The theme of racism and its possible consequences has been one of the major social concerns in American literature. Yet, not many authors have managed to discuss this issue in-depth and in a multidimensional manner, as Richard Wright did in his novel Native Son. The discussed text is truly shocking and awakening in its attempt to expose the dark and horrifying nature of racial and social determination, when a person totally depends upon the environment, where they are born and where they live. It is remarkable that the author raises the theme of race without excessive sentimentality or idealization, so his blunt criticism of the system is stirring and controversial. One of the novel’s main symbol is blindness, which is the author’s metaphoric way to show that the society is blind to dangers of inequality and the way people are influenced by their own or imposed illusions about each other.
The protagonist of the novel, Bigger Thomas, is far from being a hero. Moreover, he might be considered as a villain if the author wanted to suggest that he is totally responsible for his criminal inclinations. However, Wright is reluctant to think about his character this way, probably because of his own experience of being brought up in poverty and despair of African American neighborhoods. The author implies that even though Bigger’s crimes, especially murders, cannot be justified in any way, it is also clear that they are rooted into the man’s background, where he has very little choice. Fear of white people, mixed with hatred, is the petrol for violent impulses that appear naturally, as the result of miserable and oppressed existence of daily survival. People like Bigger have to fight in order to survive, and fight quite violently, just in order to stay alive. Leaving this vicious circle is nearly impossible under the circumstances and requires either external support, which is usually absent, or high moral principles, which can be hardly shaped in the immoral environment. So, Bigger is a criminal, but, at the same time, he is also a victim of the system, which ignores his needs and makes him imprisoned. In fact, he has little choice where to go, even though he can work honestly. The main problem why he chooses not to do so is actually the society’s blindness to the consequences of inequality. In fact, people like Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are not aware that slaves are enraged about being slaves, that their charity is hypocritical and only evokes anger and desire to revenge. Mrs. Dalton is the only one who is literally blind, but she represents the society, where almost everyone is blind to the truth. Because of her blindness, she cannot notice and prevent the murder of her own daughter Marry, even though it is accidental in many ways. Yet, this is not the only blindness of Mrs. Dalton and her husband. Their mistake is seeing Bigger as a meek boy who should be grateful to them for the job they gave him. Yet, they do not realize that their benevolence is not seen as such by those whom they oppress. As one of the critics states, “like her husband, she sees Bigger only as a type, a generalized object of their cathartic altruism that is expected to respond to generosity with gratitude and humility but not with any overt expressions of individualism” ( Bloom 93). This is why others fail to notice that Bigger is dangerous and inclined to criminal actions. Their stereotypes do not allow them to understand that black people have different individualities, and that their abstract vision might be far from reality.
In his turn, Bigger is not going to kill Mary, yet due to a number of circumstances he does so, and, what is more, he does not feel any regrets. Instead, he feels a certain kind of freedom because he finally dared to do something to the white people. Like Daltons who see black people as abstract objects, Bigger sees whites as a homogeneous mass without separating them into individualities. It takes time for him to realize that white people are beyond the stereotypes he had about them from childhood. They can be different, and the reason why he does not see this is his fear and prejudice. In this way, Bigger is also blind, just like other characters in the novel. The idea of Wright is both the oppressors and the oppressed are blind, and this twisted vision of one another only deepens the conflict and the existing mutual fear. He does not feel empowered to act against the white people, so he is confined to a certain role that certainly chokes him. Unexpectedly, after Bigger chokes Mary, he feels a strange kind of relief except for the obvious fear. This phenomenon is not only explained by the protagonist’s criminal nature, but also by his hidden desire to expose himself, to reveal his true personality, and to act out. This repressed desire explodes in a tragic manner, and this is only the beginning of Bigger’s dangerous way to his perverted empowerment. Of course, it is a kind of rebellion against the power of white masters; he wants to prove his own power, which goes too far: he chose to take another person’s life. Wright demonstrates that society is short-sighted: it is safer to deal with free people than with slaves because slaves will one day decide to revenge. It is actually an illusion that racial inequality was in favor of white people: it was destructive for everyone.
