Question 9/14

Richard Wright recounts the opening of his novel Native Son, in which Bigger, the protagonist, battles a rat in his room: “Cautioning myself to allow the rat scene to disclose only Bigger, his family, their little room, and their relationships, I let the rat walk in, and he did his stuff” (460). Bigger’s battle with the rat “discloses” a poor Black family living in Chicago—and, importantly, nothing else. Wright’s intention is not to reveal the Thomases as disadvantaged or depressed, but rather to expose readers to the grittiness of the challenges, mundanity, and often grotesqueness of everyday life (which echoes Megan’s definition of “Naturalism”). If Wright is correct about his own writing, there is something gritty and Naturalist about the rat, which makes up for the idyllic, humanizing quality of the opening of “Big Boy Leaves Home.”

However, James Baldwin might argue that the rat activates a “theological terror,” which delivers “a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all” (19). Therefore , even if the rat is grotesque, there still can be some payoff from reading about it: a virtuous thrill. On the subject of the rat, do you agree with Wright or Baldwin—that is, does the rat provide gritty Naturalism or a virtuous thrill? In the same vein, is there some moral reward for reading “Big Boy Leaves Home?” Finally, are the openings of the two works—”Big Boy” with the characters’ childhood joys and Native Son with the rat—starkly different, or are they both examples of the protest novel Baldwin critiques?

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