The first chapter of the book establishes its theme and conflicts. It is not necessary to search for symbolic meanings. Each incident describes, in close detail, the emotions of the narrator. It is enough to be sensitive to his emotions and to the situations from which they spring. Since he is just a small child when these events occur, he is unconscious of their effect on his later manhood. However, the voice of the author no matter how objective provides order to what is otherwise chaos.
In the very first words of the book, Richard Wright establishes his distance from the four-year-old boy who sits in his grandmother's house in Mississippi. His grandmother is sick, and he has been warned several times by his mother to keep quiet; however, his rebellious personality is immediately revealed in the dramatic gesture of setting the house on fire. The reader then is immediately conscious of the nature of the narrator not only by the scene he describes, but by his tone, which is objective and cool. It is clear that the child he was then is no stranger to him now. The writing serves as a telescope: it is the medium by which the past is clarified.
The punishment by his mother doesn't surprise the boy, except in its degree. She has almost killed him, and in his unconscious state he hallucinates about the udders of great white cows hanging over his head. He is terrified that they will drench him in some terrible liquid surely a psychological reaction to his mother's ruthless beating, an aversion to life itself, her milk.
As the very first scene of the book, this episode establishes Richard's position as a rebel within his family; after surviving this beating, no amount of punishment can break his spirit. It is as if his mother's punishment has the reverse of the desired effect. By going to the limits of brutality with him at such a young age, she has released in him the power to survive beyond the normal bounds of human endurance.
Right off, it must be made clear that the complexity of the pre-individualistic society is such that love and hostility go hand in hand, as do cruelty and kindness, reward and punishment. Richard never questions his mother's love for him, and although he rarely mentions demonstrations of affection and stresses the negative aspects of his family life, the love between him and his mother is taken for granted. The perversion of this love as an effect of slavery and oppression is what upsets him and serves as the theme of the book.
The family's move to Memphis causes horrifying effects on the entire family. Richard's father becomes alienated and violent and, taking one of his father's careless commands at face value, Richard cruelly kills a kitten. Afterward he is horrified by what he has done, and his horror is underscored by his mother's religious, superstitious nature. She warns him of the dire consequences of taking a life and fills him with a sense of sin and guilt that will never leave him.
In these events lie clues to Richard's reactions to other events later on. For instance, although he is unconscious of the lifetime effect which his father's behavior will have on his psyche, in this one act killing the kitten Richard is responding to that effect. His father's place is restricted. He is a rural black, a man who has been uprooted and transplanted into an urban setting, completely out of his element. His bad temper and impatience is directly related to his personal frustrations, and Richard reacts to him likewise. If his father can't be decent, then Richard will be worse and, in that way, prove his own powers of aggression.
This becomes the model for Richard's relationships with other men throughout the book. He will have no patience with their cowardice and will not fear humiliating them with his own masculinity. He is disgusted by males who allow themselves to be castrated by white society. His father is by no means the only one.
His mother's method of punishing him with God and a beating are also clues to Richard's later behavior. The God she chastises him with is a merciless oppressor a kind of supernatural manifestation of white society. He has strict codes of conduct, demands instant obedience, and, when defied, gives instant punishment. Richard's mother, here and elsewhere, uses God as another, more awesome term for white people in order to impress on her son the necessity to "stay in his place." God becomes many things; to whatever Richard's mother is unable to cope with or explain in human terms, He is introduced as the solution.
Under the circumstances, God is bound to fail very quickly. He is supposed to provide food when they are hungry, but He doesn't. Instead, it is clear to the boy that his father and later his mother is the breadwinner, not God. The whole question of food is not dropped there. When a preacher comes to dinner and greedily consumes the food Richard is longing for, he is, as God's representative, only increasing Richard's loss of faith. His hunger will remain throughout the book as a reality in itself and also as a cause for his alienation.
Richard begins to feel a constant hunger, soon associated with the disappearance of his father, who has deserted the family. Richard's mother goes to work, and he is forced to learn to make it on his own in the streets of Memphis. When he discovers that he can give as much violence as he has taken, he is free to go where he wants.
At six years old, Richard has no consciousness of racial differences: people are people. His grandmother can be termed white only because that is her natural color. And so the distinctions remain invisible to him. Life in the streets leads him to become a drunkard, hanging around a saloon and begging pennies from pedestrians. His mother beats him, prays for his salvation, and finally puts him in the care of an old woman. It is during this time that he develops a new kind of hunger the hunger for knowledge and with it comes his awareness of whites as separate from blacks.
Again, in each of these events are hints of larger revelations to come, especially as his consciousness develops. His mother's influence on him is naturally strong. The way she forces him to become independent, even tough, is something he finally appreciates. Above all, Richard wants to be a man. In the streets, in the saloon, in his explorations of the city, he exerts his masculinity, always unconsciously aware of the imminent castration of black boys and men. Yet, at the same time, he is developing a fascination with words the secrets of the drunks that will increase throughout his boyhood.
The frustration of his curiosity is described with the same cool fatalism as the other humiliations he endures. It comes from every direction from his mother, as well as from white people and whatever he tries to understand as information or moral truth results in only deeper misunderstanding. The world he occupies can only be described as hostile. And Richard begins to return this hostility with hostility. Sometimes it takes the form of shyness. When asked to perform in school, or to accept the attention of Miss Simon at the orphanage, he turns cold and cannot respond. He has learned to be suspicious of other people, and there is a real danger that this suspicion will make him like the other members of his family that is, incapable of giving and responding to love. Only by being conscious of the terrible consequences of such suspicion can he free himself as a man.
When he witnesses his father bowing and scraping, being an Uncle Tom before a white judge in order to avoid feeding his family, he can see clearly what he himself might become. It is a repulsive image to him, as is the image of his father, laughing with his new woman, all sensuality and no love. Later, he can excuse his father for this; he will be able to see him as an environmental prisoner. Now, however, as a boy, Richard has no tolerance for such a man.
In the conclusion of this chapter is a summary of Wright's philosophy on environment and humanity. It is a vision of society that encompasses the whole book, his whole childhood, and the people in it. Through his father's life he witnesses history and the present the continuing effects of slavery on the children of slaves and their children too. The humiliated, disrupted lives of blacks under slavery did not end with emancipation. Although the people endured, they did so without the benefits of a civilized society. Civilization was left in Africa. All the traditions, habits, laws, and loyalties of a civilized society were removed from black people when they arrived as slaves in the New World. They were forced to live at the most elemental level. And Richard's father represents to him the effects of history slavery on the individual. Later he will forgive his father for neglecting his family, but it will not be a Christian forgiving; rather, it will be because of historical, Marxist reasons. This Marxist attitude is fundamental to the entire book and forms the basis for the Wright School of Literature. Naturalism is the aesthetic form the attitude takes because it excludes any preconceived ideas of morality. The narrator simply presents the facts, as history simply presents the facts, and they must speak for themselves.