Identity in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Alice Walker's The Color Purple
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Identity in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Alice Walker's The Color Purple
Personal identity is vital to living a worthwhile life. A person who goes through life without knowing what he or she stands for and believes in is living an incomplete life. Those who lack an understanding of their identity will unintentionally accept outsiders’ opinions and stereotypes of them. This harmful position can be seen in many characters from the African-American Literature class. Bigger Thomas, from Richard Wright’s, Native Son, is one lost character. Another character who lacks understanding is Alice Walker’s Celie, from The Color Purple. Both of these characters have a different awareness level of the position that they stand in, and that level changes throughout their respective stories as they attempt to determine what is of importance to them.
Bigger Thomas is one character, yet he represents the condition of numerous people. Richard Wright manifested his character from various people that he encountered and rolled all of those interactions and emotions into one character. One reason that the name “Bigger” is very appropriate for this character is that the name prevents the readers from limiting the character to one person. The name represents more of a complex than a person. This complex includes all young colored men who do not see how they fit into the big picture of society.
Bigger does not know what his identity is. He did not receive an abundance of love and support as a child to give him the crucial confidence needed for him to fight for a position in life. Instead, he followed into the stereotypical roles for a poor black man on the streets of Chicago. Bigger often was in trouble with the law. He stole from stores and carried weapons on him. He got into fights with the guys who he hung out with. He did not have a job even though his family had very little to survive economically. These are all traits of the “bad Negro,” which is another reasoning for the name “Bigger.”
If Bigger had more confidence in what he could accomplish with his abilities, he would challenge the rules that keep him out of the flight school.
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Richard Wright Native Son Color Purple Alice Walker
Bigger refers to a passing airplane, “I could fly one of them things if I had a chance.” (Wright 20) Bigger needs to fight for the chance to fly an airplane. He could become passionate about this one issue, and that could be a base for a personal identity. To show that Bigger is not alone in his understanding of the society, his friend, Gus replies, “If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane.” (Wright 20) Gus sees the obstacles and shows no interest in fighting to overcome the obstacles.
Bigger sees himself in a different world than the white man. This is partially true, but the two worlds overlap and interact with each other. Bigger does not like to deal with the white man’s world. This is a major setback in his ability to create a personal identity for himself. If Bigger does not address the issue, he will never be able to communicate effectively with people outside of his race.
Another shortcoming of Bigger’s personal identity is his lack of morals. His home situation did not help him to form his own opinions on what is morally right and wrong. This is primarily seen in the scene that Mary Dalton is killed. Bigger did not mean to kill Mary, but he did not know how to react when her mother entered the room. If he had strong enough morals he would have talked with Mrs. Dalton and explained to her what happened without worrying about his race bringing him down. He was certain that she would think he was taking advantage of her daughter and there would be no questions asked. Yet, he is too scared and acts in the moment to keep Mary quiet, which eventually kills her. He unintentionally puts his pride in front of Mary’s whole life.
As soon as this accidental murder is committed, Bigger loses the little personal identity that he had. The only details that have meaning are: “She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman.” (Wright 86) This is how Bigger knows that the crime will be viewed. He doesn’t think anyone will listen to his side of the story. They won’t want to know anything about him; they know all the prevalent information just by looking at him. This is shown by one of the early newspaper headlines, “HUNT BLACK IN GIRL’S DEATH.” (Wright 227)
Others in the colored society understand the position that Bigger is in. One character, Jim, says, “But, Jack, ever’ nigger looks guilty t’ white folks when somebody’s done a crime.” (Wright 235) Even if Bigger had been innocent, he could have easily been charged with Mary’s murder if someone else committed the crime.
Bigger never dealt with white people much before his chauffer job in the Dalton house. When looking for a reason for him to murder Mary, Max asks Bigger when he started hating Mary. Bigger responds, “I hated her as soon as she spoke to me, as soon as I saw her. I reckon I hated her before I saw her.” (Wright 326) Before even meeting Mary, Bigger had his opinion of her set; she was white so she was bad. He didn’t think there could be a good white person because he had only experienced the wrath of the white race. Damon Marcel DeCoste looks at how Bigger’s experiences with whites has been up to this time in his life:
“Yet if Bigger knows these facts of his own oppression, his response is an attempt to erase this reality, to deny its status as fact and to retreat to a position where its factuality cannot reach him. Rankling at his own circumscribed existence, Bigger withdraws from it, from the world that rebukes him, from those other blacks as sorry and powerless as he, finally from his own consciousness of the real itself. Indeed, because of what he knows of this reality, Bigger pursues a studied rejection of it.” (DeCoste)
Towards the end of the novel, Bigger begins questioning more things than he ever did during the rest of his life. He compares himself to the white race and realizes that he still wants to live. He wants to live, in part, to prove them wrong. He wants to see if his new way of thinking is correct. He understands that Max is truly trying to help him, as is Jan. It takes a death sentence in order to make Bigger want to live. He realizes that his life could have a purpose, which is something that never occurred to him because he had no personal identity.
Another character who does not know her position in society is Celie, from The Color Purple. She accepts what is given to her and does not learn to fight for herself until much later in her life. Of course, it is beneficial that she makes this understanding at some point, but her life could have been much more happy if she had learned what it could be as a young person.
From the start, Celie does not receive the right kind of love and guidance from her parents. She is not taught the ways of the world to understand the possibilities for happiness. She lets others create her being because she does not resist them. She follows what they tell her to do because she was never presented the idea of her being an individual capable of doing what she wanted.
