This is part two of a series of posts about teaching Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son (for part one, click here). This post will share a lesson that helps students consider the effects of an author’s choices regarding point of view.
The essential question of this lesson is: How does Wright establish (and shift) the point of view of the novel in its opening scene?
First, students should review the basic points of view that a writer of fiction has to choose from:
- First person POV (in which the narrator is a character)
- Third person objective POV (in which the narrator is not a character and reports only what can be observed externally)
- Third person omniscient (in which the narrator is not a character and can report on the external action as well as the internal thoughts and feelings of any character)
- Third person limited omniscient (this narrator is basically the same as third person omniscient, but the ability to report on internal thoughts and feelings is limited to one character)
Note: students will inevitably ask about second person. The answer is that there are stories with a second person narrator (several of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s story collection, Self Help, for example), but second person narrators are much less common.
Once students have discussed these definitions and demonstrated understanding of them, give the following instructions (these can be completed by individuals, by pairs, or by small groups):
- Start reading from the beginning (page 7 in most editions).
- Identify and write down in your notes the POV at the beginning.
- Read until you think it shifts to a different POV.
- STOP reading and write down where the POV shifts and what it shifts to.
Most students will recognize that, at the beginning, the point of view is third person objective (the narrator is reporting only what can be observed externally).
Students will also recognize that the point of view shifts in the following paragraph, several pages in:
Vera went behind the curtain and Bigger heard her trying to comfort his mother. He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.
The point of view shifts to third person limited omniscient, as we now have access to the internal thoughts and feelings of a single character: the protagonist, Bigger Thomas.
Students should now grapple (again, individually or in pairs or groups) with some follow-up questions, such as the following:
- What are some possible reasons that Wright makes the choice to open the novel in one point of view and then shift to a different point of view?
- What might Wright’s choice for how to establish and develop the POV have to do with naturalism (this is a connection back to part one of this post)?
What students should come away with is that Wright, in the style of literary naturalism (an offshoot of realism that focuses on the effect of external forces [often inescapable, oppressive external forces] on the behavior of the protagonist) opens the novel by establishing an objective ground situation upon which to build.
Before bringing us into Bigger’s mind, Wright first demonstrates Bigger’s surroundings: an impoverished living with his mother and siblings in a too-small, rat-infested apartment. It is from this situation that Bigger’s fear, despair, and hate emerge, and it is also this situation that is the basis for Wright’s social commentary.