Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Delinquent's Sabbath; or, the Return of the Repressed: The Matter of Bodies in "Native Son"

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Delinquent's Sabbath; or, the Return of the Repressed: The Matter of Bodies in "Native Son"

Article excerpt

While many critics have been drawn to the compelling subject of voice in Native Son, most have ignored the equally compelling matter of bodies in Wright's powerful 1940 novel.(1) But bodies are everywhere in, and everything to, this story of violence and violation. The socialite-cum-socialist Mary Dalton has a body. An idolized body. A sexualized body. A drunken body. A struggling body. A dead white female body. A grotesquely dismembered body. Likewise, the working class Bessie Mears has a body. A black female body. A tired body. A raped body. A crushed body. A dead body. A devalued body.(2) And, of course, perhaps above all, the angry displaced Bigger Thomas has a body. A black male body. A regulated body. An embarrassed body. A desiring body. A hungry body. A hunted body. A mythic body. Given the abundance of this bodily matter in Native Son, one might be tempted to assert that Richard Wright, in a spirit that is first cousin to Caliban's vengeful wish, has peopled his novel not with intangible characters but with substantive bodies-marked bodies, regimented bodies, suffering bodies, dead bodies. Very simply, bodies in pain constitute this text and, in Elaine Scarry's terms, are the occasion of its creation.(3) As with all artifacts, Wright' s novel is a bodily projection, born of his desire to overcome the pain of living as a black man in a white racist society. As such, Native Son has played a crucial role in the re-emergence of an African-American literary tradition of embodied fictions. For I believe that this great, disturbing novel serves not only as a kind of springboard for what has followed, but also as a twentieth-century re(in)statement of the kind of bodily knowledge that marks the nineteenth-century American slave narratives. In The Problem of Embodiment in Early African American Narrative,(4) I have argued that the Studies in the Novel, Volume 32, number 1 (Summer 1999). Copyright c 1999 by the University of North Texas. All rights to reproduction in any form reserved. slave narrators offer liberal humanists a new way of experiencing the world, one that draws upon the body' s own inborn knowledge of our connectedness to one another and to being itself. Here I argue that Richard Wright, having been deeply influenced himself by the materialism central to Marxist thought,(5) is able to retrieve the insight of the slave narratives that embodiment is not a curse to be overcome, but is rather the very state that makes possible human be-ing itself. What must be overcome, therefore, is the prevailing political philosophy that divides us into whites and blacks--self and other, mind and body.

But Wright's decision to people his text, his American tragedy,(6) with bodies-that of a murderer and those of his two victims-was a controversial and daring artistic move for a black man to make in 1940, a strategic move that has not yet been completely understood by critics whose own interpretive theories continue to ignore the fact that readers themselves are embodied. Following the principles of liberal humanism, most twentieth-century literary theorists themselves have assumed a normative dualism that subordinates readers' bodies to their minds. Absent of bodies, these abstract and idealized readers necessarily lack the messy social, political, and personal histories that can be inscribed on the body-histories that might make a difference in how texts are understood.(7) By contrast, in the nineteenth century readers were thought to have bodies, weak, impressionable bodies that required protection from the dangers of inflammatory texts.(8) This protection was thought to be especially necessary if readers were female, but also if they were black. Saunders Redding, for example, quotes a review in The Nashville Banner which, at the turn of the century, still could argue that a book like The Souls of Black Folk would be "dangerous for the Negro to read, for it will only excite discontent and fill his imagination with . …

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