Themes and Symbolism of “Native Son” by Richard Wright


According to the list of All Time 100 Novels offered by Time critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, Native Son by Richard Wright should acquire a rightful position among the best novel written in English from 1923 to the present. The novel written by Wright in 1940 has aroused such an intense discussion and controversial views that the debates of literary critics still remain heated though more than half of a century has passed since the book saw the light and brought Wright’s philosophic ideas aimed at the reshaping of the point of view of American and world society in relation to racism.

Native Son became a striking success in 1940 since 215.000 copies were sold during the first three weeks following its publication (Foerstel 218) and the book “exploded like a bomb” (Fraile xi). However, there was a proposal to remove the book from reading lists at high schools due to its naked demonstration of violence but the book was not banned (Foerstel 219). A picturesque idea that expresses one of the themes of the book is given on the back cover of Harper Perennial edition: Wright tells the reader about “what it means to live in a multicultural society in which power splits among racial lines” (Miles as cited in Wright unpaged).

Among other significant ideas about Native Son is the idea uttered by Felgar, who states that “Wright’s most powerful creation is hard to pin down and may not have been fully understood by the author himself, let alone the readers of the novel” (43).

Probably, there is a grain of sense in the statement in its relation to the audience. The difficulty of the interpretation of the novel may explained by its belonging to the literary trend of modernism that favors the use of symbols and intricate themes. Bradshaw and Dettmar state that Native Son “continues to be a key text in discussions of modernism” (505). This suggests the idea that interpretation of the themes of the book and the functioning of symbols and symbolic images helps to advance the main theme of the book: enormity of racial inequality as the source of violence that becomes the only means of self-expression of the blacks.

Symbolic meaning of the title of Native Son

Starting the analysis of the book from the point of view of its symbolism, it would be logical to begin with the interpretation of the title that is one of the main symbols and a perfect demonstration of the author’s literary talent. The title “Native Son” may interpreted from the point of view of two perspectives: an ironic one and a metaphoric one. On the one hand, irony in the title may be clearly traced. “Native son” is who every boy dreams to become, Bigger Thomas is no exception to the rule. He fears of the whites and there are occasions when he is so eager to become one of them, a person who knows no poverty, oppression and fear.

When Bigger sees the posters for Buckley, who was “running for State’s Attorney again”, he thinks about huge amount of bribes the man accepts and dreams about being in his shoes just for one day (Wright 13). However, it is impossible for a black man to get the position of State’s Attorney, it is evident, and by the use of the title, Wright expresses his bitter irony, asserting that it is the only way how a black man can become “a native son” of America.

However, on the other hand, the symbolic nature of the title is deeply metaphorical. Bigger Thomas, the young man who could have become a good professional and the father of a happy family if only he were white, becomes a killer that gets his death sentence eventually as the result of two murders, both of which were just the attempts to make something out of his miserable life and his fearing and stifled self.

White society literary compels the man to kill two women, the murderer is the image that arouses in the mind of a white person when he/she thinks about the black. This is why Bigger becomes a person whom he was thought to be. Consequently, he really is the product, the creation, “the native son” of American society that perverts the nature of a person due to racial prejudices, inequality, hypocrisy, and injustice.

The symbol of an alarm clock

Strange as it may seem, the very first sentence introduces the first symbol in the novel. It is the sound of the alarm clock: “Brrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiinng!” (Wright 3). Along with the beginning of action, the symbolic meaning of the alarm clock implies that the black American population is steel in the state of passivity and oppression begotten by the past slavery and present injustice of the treatment. This state may be compared with the state of dreaming or that is better to say, having a nightmare. Bigger’s life is a real horror and the author tries to awaken him, to shape his identity in the world of the whites.

However, the symbol of an alarm clock is more intended for the white society. Wright calls for justice, he tries to make the whites awaken from their sleep as it still seems that they are having a dream about slavery and their ruling position in society. The sound of the alarm clock is the call for action and change, the whites should reconsider their attitude to the black people so that justice could be established in society.

The symbolic image of the rat

The powerful symbolism of the book can be easily traced right from the outset, in the opening pages that introduce the Thomases and the author intricately interviews the symbolic image of a rat that serves important purposes. In general, rats are considered to be unpleasant creatures, they leave a sinking ship first, they are usual precursors and companions of plague and other infectious deceases. Besides, rats are usually associated with poverty. Thus, the appearance of a rat in the house of the Thomases was of ill omen and it meant soon changes.

The great size of the rat, “He’s over a foot long. How in hell they get so big?” should not be explained by mere shock and agitation of the characters (Wright 6). The size of the rat suggests its danger for the family and the phrase “That sonofabitch could cut your throat” proves it (Wright 6). Thus, it can be stated that the rat stands for oppression of the Afro American people by the whites. Its significance can be also proven by the fact that Vera and Bigger’s mother call the rat “he” instead of “it”, though it is a mere small animal, a rodent. They say: “I don’t see ’im”, “Hit ‘im, Bigger!” as if inspiring the man to start his struggle against violence and oppression from which the blacks suffer (Wright 5).

The rodent, however, makes an attack, squealing and leaping at Bigger’s trouser-leg, hanging on it (Wright 5). This symbolic act of the rat stands for the way the whites treat the blacks, never setting them free, being near, “hanging” on them, and interfering with them. In fact, in the course of Bigger’s “fight” with the rat, it even “reared upon its hind legs” that reminds of the way people walk and by this symbolic act, the author implies that there is a parallel between the rat and white people (Wright 5).

