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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ideologies of race? : the lessons of communism and existentialism in the literature of Richard Wright Tyndall, Regan


Marxism and Existentialism are the two major ideologies that inform Richard Wright's work in the period framed by two novels, "Native Son" (1940) and "The Outsider" (1953). The purpose of this thesis is (a) to briefly illuminate the history and circumstances of both black Marxism and Existentialism in relation to Wright in his American context; (b) to analyse Wright's Marxist- Existentialist progression in literature, focusing mainly on "Native Son" (1940), "Black Boy (American Hunger)" (1945), and "The Outsider" (1953), in order to (c) answer — among others — the following key questions: What is the relationship of Communism and Existentialism in Wright's literature? What did the ideologies of Marxism/Communism and Existentialism illuminate or influence regarding the racial issues that are at the centre of all of Wright's work? In Wright's case, the conventional critical view is that he progresses from Marxism to Existentialism, culminating in "The Outsider", which is often called "the first American existentialist novel." However, I argue that the principles of Existentialism were ingrained in Wright from well before his departure from the Communist Party; like Albert Camus' Meursault, "Native Son"'s Bigger Thomas (created years before Wright left the Party) is a kind of existential hero, while Wright's autobiography, "Black Boy", constructs his childhood within an existentialist narrative. My textual analysis will demonstrate how existential concepts are "tested" by Wright, notably in "Native Son" and "Black Boy", against Communism. I shall also argue that "The Outsider" is not properly an existentialist novel in that its protagonist, Cross Damon, consciously faces the failure of all ideology, including Communism and Existentialism. I shall demonstrate that Wright's existential development did not deter his Marxist perspective, and explain his unique insight into the problematic reality (and non-realities) of black Communism. Finally, I shall demonstrate that both Communism and Existentialism were, although engaged by Wright for reasons of non-racial intellectualism, failed ideologies with which to view "modern man" from a non-racial perspective.

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