Fear & Anger: The Relationship Between Native Son, The Help, Harry Potter, & America’s Income Inequality

Some novels or stories lend themselves better to a second reading than others.  Dan Brown books are enjoyable reads, but whether they would stand up on a second read is unlikely.  More literary novels, however, not only stand up on a second reading, but allow the reader a greater appreciation of their depth.  One such novel is Richard Wright’s Native Son, which deals with one black man’s discontent with the society he lives in, and how he handles that discontent, or anger.

Native Son is divided into three sections: Fear, Flight and Fate.  In the first, we are introduced to Bigger Thomas and his world in Chicago.  His is a world where black people are segregated, marginalized and forced to live in a world of fear.  They are fearful of the white man and what could happen to them if they challenge the status quo.  Bigger is one such, and from the very beginning we see that he is angry, but virtually powerless to do anything.  He wants to rob a store, but is afraid to do so because the store is owned by a white man.  He’s fearful of every  action when he meets with Mr. Dalton, and angry that this man, and then his daughter, can make him feel so.  This fear leads to him eventually killing Mary Dalton.  Make no mistake, Bigger Thomas is not a sympathetic character.  He is most certainly responsible for some of his own ill-luck.  He fights, he cannot keep a job, he has committed crimes in the past, but in those few moments we see of him in a white household a certain sympathy can be felt nonetheless.  At least we feel sympathy for him until he kills Mary, and disposes of her body, intending to frame her Communist boyfriend.  It does beg the question, however, of whether he would have gone to the lengths he had if he was not so fearful of society.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, written more than half a century after Native Son, dells with similar issues of fear.  This story, in essence, does not have as much at stake as Native Son.  None of our main characters die, though there are references to Medgar Evers’s death.  The immediate threat of The Help is the loss of a job and the inability to be hired by another family.  Yet in itself it is the same sort of fear.  The black help has to walk on eggshells around their employers for fear of doing even one thing wrong.  Prison is a threat, certainly.  Unlike Native Son, however, The Help does have a little bit of hope.  Minny does get Hilly back for her horrible treatment.  I would speculate that this sense of justice occurs because the novel is written in a world after the Civil Rights Movement took place.  It would give a sense of hope for the future.

I do not believe that we live in a ‘Post-Racial World” as so many people like to say.  The best example I can give is the hate filled rhetoric, and behaviour of many Americans, both citizens and politicians, for Barack Obama.  There are always going to be disagreements among politicians, but the sheer backlist regarding almost anything that the President proposes goes far beyond partisan politics.  There is a long way to go before we live in a post-racial world, but I do not think that race will be the next big ‘war’ if we want to call it that.  I think that the battles of the mid-part of the twentieth century have given way to a class war, that might be starting to bubble over.

I think Bill Maher says it best, and most amusingly, when talking about the latest reason for Americans and their simmering hate.

I began this post writing about fear.  I think, however, that Fear and Anger go hand in hand.  When discussing income inequality there is constant fear that one won’t be able to take care of the self and the family.  Such fear leafs to anger.  In the example of The Help it was fairly benign, in Native Son it was far more extreme, with the death of Mary Dalton and probably Bigger Thomas.  The fallout of the growing income inequality in the U.S. remains to be determined, but as Dumbledore said in Half-Blood Prince:

“Don’t you see? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one that rises against them and strikes back!”

Substitute the rich of America for Voldemort and you have the same situation.  You could argue with me about the use of the word tyrant, but the attack on the poor from politicians and business leaders seems very tyrannical to me.