On the Verge of Utterance: Language and Identity in Richard Wright’s Native Son




Maria del Carmen Quintero posee un doctorado en las literaturas del Caribe Anglófono de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, recinto de Río Piedras. Su disertación doctoral titulada, “Endlessly Making the Nation: Tidalectically Synthesizing Nature and Culture in Derek Walcott’s Omeros,” es una lectura eco crítica pos colonial del poema, cuya premisa inicial también encabeza el título de su libro, Caribbean Without Borders: Beyond the Can[n]on’s Range, publicado por Cambridge Scholars Press. Actualmente es profesora en los recintos de Mayaguez y Río Piedras de la Universidad de Puerto Rico. Sus ensayos, reseñas y ponencias han sido publicados en Caribbean Studies Journal y varios volúmenes de la Universidad de las Antillas Holandesas, entre otros.



In 1940 Richard Wright  felt that his novel,Native Son, would be the catalyst towards change, towards the creation of a new American identity through the portrayal of a young black man’s troubled, albeit lacking, sense of identity as depicted through his relation to the English language and his subsequent journey towards gaining voice. Yet, after the novel’s publication Wright felt that the United States was not ready for his avantgarde creation. After having been bombarded by critics, Wright felt the need to write a rationale behind the writing of Native Son titled “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” in order to explain the novel’s purpose, which seemed to have been missed by United States audiences. The purpose of this essay is to examine Bigger Thomas’s journey from his silent beginnings and his awkward relation to the master language, to his successful and yet tragic end when he appropriates the words and thus enters the “authoritative discourse” (Miller 503) he had been excluded from. The structure of the essay will chronologically follow Bigger’s relation to language, from its silent, fearful beginnings, through the turning point in his conversation with Mary’s boyfriend Jan Erlone, until the end when he finally gains a voice and a sense of self before his lawyer Boris Max while on death row. All the moments in the novel leading to this final scene show a Bigger that is on the verge of utterance; it is only at the end that he finally reaches such a critical moment of human consciousness and consequently, identity.Wright’s novel is therefore a Bildungsroman that focuses on a coming into language journey as opposed to the traditional coming of age story that is at the center of nation-forming narration.

* Although not yet coined, the literary term for a coming into voice story would be Stimmenroman.



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