Bigger Than Society: Existentialism in Native Son
Existentialism emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. Contrarily, environmental determinism suggests that society shapes individuals, allowing for little personal motive. In Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, a young black man named Bigger is faced with constant fear from oppressive societal tendencies, yet is inclined to define himself by his actions in order to find identity. An existential sense of morality elicits behavior which opposes societal norms, while natural moral code results in conformity. Although Bigger is the product of an oppressive, fear stricken society, his fundamental need for self determined identity prompts him to embrace his actions.
Wright suggests throughout the novel that ingrained societal tendencies determine Bigger’s existence and behavior, implying that environmental determinism supersedes and corrupts his free will. Max, Bigger’s communist lawyer, insists that society has instilled fear in blacks and stripped them of their individuality: “they are powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces” (390). Through this Communist perspective, Max argues that white society is to blame for Bigger’s fear, which ultimately results in his hateful behavior and crimes. These social forces are the result of a universal desire for power and superiority, which comes at the expense of blacks’ pride and individualism. Rather, blacks become “powerless pawns,” dispensable pieces of a social game, seen by whites merely as leverage to elevate their own social standing. Bigger is conditioned to hate himself and fear whites from a young age, as shame defines and controls him: “They made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him, one holding his hand and the other smiling. He felt he had no physical existence at all right then; he was something to be hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin” (67). Bigger is the product of a degenerate, oppressive society which promotes self-hatred and ultimately causes him to commit the crimes that he does. Living in constant fear, he is born with this “badge of shame” into a world in which he can never win, belittled and degraded by a fear mongering white society.
While society may be at fault for Bigger’s behavior, he is compelled to subsequently take accountability for his actions in order to establish individualism and his own identity. Claiming personal motive, Bigger embraces and defines himself by his actions: “What I kill for I am . . . When a man kills, it’s for something” (429). Rather than blame societal tendencies for his faults, Bigger adopts a mentality of intentionality to establish individual identity. Claiming that he kills “for something,” Bigger convinces himself that his actions were justified, manifesting this existential ideal to his reality. However, he does not realize that the “something” that he kills for is the deep fear and hate that he has always lived in. Instead of blaming society for his transgressions, Bigger says that he is what he kills for, defining himself by actions that most people would be ashamed of. Adopting this mentality of accountability, Bigger “felt that he had his destiny in his grasp” (156). Now that he does not allow himself to be controlled by society, he feels responsible for his own future and past. Bigger decides to disregard what others think, separating himself from society by fully accepting his actions and their significance: “He had done this. He had brought this all about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think” (239). Bigger has lived his whole life constantly shaped by the fear and hate that society has instilled in him. However, he sheds his previous self conscious mindset in order to rid himself of this fear. Wright utilizes this shift to existentialism in order to exhibit Bigger’s desire for identity. Ultimately, Bigger takes responsibility for his actions to escape the social constraints and stereotypes which had always made him feel inferior and worthless.
Bigger adopts an existential view of morality in order to justify his actions and embrace his individuality. Shedding society’s standard view of morality, he creates his own system of ethics based on feeling and intuition in order to justify his actions and identity. He exhibits this by refusing to go to church, saying that “there is nothing in it,” and that “it don’t get ‘em nothing” (339). Church provides security and identity for all of the other black characters in the book, yet Bigger creates an existential view of morality rather than conforming to his peers’ views. He finds identity not in forgiveness and hope, but rather in the certainty and comfort that he committed the acts of murder with his own free will and conscience, and that he is not confined by anybody’s standards. Furthering his commitment to living in the present, Bigger decides that he wants to “be happy in this world, not out of it” (339). Taking full accountability for his own actions, he does not want to be wiped of his sins, for he embraces them. With this, Bigger justifies his actions by creating his own set of morals, one that does not align with society’s. While Bigger may truly be the product of a twisted, racist society, his fundamental need for identity and individualism compels him to fully embrace actions which most would be ashamed of. Richard Wright contrasts existentialism with naturalism and environmental determinism in order to expose the effects of a racist society as well as the essential human need for identity. Ultimately, Native Son reveals that the natural human desire for power and superiority often comes at the expense of others and furthers the reign of hate in the world.
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