The Vanguard of Modernity: Richard Wright's The Outsider
As the novel opens, Cross's life as a Chicago postal worker and student of philosophy has hit bottom. He is estranged from his wife, mired in debt, and threatened by his girlfriend with charges of statutory rape. He moreover struggles with existential dread, which has led him to the study of Nietzsche and other modern philosophers. Suddenly one evening, Cross is trapped in a subway wreck. He escapes the darkened and overturned car, leaving behind his coat and identification papers, which are later matched with the body of a dead man. Offered a chance to shed the past and invent a new identity, Cross withdraws from the world he has known. He begins by disappearing into a hotel. When he meets a friend in a hallway of the hotel, he murders the man on impulse to ward off discovery. Cross, who is now severed from the past, flees to New York on an adventure of self-fashioning and desire. At first, it is an internal journey shrouded in uncertainty and dread:
The outside world had fallen away from him now and he was alone at the center of the world of the laws of his own feelings .... He knew where his sense of dread came from; it was from within himself, within the vast and mysterious world that was his and his alone, and yet not really known to him, a world that was his own and yet unknown. And it was into this strange but familiar world that he was now plunging. (148)
He had merely shifted his cares from without to within him, from that which he could deny to that which he could not. Imprisoned he was in a state of consciousness that was so infatuated by its own condition that it could not dominate itself; so swamped was he by himself with himself that he could not break forth from behind the bars of that self to claim himself. (149)
The basic assumption behind all so-called objective attitudes is this: If others care to assume my mental stance and, through empathy, duplicate the atmosphere in which I speak, if they can imaginatively grasp the factors in my environment and a sense of the impulses motivating me, they ... will be capable of apprehending the same general aspects and tones of reality that comprise my world, that world that I share daily with all other men. (77-78)
Given this view, it is not surprising that Wright turned to the novel and its focalizing structures as a forum for his philosophical concerns. Like Native Son, The Outsider reveals the world through one consciousness alone; but in his second published novel, Wright has been less successful in persuading others to apprehend the world as he does. For many critics, The Outsider remains a failed philosophical novel, a "mixture of melodrama and rhetorical exposition" (Fabre, World of Richard Wright l 72). They have never accepted Wright's
premise of the correspondence between European existentialism and the experience of black Americans. Others, while acknowledging this correspondence and Wright's response to existentialism in The Outsider, have given scant attention to the intersection between the novel's philosophical concerns and its analysis of modern ideologies, especially Communism and the racial ideologies informing the plot and relations between the characters.6 My project in this chapter is to examine Wright's philosophical concerns as elaborated in the context of the racially structured world of The Outsider.