Richard Wright had every reason to consider himself an outsider. He was born in 1908, an African American in the segregated South, and as he grew up witnessed lynchings and other manifestations of racial prejudice. In the segregated South at that time, it was commonplace for African Americans to feel themselves to be outsiders. It could be argued that as his life proceeded Wright continued to find himself, either through circumstances or his own actions and beliefs, in the position of an outsider. His childhood was deeply unsettled with his family often moving house, and at one point Wright and his brother spending time in an orphanage when his father had deserted the family and his mother was very ill. Later Wright himself spending periods being brought up by his grandmother and aunt, who were fanatically religious, and tried to stop him working on the Sabbath and forcing their religious beliefs on him which resulted, for Wright, in a life-long dread and suspicion of religion.
Wright cut all ties with the South by moving to Chicago in 1927 and getting work in the post office, while writing and reading as much as he could in his free time. In 1933 he formally became a member of the Communist Party, but often argued with its leaders and their dogmatic ideas and pronouncements. Thus, even in the Communist Party he felt himself an outsider and left the Party in 1942, having decided that the Party’s intolerance to new or different ideas was similar to the rigid religious beliefs of his grandmother and aunt.
In 1946 Wright moved to Paris and never returned to the United States. To emigrate, to become an expatriate, is perhaps the ultimate act of outsidership. In Paris he suffered virtually no racial harassment and was famous as an American writer; he was also far removed from the USA when McCarthyism began its witch hunt for former Communists and those with left-wing beliefs (which Wright continued to hold). In he decided to leave Paris for London, sick of arguments with French writers and feeling that French political policy was being changed to suit American interests. He continued until his death in Paris in 1960 to have arguments with political opponents and with fellow writers – usually on the solutions to the problems of racism in the USA and how African-Americans should be portrayed in literature.
Therefore, in Wright’s troubled and shifting life, we see a person who finds it hard to fit in and is often provoking arguments or heated discussions with other writers. How is this sense of being an outsider shown in his novel The Outsider?
Cross Damon is the obvious ‘outsider’ in the novel, but he is not the only one. Eva Blount can be considered an outsider because she is used by the Communist Party; her husband only marries her so that the Party can use her art for propaganda purposes, so she is trapped in a loveless marriage – an outsider in her own home. Bob is an outsider too because of his status as an illegal immigrant and also because the Party callously rejects him when he refuses to obey them. Indeed, the Party deals ruthlessly with anyone it considers a traitor or outsider as they shoot Cross Damon at the very end of the novel. Houston, the New York District Attorney, is an outsider because of his hunchback (a fact he often points out to Cross Damon).
It could be argued that all the African-American characters in the novel are outsiders, given the racist nature of American society that Wright portrays, but Cross Damon becomes even more of an outsider by committing several murders and only avoids swifter detection because of his ‘death’ in the subway accident that ironically seems to free him at first, but actually leads to his first murder. After murdering Joe, his post office colleague in Chicago, he seems to feel no remorse for any of the subsequent crimes he commits – crimes which are necessary, in some cases, to preserve his identity. The only people he does seem to care about are Eva and, at the end of the novel, Hattie. His status as outsider is shown not only by his crimes and his subsequent harassment by the police and the Communist Party, but also by his shifting identity and all the different names he uses. What is very interesting is that Cross Damon does not see himself as an outside because of the color of his skin but for deeper, more personal reasons. He thinks to himself:
He felt keenly their sufferings and would have battled desperately for any Negro trapped in a racial conflict, but his character had been so shaped that his decisive life struggle was a personal fight for the realization of himself. (Wright 195)
Himself? He is struggling to find his identity as a man, not as an African American man, and Wright suggest that this is a dilemma that any man, of any color can face when he has lost his belief in everything else. Houston, The DA, comes close to guessing that Cross Damon is the murderer and describes the (at that point in the novel) unknown murderer of Blount and Hernden to Cross:
He kills ’em, and with no more compunction than if he were killing flies... That man who kills like that is a bleak and tragic man. He is the Twentieth Century writ small...this man must feel that he knows what’s right. Then, all at once, he sees something that violates that sense of right and he strikes out to set it as it ought to be. (Wright 379)
The Outsider portrays Cross Damon as an outsider because of his color and his crimes, but also because his lack of faith in any ideology.
Wright, Richard. The Outsider. 1953. New York: Harper Collins. Print.