- Visions of Tribulation: White Gaze and Black Spectacle in Richard Wright’s Native Son and The Outsider
While filmic readings of Native Son have long been a part of Richard Wright criticism, scholars have not yet fully considered the way Wright’s cinematic construction redefines his protagonist’s subjectivity. Moreover, little has been written regarding the subtle ways in which filmic tendencies inform Wright’s technique in The Outsider. Wright relies on visual techniques and Hollywood studio tropes in the creation of his male protagonists, accomplishing in prose what filmmakers accomplish in celluloid. In both texts, Wright anticipates the power of the “gaze” to shape behavior, attitudes, and even the sense of self. This narrative technique allows Wright to control the way readers see his main characters and, by implication, how these characters see themselves. Reading the novels in the context of Wright’s filmic understanding of the power of observation and expectation allows us to move away from established interpretations focusing on the “castrating” nature of Wright’s female characters, and to foreground what I suggest is a more nuanced male sexuality in Native Son’s Bigger Thomas and The Outsider’s Cross Damon than has previously been considered.1 I focus on the filmic formulation of the text itself that illuminates Wright’s treatment of women; in both Native Son and The Outsider, Wright overtly constructs women’s bodies in terms of the gaze, and this pattern of filmic portrayal carries implications for all of Wright’s characters, male and female, black and white. In both novels, Wright offers a complex interpretation of the gaze in which desire and its role in identity, subjectivity, and agency compel his protagonists to action. The desires, and thus the agency of Bigger and Damon are limited by a gaze that keeps them subjectified; the panopticism of the dominant culture situates them as objects, not agents; observed, not observers; passive, not active.
I am interested in extending the conversation regarding cinema and Wright’s fiction in two ways. First, rather than merely examining film as a subject in Wright’s fiction, I delineate the ways in which Wright’s representation of the visual within these novels maps to specific cinematic techniques. Second, I wish to broaden the discussion of Wright’s use of film to include The Outsider, which has been treated almost singularly as a product of the influence of French existentialism and Marxist politics. I argue that film is more important as a narrative technique than as a source of social commentary and control in Native Son: Wright’s construction of gender and subjectivity is inextricably bound with cinematic notions of spectacle and desire. This interpretation complicates existing readings of Wright’s treatment of gender; in particular, it complicates how we read Bigger’s masculinity and his response to women. But this reading of Native Son is not merely an end in itself. It is also a means of interrogating the writing strategy of The Outsider, in which explicit cinematic references may at first gloss seem inconsequential, a shadow of their presence in Native Son. However, if one continues to understand Wright’s use of film as narrative technique rather than as narrative subject, and considers also Wright’s well-documented experience with Hollywood in the 1940s, the filmic presence in The Outsider is as fundamental to the text as it has long been considered such in Native Son. Wright’s construction of Cross Damon, in particular the way he imagines desire—both his own and others’ for him—is an extension of the cinematic style of Native Son. [End Page 633]
I will begin by examining film’s influence on Wright’s narrative technique in Native Son, unpacking the writing strategies that are vital in offering a new reading of The Outsider. Cinematic spectacle, represented most notably in Native Son with Mary Dalton, and eventually, with Bigger himself, is replaced in The Outsider with Wright’s notion of “the outsider,” which, while argued by both Cross Damon and his pursuer, Ely Houston, as being a mental state rather than a physical characteristic, is repeatedly marked through physical difference. Through Houston’s deformity and Damon’s race...