It is true that Bigger believes that everyone around him is blind: “he did not look at them; they were simply blind people, blind like his mother, his brother, his sister, Peggy, Britten, Jan, Mr. Dalton, and the sightless Mrs. Dalton” (Wright 329). Everyone is blind for their own reasons because everyone has personal illusions that help them survive and adapt to social life. For instance, Bigger’s mother finds consolation in religion, where everyone is presumably equal and where afterlife award is promised for suffering. This makes Bigger feel ironic about religion and see his mother’s inclination to attend church as blindness and reluctance to see her wretched life as it is. So, blindness is a way to reduce pain that inevitably comes as a result of facing the truth. However, this option of attending church to feel relief does not satisfy Bigger who never feels the same contentment and relief as those people who go to church on a regular basis. In fact, he feels even more isolated in the environment of everyone’s joy and unity, and he is irritated that black church is all about shouting and singing. This is why, by calling believers blind, he reveals his deeply hidden despair that he cannot do the same because he is not able to indulge in pleasant illusions about afterlife. Watching others makes Bigger aware of their blindness and become more conscious of his own life, even though he does not always notice it: “The whole thing came to him in the form of a powerful and simple feeling; there was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted and never get caught at it” (Wright 107).
Yet, it is more than clear that despite denying all the illusions of others, Bigger is also blind in his own way, which he fails to recognize. His blindness is about white people, whom he perceives as just ugly and scary: “To Bigger and his kind, white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark” (Wright 109). This larger than life image, which is truly scary, is not only Bigger’s personal demon. The author implies that this fear and illusion is typical for African Americans of the time, and it makes their existence unbearable. Because of this pressure, it is never possible for Bigger to see whites as his equals. So, inequality is not only a social category, but also a psychological one. Black people have the inferiority complex, the author implies, and this feeling provokes aggression: people who are confident do not have to be violent prove anything to others. Bigger does not realize his own blindness but he is at a loss about who he is: he is only a small chain in a social mechanism, and he does not feel that he is able to influence his life. As a kind of paradox, a gloomy one, Bigger finds out that, in fact, he can have the freedom of action and choice when he kills Mary. This is a kind of new birth for him because he suddenly feels that he is now a separate unit, not one in a mass. He is autonomous in his thinking and vision, and he is not ruled by fate.
In fact, fatalism of African Americans is one of the manifestations for blindness in the novel. These people, just like Bigger’s mother and his girlfriend, do not believe that they can shape their lives, according to their own needs. This is partially true because they are confined by the society who oppresses them. However, the example of the author who escaped the typical fate of his neighbors and became a writer, not a criminal, illustrates how one can choose actions instead of passive resistance and wining. At the beginning, Bigger is also totally blind because he feels that he is not his own master: “Every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me” (Wright). The quote shows that Bigger does not identify whites as people, but rather as a hostile force that works against him, and this feeling is quite irrational. Bessie, Bigger’s girlfriend, does not choose the option of criminality but her choice is also limited: he has to work really hard for small wages that are not enough to make decent living. However, even little money she gets she spends on alcohol to forget her miserable existence on her day off. So, like the church for Mrs. Thomas, drinking is Bessie’s way of soothing her blindness. In fact, the symbol of blindness reflects not only objective ignorance, but also subjective urge to stop seeing what is going on in their lives. So, every character chooses his/her own way to stay blind because awakening may be too painful. Probably, one difference of Bigger from other characters is that he does not choose to be blind; he wants to break free, even though he does not know any method for this that is not destructive. Even though, his actions cannot be approved or justified, they can be explained by the background he has, which confines them to being blind to a number of options.
It is also clear that such seemingly progressive people as Jan and Mary are also shown as blind because they are narrow-minded in their own way. Having the Communist outlook, they sympathize with those who are oppressed but do not see individuals in people like Bigger. Instead, they see him as embodiment of his class, which is a kind of superficial and haughty attitude in a way. So, Bigger feels that their communication is unnatural and cannot be equal. Indeed, Mary and Jan seem to be kind to him but, in a condescending manner, as they indulge in their progressive views. For them, a trip to the poor black neighborhood is nothing but excursion, even though they are sincere in their sympathy to the poor. However, because they are not poor and have different social and family backgrounds, they are not aware of the way their manner to communicate does not make Bigger comfortable. The gap still exists, they remain confined to their class and race, and this makes the whole situation a farce. Moreover, because Bigger does not identify whites as individuals, they still remain enemies to him. Drinking together does not change the status quo in American society, and this attempt to show their openness is not accepted by the black community. However, Jan and Mary appear to be so ignorant of reality, figuratively blind, that they are not aware that their imposed friendship is not welcome. They still belong to the ruling class and race, and they imagine that it is an honor for a black person that he has their friendship. They cannot even imagine that they are a disturbance for him, as they are certain they are making a person happy by just their presence.
