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?


14 Responses to Question 9/14

  1. Sarah Terrazano says:

    Baldwin’s critique of the protest novel is rooted in the idea that readers of protest novels want all the false satisfaction of understanding oppression without actually taking action. The novels offer a sense of placation and piqued interest, “connecting nowhere with reality” (19). For some readers, the rat scene in Native Son can fit this description of a protest novel and be seen only as what Baldwin would dub a “thrill of virtue” (19). However, the rat scene should not be read entirely as a virtuous thrill or discounted as simply a grotesque event that shocks more sheltered readers. It is important to consider the different audiences and their responses to the scene. For some readers, Bigger’s battle with the rat will evoke the virtuous thrill response, but not for others. I think the scene does portray the harsh Naturalism that Wright intended, and just because this goes over some readers’ heads doesn’t negate it.

    This is complicated by the fact that Wright discloses very few other details about Bigger’s family and their economic status; the rat scene represents all of the difficulties that they face on a daily basis. Wright uses the battle with the rat as a microcosm of Bigger’s daily life. Baldwin would say that the lack of details shows that Wright is avoiding the grittiness of real life and only using strong imagery to evoke a virtuous thrill. For instance, Baldwin claims that “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life” (23) because it ignores the humanity of characters in order to employ symbolism or elicit an emotional response. Whereas the beginning of “Big Boy Leaves Home” is devoted to establishing the humanity of Big Boy and his friends, Wright takes away some of Bigger’s humanity in the rat scene, reducing him to that one experience. However, despite the similarities to Baldwin’s protest novel, I still think it would be limiting to discount the validity of the scene’s Naturalism simply because not all readers can recognize the reality that Bigger faces. Even if the scene does elicit a strong emotional response in line with a typical protest novel, I don’t see this as fully taking away from the authenticity of Bigger’s experience.

  2. Siobhan McKenna says:

    I agree with Sarah in that there is no one way that these scenes should be interpreted. It depends on the reader, and their experiences. If the reader has never experienced, or is completely unaware of, the kind of events and hardships and daily occurrences in the lives of African Americans, as described in the rat scene in Native Son, or the opening scene of Big Boy Leaves Home, then these scenes could definitely be viewed as a “thrill of virtue” because it is totally not what they were expecting, nor is it something they’re used to, or see as a common occurrence at all. Although a reader who views these “protest novels” as virtuously thrilling could be viewed maybe as ignorant, or unaware of what’s happening in the world around them, they still aren’t wrong in their interpretations of these scenes and novels. On the other hand, if the reader views these scenes as simply naturalistic and humanizing as Wright says they are intended to be, then those readers obviously are not wrong in their interpretations either. Both readers are just reading the words on the page in different contexts, and therefore interpreting them to mean different things. Therefore, these scenes in Big Boy and Native Son, to me are very naturalistic in that they clearly just describe the humanity and the innocence of the people within these scenes, though I understand how some might read them as highly symbolic and full of all these hidden meanings, and as some kind of “thrill of virtue”.

    In addition, I don’t think there should be some sort of moral reward for reading Big Boy Leaves Home. These stories aren’t written so that when you finish reading them you can give yourself a pat on the back and congratulate yourself for being a moral human being and being disgusted or shocked by what you read. They aren’t written to be shocking or to elicit intense emotions in the reader. As we discussed in class, these stories are written because they are the only way left for African Americans, whose voices have been marginalized for so long and cut off from any other source, to even attempt to “rewrite the nation”. Therefore, although I stated before that having those emotional reactions isn’t necessarily wrong, you also don’t win, or even necessarily deserve, a prize for feeling this way.

  3. Noah says:

    One of Baldwin’s primary critiques of the protest novel is that they’re ineffectual. He talks about how “Novels of oppression written by Negroes” are only “raging, near-paranoiac postscript[s]” to the sentimental, white-authored protest novel. From this perspective Big Boy Leaves Home should not be morally rewarding, because, instead of fixing the problem, it exacerbates it.

    But there can be other interpretations to how these books operate. Works of art that challenge and reveal the status quo (such as protest novels) do not, by merely existing, hurt the causes they seek to reveal. Initiating a national awareness and conversation about injustice is a laudable cause, but, from Baldwin’s point of view, it’s almost as if it would be better for the protest novel to not exist at all.

    Though I’m sure the vast majority of people who read How Bigger Was Born or Uncle Tom’s Children were not inspired to action, or even thought about it much afterwards, certainly not every single reader felt this way. And this is why the protest novel is necessary: to ignite in even one person a passion for fixing the injustices that the work portrays, or even just provoking an enduring sense of awareness in a small handful of readers, because a few agents of change are better than none at all.