Besides, when Bigger kills the rat with an iron skillet, the man crushes its head with his shoe. Taking into account the awful episode of burning of Mary’s body when Bigger had to decapitate her in order to place the body in the furnace, smashing of the rat’s head can be perceived as its presage again comparing the rat with the white person. Besides, the killing of the rat evidently stands for the killing of Bessie as the procedure is almost the same, Bessie’s head was also smashed causing her death.

Besides, the symbolic image of the rat introduces fear for the first time in the book that is, by the way, entitled as “Fear”. Fear is the everywhere in the book, it may be read between the lines as it is the most overwhelming feeling in the soul of the protagonist. However, it is because of the rat that the whole female part of the family is scared and the rat is awfully sacred itself that can be observed when its “belly pulsed with fear” (Wright 6). Thus, the symbol of the rat may be interpreted as the symbolic image of the protagonist, Bigger Thomas. On the one hand, Bigger is also killed by society where white people dominate and the death of the rat stands for his own death. On the other hand, Bigger’s killing of the rat may be perceived as his attempt to kill his fear and anger.

The symbol of blindness

The symbol of blindness helps to convey one of two main themes of the book: white society is blind in relation to Afro Americans. The character of Mrs. Dalton functions as the bearer of two types of blindness, as it is mentioned by Felgar (54).

The woman is literary blind and this blindness causes the death of her daughter. When Bigger helps drunken Mary to walk to her room after their meeting with Jan, he becomes sexually attracted by her and when Bigger and Mary are lying on the bed, Mrs. Dalton enters her daughter’s room. Because the woman is blind, she cannot reveal Bigger’s presence in the room but she arouses such a great fear in the man’s soul that he is trying to make Mary silent with covering her face with a pillow. The pillow smothers her accidentally. Thus, the blindness of the woman is a factor that impacts the fear of the protagonist.

Along with literary blindness, Mrs. Dunton is spiritually blind in relation to the blacks. Bigger thinks that she wants him to do the “the things she felt that he should have wanted to do” (Wright 61). While being blind, she is also unable to get at the real situation in black society. The woman ignores real desires and feelings of Bigger and other black people; she is attentive and sympathizing only on the surface but blind and indifferent inside. She simply fails to perceive Bigger as a human being like she is herself (Felgar 54). The symbol of Mrs. Dunton’s blindness stands for blindness of the whole white society. For instance, her husband, Mr. Dunton is also blind in his hypocrisy: he extracts money from the black tenants form Chicago South Side but is hypocritically sympathetic offering Bigger a job.

The symbol of furnace

The image of a furnace, the one where Bigger hides Mary’s corpse, is also symbolic. Furnace stands for the black man, Merkle states that “if the white man is not associated with heat, the black man is” (737). Bigger states: “Every time I think of them [white folks] I feel them. Yeah, in your throat and chest too. It’s like fire” (Wright 22). In fact, heat is what the protagonist feels many times throughout the book. Maybe this is the hidden potential of the blacks that is alien to the whites. However, the symbol of a furnace stands for Bigger’s power: it is a part of his duties “to tend the furnace” and he is successful in doing this (Merkle 737). Besides, the furnace becomes the shelter for Mary’s body, giving Bigger temporary salvation.

Also, the furnace states for all black people and the conditions that have to face and bear. Merkle compares the furnace with ghetto and coal can be compared with the black people on the basis of the sameness of their color and heat and oppression they are exposed to (737).

The symbolic image of snow

Finally, the last symbol to be mentioned in the present paper is snow. Even natural forces play certain symbolic role in the text of the novel. Snow, due to its white color becomes an ally of the whites and turns out to be Bigger’s enemy. Snow is one more manifestation of the dominance of the whites in American society. It starts snowing somewhere in the beginning of the Book II: “a few fine flakes of snow were floating down” (Wright 93) and snow becomes one more character of the book. In fact, it turns out to be so powerful that it helps the police to capture Bigger. Thus, snow is a symbolic image of the whites whose power is unlimited as it is impossible to rule snow, a natural phenomenon. Bigger is unable to influence the weather and he is unable to change the dominance of the whites.

The role of symbols in the manifestation of the themes of the novel

The main theme of the book: enormity of racial inequality as the source of violence that becomes the only means of self-expression of the blacks can be successfully split into two themes: blindness of the white society in relation to the black citizens and absence of the opportunity of self-expression of the blacks that leads to deformation of their soul and instills violence in it. The analyzed symbols help to express these themes throughout the novel. The symbols of the alarm clock, blindness, snow, and furnace help to express the first theme as they all are aimed at the whites, stressing wrongness of their attitude and stereotypes they have concerning the blacks. The symbols of the rat and furnace show the nature of the blacks and their attitude towards the life they have to live.


Drawing a conclusion, it is possible to state that the role of symbols in Native Son is difficult to overestimate. The text abounds in carefully arranged and masterfully used symbols. They help to express the main theme of the book: racial inequality as the source of violence that turns out to be the only possible means of self-expression of the blacks. Surface reading is not enough for interpretation of Native Son, a reader should be able to decode the symbols and understand their deep figurative meaning. This is the secret of the book, the symbols, inevitable tradition of American Modernism in literature; enable the reader to feel the injustice of racism that can be read between the lines of the novel.

Works Cited

Bradshow, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. A Companion to Modern Literature and Culture. NY: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.

Felgar, Robert. Student Companion to Richard Wright. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Foerstel, Herbert N. Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. NY: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.

Fraile, Ana Maria. Richard Wright’s Native Son. NY: Rodopi, 2007.

Grossman, Lev, and Richard Lacayo. All Time 100 Novels. 2010. Web.

Merkle, Donald R. “The Furnace and the Tower: A New Look at the Symbols in ‘Native Son’”. The English Journal 60.6 (1971): 735-739.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. San Francisco, CA: Harper Perrenial Modern Classic, 2005.