How the Print Media Turned Max into a Communist: A Zizekean Reading of Native Son

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John Chapman

Abstract

In his article "The Conclusion of Richard Wright's Native Son," Paul Siegel poses a unique reading of Wright's novel: that critics have grievously misunderstood Max's courtroom speech because they have erroneously labeled Max a Communist. Siegel, however, fails to capitalize on the significance of his discovery. If it is true that Max is not a Communist, then how is it possible that for over seventy years so many critics and readers have misinterpreted such a significant character? In order to answer this question, I looked at Native Son through mass media theory. Throughout the novel, Wright incorporates newspaper headlines, articles, and excerpts of articles covering Bigger's crime, which create stereotypes of the Communist Party that Max is either associated with or accused of possessing, forming an unconscious assumption on the reader's part that Max must be a Communist. When read this way, Max's speech becomes, not a Communistic rant, but rather about the way in which White society uses the media to perpetuate stereotypes and thereby help them maintain their hegemony. Perhaps the most disturbing quality of Max's speech is not his unveiling of the pervasive, overwhelming struggle for hegemony inherent in our culture, but rather the fact that Wright has constructed a world within Native Son that so closely reflects the real world that we, as readers, have been consumed by the very cycle Max is trying to illuminate. In this way, Wright reminds us that there are no objective subjects, not even Max who has situated him far enough outside of ideology as to claim he can see the inner workings of society. My paper employs a Zizekean reading of Native Son to prove that Wright uses the character of Max to demonstrate to his readers that no one can know society or how to fight against ideology. Instead, Native Son teaches us that only through awareness of ideology can we begin to fight against its destructive components.

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