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Existentialism Vs. Naturalism in Native Son

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When I was recently suffering from the dreaded sweet tooth syndrome, I hadn’t the slightest clue that the result would lead to a personal and universal philosophical debate worthy of comparison to Richard Wright’s Native Son. I found a bag of Dove milk chocolates in my cupboard, and proceeded to snack mindlessly. If you have ever had a Dove chocolate bar, you may know that the foil wrappers include adorable anecdotes, encouraging you to “take a well-deserved bubble bath”, or reminding you that “when two hearts race, both win”. After merely two chocolates (I swear), I came across a wrapper that I found somewhat hysterical in nature. “Follow your instincts,” it beckoned, and I wanted to laugh out loud. What did this even mean? I began to think about the novel I was reading, Native Son. The main character, Bigger Thomas, was somewhat of a slave to his instincts. But were they even his? And thus, my own curiosity over existentialism and naturalism began.

Though Richard Wright’s Native Son encompasses several traditional values of existentialism, the style and themes presented are primarily a reflection of the naturalistic movement in philosophy and literature. The philosophical studies of human beings, existentialism and naturalism, share a vital amount of similarities. But the distinctions between the two must be emphasized in order to better comprehend which style Richard Wright employed. Upon dissecting the style, themes, plot, and characters in Native Son, it is clear that naturalism was the predominant philosophical approach.

Existentialism has been defined as a philosophical movement or tendency, accentuating individual existence, freedom and choice. The existentialists conclude that human choice is subjective, because individuals finally must make their own choices without help from such external standards as laws, ethical rules, or traditions. Life’s events are not predetermined, but rather are a series of moments. “Human existence, then, cannot be thought through categories appropriate to things: substance, event, process. There is something of an internal distinction in existence that undermines such attempts, a distinction that existential philosophers try to capture in the categories of вЂ?facticity’ and вЂ?transcendence.’ To be is to co-ordinate these opposed moments in some way, and who I am, my essence, is nothing but my manner of co-ordinating them,” according to “Existentialism as Philosophy”. Because individuals make their own choices, they are free, but because they freely choose, they are completely responsible for their choices. The existentialists emphasize that freedom is necessarily accompanied by responsibility. Furthermore, since individuals are forced to choose for themselves, they have their freedomвЂ"and therefore their responsibility вЂ"thrust upon them. They are “condemned to be free.”

“The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings,” says Donna M. Campbell in “Naturalism in American Literature”. Naturalism is more of a philosophical study than literary technique. Naturalistic writers regard human behavior as controlled by instinct, emotion, or social and economic conditions, and reject free will, adopting instead, in large measure, the biological determinism of Charles Darwin and the economic determinism of Karl Marx. Naturalism in literature is, in essence, an approach that proceeds from an analysis of reality in terms of natural forces like heredity, environment, and physical drives. Naturalism has its roots in the renaissance, its backgrounds in the Middle Ages. Authors in the Naturalist movement tended to deal with the harsh aspects of life. The subject matter in naturalist works differs from realism in that it often deals with those raw and unpleasant experiences which reduce characters to shameful behavior in their struggle to survive. These characters are mostly from the lower middle or the lower classes. They are poor, uneducated, and unsophisticated.

Naturalism and Existentialism have several similarities. Both philosophical means of studying human nature “belongs to intellectual history”. They strive to bring a strong sense of objectivity and “coldness” to their studies. They are based upon reasoning and logic, and want to see human beings scientifically. The key difference between naturalism and existentialism is the exercise of free will, and the individual’s ability to find meaning in their life. Naturalist perspective argues that humans cannot dictate their own lives. Their belief is that an individual’s life is determined by its environment, heredity, circumstances, and so forth, whereas existentialists are based upon the concept of the individual acting out of free will. The purpose of life is to reject outside authorities or impacts on one’s life. Therefore the essential question referring to Native Son is; does Bigger take control of his own life, or is his life established by his surrounding circumstances?

The plot of Native Son contains examples of both existentialism (arguably) and naturalism. Primary models of existentialism would be the Bigger’s murders of Mary Dalton and Bessie. His reaction is not one of regret, but one of euphoria; “He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him.” Bigger’s possibilities have always been stunted by racism, but after these murderous acts, he is “free” to act (and to live with the consequences of these actions) for the first time. Even though these consequences ultimately mean flight and imprisonment, this feeling of self-assertion and personal control nonetheless remains liberating and intoxicating for Bigger. This action brought Bigger “outside his family now, over and beyond them”.

Other important existentialist passages surround the mother figures in Bigger’s life. The first is his mother, who sings a spiritual song early in the story. Bigger becomes annoyed with this, showing his need to move past religious authority to find his own meaning. The rejection of religion is a very common feature of existentialism, particularly for philosophers such as Sartre and Nietzche. Nietzsche proclaimed “Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Sartre elaborates on this bold statement



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