Richard Wright's the Outsider an essay

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(It will be recalled that Wright's then unpublished Lawd Today served as a working model for The Outsider.) Cross, in his daily dealings with the three women and his fellow postal workers feel something akin to nausea. His social and legal obligations have enslaved him. He has inherited from his mother a sense of guilt and foreboding regarding his relationship to women and his general awareness of amoral physical and sexual longings. Yet he is aloof and intellectual enough to know that the dread he experiences is psychological (i.e., it stems from his religious upbringing, the demands of his women, and the knowledge that he lives in a world devoid of reason, God, or universal values). Wright stresses here that Cross's views have been arrived at as a result of his reading and his individual relationships; and only secondarily because he is a Negro. Allusion is made early in this first book that because Cross no longer believes in God, he becomes his own god and acts accordingly in somewhat symbolic fashion. One of Cross's friends describing Cross's first years in the post office recalls that Cross, convulsed with laughter, would throw money down on the street from the eleventh floor and watch the commotion of "little ant-like folks . . . scrambling and scratching and crawling" after the coins. And after the money was gone, they would look up at the window, their mouths open like "little fishes out of water," and Cross would say when they looked like that, they were praying (Joyce, 2006 p. 29).

One evening after having engineered an eight hundred dollar loan from the post office, Cross discovers himself trapped in a freak subway accident. He manages to extricate himself but finds that he has left his overcoat behind. Later he learns that another Negro who had been riding on the same car was killed and had been identified as Cross Damon since Cross's overcoat was found lying next to his smashed body. Cross suddenly realizes that inasmuch as everyone thinks him dead, he can begin life anew with no obligations. He hides for a while in a brothel-hotel to make sure that no one suspects he is still alive, and there, ironically, discovers a fellow postal worker who had attended his funeral (Shankar, 2004). Cross suddenly turns on him, knocks him unconscious, and flings him out of an eleventh story window. The following day Cross boards a train for New York, relieved somewhat of the dread that had pursued him all his life.

Cross moves from dread to "Dream," the title of Book Two. Wright indicates Cross is now "dream" (JanMohamed, 2005 p. 112) because presumably having no identity, he is unable to relate to persons and things around him. In a sense he possesses no reality but observes passively:

As silent as a mirror is believed

Realities plunge in silence by.

Not until Cross obtains a past and a social role, Wright hints, will he become a man again. On the train Cross meets two persons, each of whom will figure strongly in his life afterwards. The first is Bob Hunter, a dining car waiter, who inadvertently spills coffee on a white woman customer. The woman screams that the Negro had deliberately scalded her and threatens to report him. Hunter turns to Cross to testify for him but Cross can only give him a false name and address. The second person Cross meets is Ely Houston, a hunchback New York district attorney (Hanchard, 2001 p. 10). The two men engage in long philosophical disquisitions; not unlike Raskolnikoff and Porfiry; about crime and the ethical criminal. Both agree that there are a growing number of men and women who are finding it impossible to accept traditional Christian values. Finding themselves increasingly alienated and isolated by a mass urban industrial society, they tend to take the law into their own hands; indeed feel they have the right to break the law (Margolies, 2003 p. 112). They differ from the ordinary criminal in that the latter expects and wants to be captured; the ordinary criminal posits an orderly, coherent world against which he rebels; the ethical criminal regards the world as chaotic and meaningless. Houston and Cross both agree as well that the Negro in America is in a better position to perceive the realities of existence than the ordinary white man, inasmuch as the Negro, though Westernized, is excluded from full participation by virtue of his color (Shankar, 2004 p. 22). Cross intuits that Houston is just as much the criminal as any of the prey he pursues. He protects himself from his amoral criminal impulses by cynically assuming the cloak of the policeman. Yet Houston is as much an Outsider as Cross; he recognizes that society and civilization are mere sham; disguises to protect men from the knowledge of their own bestiality. Houston, in his turn, is very favorably impressed by Cross's intellect and insight. He is especially struck by a remark that Cross makes: "Man is nothing in particular" (Gelfant & Graver, 2000 p. 212).

When Cross reaches New York, he manages, after considerable effort and much ingenuity, to appropriate the name and identity of a Negro, Lionel Lane, who had just recently died. Later he meets Bob Hunter on the street who informs him that the railroad had fired him because of the incident on the dining car (Warren, 2007 p. 8). Cross learns Bob is a Communist and through Bob is introduced to two white Communists, Gil and Eva Blount. Cross is perversely fascinated by Gil's almost instinctive desire to wield power over him. He recognizes in Gil the atrophying of all human and subjective feeling. Gil is a cynical man who uses and manipulates men's dreams in order to control and rule them. Gil and other Communists like him are in their own way as criminal as Cross and Houston (JanMohamed, 2005 p. 219). As Book Two closes, Cross accepts Gil's invitation to live with him and Eva in their Greenwich Village home in order, ostensibly, to provoke the Blounts' fascist, Negro-hating landlord. Cross secretly anticipates with joy the struggle he is about to have with Gil and his fascist enemy over the possession of Cross's criminal soul.

It is in Book Two that Wright's novel first really begins to go awry. Book One is almost exclusively narrative; the characters are feasible and behave according to their own inner laws. Even Cross's dilemma, grim as it is, and his own subsequent efforts to extricate himself, are understandable if not altogether praiseworthy. Cross's character and situation; the alienated, aloof, and contemptuous Negro intellectual, mired in a slew of depressing, sordid, near-hopeless circumstances; is a subject worthy of a fine novel (Hanchard, 2001 p. 115). Where did Wright go wrong? One can begin to sense it toward the close of Book One. Cross's murder of the postal worker, Joe, in the brothel, is at once comprehensible and yet at the same time bewildering. Cross feared that Joe would betray him and thereby reinvolve him in a morass of responsibilities and accusations even worse than the ones he had known before the accident. Yet, after performing the deed, Cross seems strangely unmoved by the horror of his actions. It is somehow hard to believe that a man who has been engulfed by dread and fear all his life can all at once reject his wife and children, his pregnant mistress, his mother; and commit a brutal murder; and yet move about apparently untroubled by qualms of conscience. It is possible but hardly probable. This suggests one of the main problems with The Outsider. Although Wright has attempted to create in Cross a creature that earnestly endeavors to discipline his emotions, and act only according to his intellect and perceptions, he remains nonetheless, Wright tells us, a creature of impulse and desires. Yet his most significant and violent actions are determined almost always by his intellect; and he thereby becomes something other than human (Ford, 2000 p. 113).

Root of Dread

From infancy on, Wright tells us, Cross was at the mercy of a mother who imparted guilt and dread into his soul to such a degree that Cross constantly term bled at the brink of his amoral nature; which he thought he knew. But perhaps what he did not know was that the fear, trembling, and nausea that he felt are the suppressed and savage hatred of a mother who made him the scapegoat for all her sorrows. The demands made upon him by the other women in his life in the Chicago phase of his existence, which Wright relates in excruciating detail, have also made of him an unwilling instrument of their suffering. Hence Cross's anger at being used is understandable. When Cross murders two Communists and a fascist, his motives seem to derive more from…[continue]

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