by Richard Wright
This landmark classic is hailed as one of the greatest American novels. It tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in Chicago in the 1940. He begins a job working for a wealthy white family and by the end of his first day his life is in chaos. The book is broken into three parts, Fear, Flight, and Fate.
The first section introduces us to Bigger and we watch him commit a murder. From there his world spirals as everything comes crashing down around him. What might be interpreted as an accident soon becomes something darker and begins to taint everything in his life. Once he crosses that line he doesn’t look back and murder is no longer taboo. It releases something dark and evil inside of him and he finds himself being tempted to commit murder again. The brutality of one single act seeps into the rest of his life.
The cyclical nature of black men’s lives during that time period parallels many of the poverty stricken areas in America today. One thing is expected from them and they react to that expectation. If they are judged before they have a chance to live it’s that much harder to make the right decisions, so instead one bad decision leads to another, violence leading to more violence. They are trained to hate other races from a young age. When someone shows them unexpected kindness they are taught to treat it with suspicion and resent it.
“These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence.”
One disturbing element in the book is the effect his actions have on the rest of the black community in Chicago. They are all being persecuted because of him. Many lose their jobs because their white employers are terrified of what they might do. Some want to protect Bigger; others want to turn him in. His actions are dividing the whole community.
I wasn’t sure about this book until about ¾ of the way in. It just seemed to have no overarching lesson. It really clicked for me during Bigger’s trial. In the “Fate” section of the book we get to see a discussion of the expectations and opportunities for men like Bigger. I think one of the most interesting choices the author made was to make Bigger’s lawyer a Jew. Though he was still a white man, it was 1940 and as a Jewish man, Max could understand being persecuted for just being who you are better than most people.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s hard to describe precisely how deeply haunting this story. It holds a mirror up to some of the ugliest aspects of human nature. It reminds us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. It breaks your heart and makes you angry all at the same time. It’s a difficult novel to read, but it’s an important one.
“For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him and the reality off Jan’s humanity came in a stab of remorse. He had killed what this man loved and had hurt him.”