  4. Aly Thomas says:

    I’m thinking Baldwin’s critique of Wright’s “Native Son” is that it does not transcend the category of “Negro” which is a category that is performed by Black folk in defense of ourselves in response to the European’s social invention of “the negro.” He wants African-American literature to do something beautiful with language beyond what has been done in the “protest novel.” I see Toni Morrison in the same light as Baldwin when it comes to this. They are not writing to evoke emotion from white folk, but instead to construct blackness as a country, as a nation, and to portray black folks with nuance that does not have a specific political motive other than to have beautiful language and affirm the humanity of black folk, by putting them at the center of their novels, as the default. When the novel is meant to inspire social action, some of the important identity-making and nation-making is absent from it, similar to some of what Baldwin is articulating in “Nobody Knows My Name.”

    • Laura Katz says:

      I completely agree with Aly in regards to Baldwin’s critique of Native Son. In my opinion Baldwin believes that the black writing should be just as poignant and beautiful in style and that the protest novel loses this by attempting to create a call for social change. This is not to say that a call to action is not necessary to motivate oppressed groups but that one must not sacrifice literary integrity in order to accomplish this goal. His point is most affectively conveyed when he states, “One is told to put first things first ,the good of society coming before the niceties of style or characterization” (19). Therefore, Baldwin advocates for novels that change the situation of African Americans not through pity or white aid but through African Americans gaining personhood in African American novels.

  5. Ryan Spencer says:

    In my eyes both are examples of protests novels, Native Son is just more discrete in its protest. The rat in Native Son seems to both serve gritty Naturalism as well as virtuous thrill. Though I have not read Native Son, I believe that the rat serves as a symbol which exposes the grittiness of everyday life. At the same time, though, the everyday life which the rat depicts is pretty clearly supposed to be the life of the oppressed. Therefore, Wright does not directly depict the Thomases as disadvantaged or depressed but rather symbolizes them as so. That being said he does escape many of the things he wished to escape. The Thomases are depicted as disadvantaged to a far less of an extent than Bigger was. The fact of their disadvantage is due only to the reality of the time. Wright succeeds perhaps as depicting the family as simply a poor black family in Chicago and nothing more if context is not provided beyond the novel itself. In this way, he seems to create a protest novel of minimal protest. That being said the fighting of the rat only provides a virtuous thrill if viewed in the context of oppression of the time. Native Son does not completely escape the definition of protest novel but it comes as close as it can.

  6. Sydney Exler says:

    I think that Wright and Baldwin’s conclusions don’t necessarily have to be in conflict with one another. Instead, I would like to suggest that it’s possible for the rat to be a Naturalist representation, while also evoking a virtuous thrill from the reader. I will say that I believe it be functioning primarily as Naturalist representation, and the virtuous thrill as secondary. I think that authors do attempt to elicit responses from their readers (i.e. the virtuous thrill), but they must first ensure that their work independently and internally holds meaning (in this case, it serves as a naturalist representation of the reality of African Americans at the time). Therefore, it is logical to conclude that Wright’s priority was to produce an accurate depiction of everyday life; the feeling that readers supposedly gain from reading it – the feeling that they are somehow better people for willingly and actively acknowledging reality – may be evidently present, but does not seem to me to have been Wright’s primary intention. Despite Wright’s ‘intentions’, however, it does seem possible for the scene with the rat to simultaneously serve both of its supposed functions.

  7. ccalimlim says:

    I do not believe there is an inherent moral reward in reading” Big Boy Leaves Home.” Simply reading the text, or any text, does not warrant a moral reward. The moral reward comes when reading a text causes some kind of action or change, whether it be outward or inward.

    Wright included the rat with the intent for it to be taken as gritty Naturalism, however there are certainly readers who will see the rat and take it for virtuous thrill. The fact that Wright’s intent was gritty Naturalism carries weight. This is not meant as an invalidation of Baldwin’s critique. Despite a writer’s best efforts, their intent might not always reach their reader.

    I agree with Aly’s post in that Baldwin wants African-American literature to transcend categories placed upon them by other people. The protest novel does serve its purpose in potentially inspiring action or at least (hopefully) causing introspection, but Baldwin is looking for something beyond that.

  8. LaShawn Simmons says:

    I want to start off by saying my knowledge of the two writers is limited even after reading the selected texts. I will do my best to adequately express ideas that both authors are trying to convey.

    From what I observed so far, Richard Wright doesn’t readily receive praise for his literary skills especially from Black authors and Black studies scholars. Even so, I believe in the instance of the rat and arguably the characters’ childhood joys in “Big Boy Leaves Home”. In both situations, Wright is genuine and creative in unpacking socio-economical dilemmas through a creative lens. As stated in the prompt, Wright could have been explicit in the economic distress the family faces but the creative approach is considerably a more desirable literary technique that is attributed to the American literature canon. However, literary texts such as Big Boy Leaves Home and Native Son portray not so desirable archetypes of the (the many) “Black experience (s)” (as defined by various media forms.) These exaggerated characters are not generally protected and supported by the “Black community” but they are meant to invoke emotion and thus ignite a call to action for his White audience. I believe what Baldwin critiques is that to what extent is one willing to achieve this method, even if it’s at the expense Black folk’s deserving (rightful) humanity.

