- Misogyny and Appropriation in Wright's Native Son
In his essay, "How 'Bigger' was Born," Richard Wright reminds the reader of Native Son that the novel's point of view has been restricted to the horizon of its protagonist:
because I had limited myself to rendering only what Bigger saw and felt, I gave no more reality to the other characters than that which Bigger himself saw. . . . Throughout there is but one point of view: Bigger's.(xxxii)
Poststructural literary criticism has at last rebelled against this kind of authorial control over texts and has endorsed a policy of expropriation: readings of literary works need no longer be synonymous with divination of authorial intention. Holding up the author's intention as the sole legitimate code for interpreting the work may be seen, therefore, as propaganda masking and muzzling an absent reality. The repressed absences are now empowered to challenge the inscribed, privileged interpretation of the work and to demand an equal voice in its dialogical world.
To change the figures, it is as if the maker had arranged an object of his art, half exposed, in wet plaster. With the fetish of ownership gone, we viewers are entitled, indeed required, to become participants in interpreting [End Page 413] and evaluating the art of the work. This means that criticism must now break the work out of its authorial mold and examine the heretofore hidden impression made by its buried underside. In reading works of the patriarchal canon, this concealed impression can be conceived as a female mold that forms the work by its resistance but is absent from it.
The exposed presence of Native Son is the dialectical struggle between Bigger Thomas' desire for freedom and dignity, on the one hand, and the inhuman, oppressive degradation of racism used as a weapon of domination by the white propertied elite, on the other. This much of the meaning has been authorized by inscription into text; it has been exposed by the author to the study of critics and scholars for the past four and a half decades. It is now time to break open the author's cast and to examine the previously concealed contours, shaped by the absent Other.
When the text is read as one would read the black and white negative of a photograph, what immediately becomes apparent is a second dialectical struggle underlying the authorized one: the struggle to appropriate (and thus dehumanize) women by reducing them to objects of male status conflict, to what Hélène Cixous calls "The Realm of the Proper," which "functions by the appropriation articulated, set into play, by man's classic fear of seeing himself expropriated" (Moi 112). From underneath, Native Son is the story of a black man's rebellion against white male authority. The rebellion takes the form of the ultimate appropriation of human beings, the rape-slaying, which is also the ultimate expropriation of patriarchal property, the total consumption of the commodified woman.
Even feminist critics of Wright's work, while noting its strains of violence and misogyny, have not opened the text sufficiently to reveal its submerged underside. Sherley Anne Williams, for example, observes Wright's tendency to portray black women as treacherous and traitorous and to present their suffering as, primarily, "an affront to the masculinity of black men" (406). Williams, nevertheless, fails to challenge Wright's authority over the interpretation of female characters in Native Son: "We excuse these characterizations [of women]," she writes, "because of the power of Wright's psychological portrait of Bigger; this is Bigger's story" (397). It is time now to revoke these privileges accorded to Bigger and to recover the radical alterity in the text that reduces women to property, valuable only to the extent they serve as objects of phallocentric status conflicts. If read as the negative polarity of the text, this process of male reification and appropriation pervades the work.
In the initial episode of Native Son, Bigger kills a huge rat while his mother and sister, Vera, cower and scream on the bed in fear. This emblematic act occupies the surface of the novel's first six pages. The rat, an...