Writing Social Justice
Without making readers feel like they're being told what to think
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Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) opens with the novel’s protagonist Bigger Thomas killing a rat in his family’s one-room apartment. It’s not just any rat; it’s a foot-long, teeth-bearing monster of a rat that “could cut your throat.” Bigger has no choice but to kill it.
If this were a high school English class, we’d ruin the novel by discussing the scene’s “symbolism.” We’d set up an equation to the effect of rat = x and try to solve for x. In doing so, we’d reduce the novel and Wright’s brilliance.
True, the scene does predict how the novel plays out: Bigger, living in poverty in Chicago with no opportunity, could be said to be forced to kill the daughter of a white, rich family. Or is he? That’s the novel’s question.