Overall, as some critics mention, there is a direct connection between the symbol of blindness in Native Son and W.E.B. Dubois’ metaphor of a veil. This veil does not only refer to a wall that prevents blacks and whites from looking at each other. It also refers to the inability of black people to see who they are (Bloom 95). This idea naturally resonates with the text’s message of impossibility to identify oneself, which is the most painful experience for Bigger. He can only identify himself by means of external instruments: how others see him and who they believe he is. Because the vision is mostly derogatory, it gives birth to insecurity and aggression in the soul of Bigger. He is used to thinking that he is a criminal, so this vision determines his actions. He is always concerned of how white people see him, and he can understand what they think of him. This is a kind of special sensitivity that animals in the wild might have, in order to survive, but it is not a clear vision. It is still a distorted picture of reality and of one’s own self that makes the existence so uncomfortable. Returning to W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the veil, it is explained in the following way: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (Du Bois 16). So, this idea is also referred to by Wright when he pictures Bigger and his inability to see himself but with others’ eyes. This is why, it is such a relief for him when he commits a murder: he feels that he is alive and able to act, and, moreover, he is free from other people’s opinion: “He wanted suddenly to stand up and shout, telling them that he had killed a rich white girl, a girl whose family was known to all of them” (Wright 129). This means that he acquires some voice, that his fear is fading and he is no longer afraid of whites because he saw they could be vulnerable too. There is some state of euphoria and madness, at the same time, and an unusual cold-blooded attitude, which means that there has been some transformation in Bigger’s mind. However, because of this state, he remains blind to the truth: he used to be cautious, and now he is reckless, but neither of these options reveal the things the way they are. He is partially right when he believes that other people would think out of their stereotypes: “Now, who on earth would think he, a black timid Negro boy, would murder and burn a rich white girl and would sit and wait for breakfast like this?” (Wright 107). There is some irony in these words, as Bigger seems to revenge for white people’s blindness and self-confidence: they did not notice that Bigger was far less timid than they thought. They underestimate him, and he wins: here is Bigger’s vision of the situation, and he is somewhat pleased by his superiority, which is also an illusion of course. Yet, this taste of victory is so rare for Bigger that he enjoys it without thinking about the consequences. He also becomes more openly aggressive and more confident in his ability to act. He believes he can cheat everyone and escape, and even if he fails, he can always do what he did to Mary. He literally hates his enemies, especially Britten, a racist investigator whom Bigger recognizes as a dangerous and mean type: “He hated Britten so hard and hot, while standing there with sleepy eyes and parted lips, that he would have gladly had grabbed the iron shovel from the corner and split his skull in two” ( Wright 162). In his turn, Britten is also shown as blind, so it is not accidental that the author refers to his strange eyes several times, which probably see only his own stereotypes.
All in all, the symbol of blindness is important in the novel because it implies society’s inability to function properly. Racial inequality and stereotypes shape a vicious circle of aggression and prejudice: people cannot see another race or social group adequately. Because of white people’s blindness, black people live in poverty and dream of revenge. The protagonist is, to a large extent, doomed to criminal choice because of his background and society’s injustice. He never had true love and sympathy to him, free of stereotypes. People like the Daltons are blind because they are sincerely certain in their benevolence and play the role of charity givers, while African Americans do not need charity based on inferiority, they want equality. At the same time, Bigger is also blind because he does not realize that white people are not homogeneous mass, it is not irrational and hostile force because people do have their own identity. He also has his own identity problem, so the author refers to W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of the veil, which prevents black people from seeing their own individuality. Looking at oneself through the lens of other people’s stereotypes gives birth to insecurity and fatalism.