Native Identity and Alienation in Richard Wright's Native Son and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Cross-Cultural Analysis
Sengova, Joko, The Mississippi Quarterly
THIS ESSAY DEALS WITH THE USE OF "NATIVE" IDENTITY and "alienation" as literary themes in Richard Wright's novel Native Son and Chinua Achebe's pioneering African novel Things Fall Apart. I will attempt to examine how society's denial of native status and identity with full citizenship to Wright's chief protagonist, Bigger Thomas, and to people of his community and background, leads to alienation and certain violent responses to it. In a cross-cultural comparative analysis, I will similarly examine the case of Achebe's hero, Okonkwo. Okonkwo's character heralds and celebrates the theme of ethnic African identity, yet Okonkwo is shown to have inherent weaknesses that make him vulnerable to irrational and tragic behavior. As historical prototypes, Bigger and Okonkwo seem to share a common genesis: their African ancestry. As cross-cultural symbols of contemporary society, what motivates their behavior and personality is inherent in the state of affairs defined by their respective societies.
Conceived and written nearly two decades apart under what are in many ways different social conditions and cultural contexts, Native Son and Things Fall Apart present an interesting pair of "star" characters in their chief protagonists. Despite their strong portrayals as men with the ability and volition to influence or determine their own destinies, Bigger and Okonkwo are forced in the end to succumb to much greater agencies of power immanent in or incumbent upon their respective societies. In Bigger Thomas's case, this agency is immanent racism as Wright lived, saw, and sensed it himself, with all its accoutrements. In "How 'Bigger' Was Born," his lucid introduction to the novel, Wright wrote of Bigger, highlighting the complexity in social consciousness which informs Bigger's turbulent journey through life:
Bigger, as I saw and felt him, was a snarl of many realities; he had in him many levels of life....--What made Bigger's consciousness most complex was the fact that he was hovering unwanted between two worlds--between powerful America and his own stunted place in life. (1)
Characterizing his own writing as communicating a state of mind reflecting a world of bitter sensations, and one akin to that in which Bigger finds himself, Wright's voice is unmistakable in the following lines from Black Boy (American Hunger) when the narrator Richard says, "My writing was my way of seeing, my way of living, my way of feeling; and who could change his sight, his notion of direction, his senses." (2)
Okonkwo's world, on the other hand, at least as he saw it, comprised a single harmonious order and reality: one defined almost exclusively within the cultural boundary and traditional value system of his village, ethnic group, clan, obi, (3) family, and extended family ties. Beyond these, nothing else was conceivably rational. This world view is also compatible with many precolonial systems not only in Africa but in other parts of the world that experienced a similar phase of human history. Okonkwo's world did not extend beyond the traditional realm of Igbo villages that constituted the basis of everyday interaction and contact among his people. The incumbent power of colonialism and its attendant Christian evangelism soon descends upon this traditional setting and promulgates its demise.
In a sense, therefore, both Bigger and Okonkwo are "native" sons in their communities who are challenged, albeit ill different ways, by powerful forces which help not only to mould their characters but also to determine how they negotiate the circumstances and events of their immediate surroundings, indeed, their very lives. Wright's use of the term "native son" as title of the novel as well as symbolic reference to the chief protagonist, however, carries with it a strongly intended tone of irony and mockery which may not be quite the case with Achebe's novel. Nonetheless, the carefully designed plots and narrative movements in both novels successfully create interesting complexities in the two chief characters as they struggle to authenticate or uphold their nativism (used here in the sense of identity as native), as well as battle against forms of alienation that pose threats to it. …