Celie goes from one man’s house to another and very little changes. Her life knows no joy or happiness. Everything she does is out of duty to her husband. She has no self-worth and lives a quiet life following orders. Her husband abuses her in every sense of the word. He abuses her physically when she does something incorrect, or not to his liking; he abuses her sexually because Celie does not even understand that sex is meant to be something enjoyable; and her abuses her emotionally because he belittles every aspect of her.
Everything changes for Celie the day that Shugs enters her life. Shugs personality and actions confound Celie’s mind. Celie has never met a woman with as much vitality as Shugs has. Celie’s husband is grappling at every chance he can have to make Shugs happy. Shugs has total control over him and she knows it. She uses her confidence to make Mister shake with fear. He wants to make her happy and is willing to do anything that she desires. Celie had observed this behavior in Harpo, but she could not apply that to her own life because she saw him as young and unsure of what he was doing.
Shugs immediately observes Celie’s position in life. Celie is in awe of Shugs and Shugs respects this situation enough to help Celie. Shugs puts the idea into Celie’s mind that she does not have to do only as her husband says. Celie is a real person and deserves to live her own life and not let anyone else control it. Shugs helps Celie to form her own identity by doing simple things like having her smile without covering it with her hand. Eventually, Celie gains enough confidence that she is able to stand up for herself. She decides she is leaving and she does. Her husband is left hopeless without anyone to do his dirty work. Critics also agree that Shugs was important to Celie’s self-recognition.
“He (Ross) finds that once Celie can recognize and appreciate her body as complete and belonging to herself, she is able to express love verbally for herself and others. Her apparent desire for selfhood, he further argues, is initiated in a crucial mirror scene in which Shug Avery helps initiate Celie's desire for selfhood.” (Pifer)
Celie’s new identity allows her to find pleasure in life. She finds a job that she enjoys doing and can do independently. Her life takes on meaning because she a personal life in place of the old labor-intense life.
Anyone lacking a personal identity will be given an identity by outsiders. Everyone needs to know what makes them who they are and to be proud of that fact. They need to have beliefs so that they are better prepared to know how to react when an unfavorable position presents itself. Bigger realized that he had fell into the stereotypical role because he did not form any other identity for himself until it was too late. Celie was able to enjoy part of her life by reclaiming it through the help of a friend. Without personal identity, society will run a person over and sweep him away. In order to live a happy and meaningful life, it is vital to know what is of importance and to act on those beliefs to create a personal identity.
DeCoste, Damon Marcel. “To blot it all out: the politics of realism in Richard Wright's Native son.” Style. Vol 32 no 1. Spring 98. 127-147
Pifer, Lynn and Tricia Slusser. “Looking at the back of your head: mirroring scenes in Alice Walker's The color purple and Possessing the secret of joy.” Melus. Vol 23, no 4. Winter 98. 47-57
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Perennial, 1940.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Narrative and Voice
Walker emphasizes throughout the novel that the ability to express one’s thoughts and feelings is crucial to developing a sense of self. Initially, Celie is completely unable to resist those who abuse her. Remembering Alphonso’s warning that she “better not never tell nobody but God” about his abuse of her, Celie feels that the only way to persevere is to remain silent and invisible. Celie is essentially an object, an entirely passive party who has no power to assert herself through action or words. Her letters to God, in which she begins to pour out her story, become her only outlet. However, because she is so unaccustomed to articulating her experience, her narrative is initially muddled despite her best efforts at transparency.
In Shug and Sofia, Celie finds sympathetic ears and learns lessons that enable her to find her voice. In renaming Celie a “virgin,” Shug shows Celie that she can create her own narrative, a new interpretation of herself and her history that counters the interpretations forced upon her. Gradually Celie begins to flesh out more of her story by telling it to Shug. However, it is not until Celie and Shug discover Nettie’s letters that Celie finally has enough knowledge of herself to form her own powerful narrative. Celie’s forceful assertion of this newfound power, her cursing of Mr. ______ for his years of abuse, is the novel’s climax. Celie’s story dumbfounds and eventually humbles Mr. ______, causing him to reassess and change his own life.
Though Walker clearly wishes to emphasize the power of narrative and speech to assert selfhood and resist oppression, the novel acknowledges that such resistance can be risky. Sofia’s forceful outburst in response to Miss Millie’s invitation to be her maid costs her twelve years of her life. Sofia regains her freedom eventually, so she is not totally defeated, but she pays a high price for her words.
The Power of Strong Female Relationships
Throughout The Color Purple, Walker portrays female friendships as a means for women to summon the courage to tell stories. In turn, these stories allow women to resist oppression and dominance. Relationships among women form a refuge, providing reciprocal love in a world filled with male violence.
Female ties take many forms: some are motherly or sisterly, some are in the form of mentor and pupil, some are sexual, and some are simply friendships. Sofia claims that her ability to fight comes from her strong relationships with her sisters. Nettie’s relationship with Celie anchors her through years of living in the unfamiliar culture of Africa. Samuel notes that the strong relationships among Olinka women are the only thing that makes polygamy bearable for them. Most important, Celie’s ties to Shug bring about Celie’s gradual redemption and her attainment of a sense of self.
The Cyclical Nature of Racism and Sexism
Almost none of the abusers in Walker’s novel are stereotypical, one-dimensional monsters whom we can dismiss as purely evil. Those who perpetuate violence are themselves victims, often of sexism, racism, or paternalism. Harpo, for example, beats Sofia only after his father implies that Sofia’s resistance makes Harpo less of a man. Mr. ______ is violent and mistreats his family much like his own tyrantlike father treated him. Celie advises Harpo to beat Sofia because she is jealous of Sofia’s strength and assertiveness.
More main ideas from The Color Purple