is it sufficient for members of the black community besides Bigger—if at all?
  • Perversion of Christianity by white supremacists: the KKK.
    1. Bigger experiences intense internal conflict concerning the role of faith in his life, and he is deeply troubled by the encounter with a burning cross (p. 337-38).
      1. “The eyes and faces about him … hissing fury by the icy wind.”
      2. “’I ain’t got no soul!’”
    2. Discussion question: How does Wright’s narrative deconstruct the fallibilities of the Church as a human institution, not a divine one?
  • Repeated efforts of black preachers to reach out to Bigger
    1. Preachers are men of status in the black community, and this is their way of attempting to support Bigger. The role of religion is their most potent talisman against systemic injustice.
    2. Discussion question: Does Bigger’s rejection of the preachers’ counsel disengage him from the meager safety the black community provides its members? What does this tell the reader about his overall psychology?


  1. The State’s Attorney’s characterization
    1. Politician first and officer of the law second
      1. “When questioned as to what effect the Thomas trial would have upon the forthcoming April elections, in which he is a candidate to succeed himself, Mr. Buckley took his pink carnation from the lapel of his morning coat and waved the reporters away with a laugh.” P. 342.
    2. Timing of elections in April and trial in February/March
      1. “’You’re afraid that you won’t be able to kill this boy before the April elections, if we handle his case, aren’t you, Buckley?’ Jan asked.” P. 292.
    3. Discussion question: How does Buckley’s depiction shape our understanding of justice in Native Son?


  1. Depiction of Jan and communism
    1. Only white person who levels himself with Bigger
      1. Mary tried halfheartedly and failed
    2. Jan forgives Bigger: p. 287
      1. “The word had become flesh. For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him; and the reality of Jan’s humanity came to him in a stab of remorse: he had killed what this man had loved and had hurt him.”
      2. Discussion question: In what way can we consider Jan a hero of the novel?
    3. Communism was not a popular movement in the 1940s in the U.S. In fact, it was one of the most feared and resented movements of the time. We see a parallel here with socialism in The Jungle.
      1. Discussion question: What does Wright gain by depicting Communists in a positive light? What was his intended purpose?


  1. Bigger’s external locus of control
    1. Throughout the novel, Bigger repeatedly expresses that he feels as if he is not in control of his own life, due to the repression handed down by society.
      1. “Anger quickened in him … dictated the terms of death.” p. 332.
    2. This inculcates his famous “cold and inarticulate hate” and fear
    3. To establish his own agency he is forced to commit murder
      1. Discussion question: To what extent does Bigger’s lack of control excuse his transgressions? Is it a result of his personal psychology or of systematic societal forces?

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