  9. Conor Amrien says:

    While I do not believe that there is an inherent moral reward in reading “Big Boy Leaves Home”, I do believe that some could be drawn in only to have their sense of guilt fulfilled. It is possible that people drawn in by the prospect of a moral reward will read it and consider themselves educated enough after the venture. This moral reward may not be inherent to the text, but it certainly can be cultivated by the reading of the text by certain people i.e. the oppressor. I don’t believe, however, that this detracts from the overall value of the novel and its overall contribution to the cultivation of the nation through literature. The idyllic beginning of Big Boy and the rat of Native Son are not necessarily in opposition to one another. They both present a specific form realism that remains true to the black experience. The rat, while able to give a sense of “virtuous thrill”, still stems from a grotesque reality. The playfulness first displayed in Big Boy is also a form of realism that is just as necessary as the rat image. It is a depiction of realistic southern living for these boys before the chaos erupts. These forms of reality both remain true to the experiences of the Black nation. The grotesque is just as real as the idyllic at times when portraying reality. The difference is in feeling and intention. The use of the idyllic in the beginning of Big Boy reinforces its importance and necessity by the end of the story. The use of the rat builds upon the grotesque aspects of reality in order to draw in the reader. Both serve a purpose in the crafting a “Realist” portrayal.

  10. Michaela Cabral says:

    Although the beginning of “Big Boy Leaves Home” may be idyllic, the perfect calm before the storm, it also seems to represent a true narrative for black boys at this time, making it naturalism, like the rat. Many black boys during this time were just carefree boys enjoying a summer day, until society caught up to them and caused issues (in this case, very extreme ones). Although “Big Boy Leaves Home” inspires great emotion, it is not emotion unfounded. It reflects a history of pain and the stripping of childhood, which continues into today. The rat represents another reality, one that reflects class and living situation. I see “Big Boy” and Native Son as in the same vein and of the same genre. I believe they are both examples of the protest novel because they both address realities for the black community in a way that is difficult to overlook.

    I see where Baldwin would critique these novels and how just experiencing a “thrill of virtue” could be dangerous. I think, though, that this responsibility falls on the reader, not the author. I believe that, with the right readers, a protest novel could have great significance and impact. I don’t think that it shouldn’t be written because of some readers who misinterpret it. If it became clear that a majority of people were only experiencing this “theological terror” and reading it for the “moral reward,” it might be worth examining why the novel was affecting them in this way and how much of this was actually out of the control of the author. I believe that this group is the minority, however, and that most people would feel emotions and then have concrete thoughts and actions after reading these novels.

  11. jkoslofsky says:

    We spoke at length today in class on the development of Big Boy’s character through Big Boy Leaves Home, development in this case meaning dehumanization. Big Boy beings the story jovial and witty, and ends in the back of a truck thirsty, traumatized and quiet. We also begun our discussion of Big Boy Leaves Home thinking about it in terms of a bildungsroman, or coming of age story. However, what Wright is doing here is taking the core concept of a story where the main character grows up and turning it on its head: by the end of the story, Big Boy is less of a man then when he started it, simply due to the evil of his environment. In this way, Big Boy Leaves Home could almost act as a preface to Native Son, with the next chapter of Big Boy’s life starting with him hypothetically facing a rat or the prior chapter of Bigger’s life (pre-rat and the rest of Native Son) dealing with his maturation–or regression. So to answer the question, I would say that both would fall into the “protest novel” category, but that Baldwin is wrong, because both involve character development. It just so happens that it isn’t the type of character development we want to see in stories, and in Native Son the character development takes place off stage.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I think the rat provides a sense of naturalism far more than it does a “virtuous thrill.” I agree that there are grotesque elements of some literature that provide this thrill, but a rat is not one of them. Encountering rats is part of living in a city, so it’s something a lot of readers are going to be familiar with, and not experience as something new or exciting.
    There is definitely a moral reward for white readers for reading Big Boy and other “protest novels.” It makes us feel like we’ve learned or done something significant without actually having engaged with anything, which is why I think protest novels can sometimes be dangerous.
    The beginnings are definitely different, but I suppose it could be said that they work to serve the same purpose. I agree with Aly’s opinion on Baldwin’s critique of Wright.

  13. Alex Bordona says:

    There are “grotesque” elements in literature that provide a “virtuous thrill,” but a rat in someone’s home is not one of them. Rats are fairly commonplace in cities, and not something that most readers are going to consider new or exciting. Or maybe even particularly grotesque.
    For white readers, there is most certainly a “moral reward” for reading Big Boy and other protest novels. It gives us a sense of being active or engaging with our privilege in some way when it really does not do either of those things, or anything, which makes protest novels sort of dangerous territory. I’m not even sure it can be said they do a particularly effective job of educating white readers. There is too much dramatism, and with literature, people assume elements are exaggerated or not entirely true.
    I agree with Aly’s opinion on Baldwin’s reasons for critiquing Wright.
    The openings of the two works are starkly different, but I do believe they work to serve the same purpose, although this is not immediately apparent. Both are trying to evoke that moral response from readers, with varying levels of success.

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