Alienation in Richard Wright's The Outsider

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 17 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 Cross Damon: A self-inflicted outsider?
2.1 Cross and his relationships
2.1.1 Dot, Gladys, and Eva
2.1.2 Ely Houston
2.2 (Self-)Betrayal
2.3 Racism and Sexism
2.4 Alienation
2.5 A man of the West

3 Conclusion


1 Introduction

The assertion that “maybe man is nothing in particular” is central for the protagonist of Richard Wright's The Outsider. It reveals a non-essentialist idea of man and indicates that identity is not significantly biologically determined but a dynamic, socio-economic, and interdependent process. If we assume identity is formed in an ongoing dialog and that it presents a negotiation of values between the individual and society, being an outsider implies a disruption of this communicative process. Wright's story endeavors to explore the relationship between a particular African American self and its environment. It indirectly raises the question of personal versus group or societal responsibility. What are the determining factors that shape an individual like Cross Damon, and to which degree is his identity or the setting of the story in the 1950's of particular relevance?

Critics such as Cedric Robinson, Paul Gilroy, and Sarah Relyea have commented on the didactic function of The Outsider. Firstly, Cedric Robinson identifies the novel as a parable,[1] “a moral, philosophic, and political exercise,” in which “Wright sought to subvert the two ideological and philosophic traditions at the heart of modern Western culture,” which he recognizes as the Judeo-Christian tradition and Marxism.[2] Secondly, Paul Gilroy believes Wright is routinely misunderstood, and the depth of his philosophical interest is underestimated particularly by African American critics who see the book as a pseudo-European desire to escape from the restrictions of racial writing.[3] Finally, in her essay, “The Vanguard of Modernity,” Sarah Relyea identifies that Wright digs ever deeper into his protagonist's consciousness as a technique for exploring social problems.”[4] In the following, I will discuss the roles of anxiety and alienation as determining factors for Cross' identity. In the tradition of naturalist writing, is Cross to be considered a victim of circumstance? I will attempt a close reading of his personal relationships and reflections in order to characterize him more precisely. As a basis for my analysis, I will use Franz Neumann's definitions of alienation and anxiety taken from his 1954 essay “Anxiety and Politics”.[5]

2 Cross Damon: A self-inflicted outsider?

2.1 Cross and his relationships

2.1.1 Dot, Gladys, and Eva

Set in Chicago in the year 1950, we get to know Cross Damon as a jaded postal worker who is drowning in self-pity and has a strong affinity for whiskey. Being a postal worker identifies him a member of the working class, but his preference for whiskey seems untypical and odd. Since the habit of drinking whiskey is often associated with intellectuals, particularly with French existentialists and writers such as William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway, drinking whiskey is an initial sign that Cross strives to belong to the group of intellectuals. The world in which he lives is violent and consists of people who deceive, blackmail, and exploit each other. Claiming to be “transparently honest from the beginning,”[6] Cross takes advantage of his new girlfriend Dot, who is still a minor. Their relationship is telling, because on one hand it triggers his escape from Chicago with an image of the thundering “L” train foreshadowing his departure.[7] On the other hand, their relationship grants access to the deeper thoughts and feelings of the protagonist . Apart from his sexual interest in Dot, he also needs her, for example, to listen to his lengthy lectures on the world or “analytical tirades[8] ”. Time and again, it appears that having an audience for his world-views is very important to him. Among other situations, Cross passionately explains his views about industrialization, religion, communism, and the mechanisms of power in a conversation with Mr. Blimin, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. On a closer look, his elaborations can be interpreted as a sign of egocentrism and narcissism. Since he gives his interlocutor no time to reply, he fails to listen, and it can be suspected that having an audience, possibly an exchangeable audience, is most important to him.

Looking at the relationship between Cross and Dot retrospectively, it is not only Cross who takes advantage of Dot. When they get to know each other standing in line at the liquor section of a department store, Cross recognizes her as “so young” and “just a child”[9]. When he finds out that Dot is only fifteen, he feels tricked and betrayed: “He had never tried to conceal from Dot his situation; […] he had told her everything and if she had any illusions they were of her own making.” His understanding of honesty serves more as a Potemkin Village as it helps to hold up an image of innocence for himself: “Dot was a minor? How was that possible?”[10] At first sight his amazement seems unauthentic, but it needs to be taken seriously because Cross constructs this lie to protect himself. His belief in being innocent discloses a degree of self-deception or a strange lack of self-awareness for an otherwise highly reflective character. Even at his moment of death, he claims to feel innocent. Why else, if not for personal protection, would he who sees through religion, ideologies, and tradition need to hold up a notion of innocence for himself? If he, as is indicated, is well aware of existentialism, Nietzsche's concept of the transvaluation of values, and the mechanisms of anxiety, why is he incapable of analyzing himself? If he was beyond guilt, justice, or personal responsibility, he would have no need to pretend.

Cross' self-reflections turn out to be rather evaluations of the people around him. The conversation with Dot's friend Myrtle reveals how quickly he draws conclusions about how people think: “He could almost see the little wheels turning in the brains of both girls as they planned their next move.”[11] To believe one can read other people's minds with such precision requires a very high degree of self-esteem. From where does Cross, who is excluded from power, take such a high self-esteem, if not from a feeling of superiority upheld by his intellectual knowledge? His intellectual capacity becomes an antipole to his poverty and powerlessness to be able to alter or improve his material circumstances. Therefore, it is safe to assume that his self-esteem serves as compensation for this feeling of helplessness. However, it is not helplessness alone but narcissism as well that makes him believe in his intellectual superiority.[12] All in all, his feelings of superiority in fact indicate a deep insecurity based on an inferiority complex. By overestimating his abilities, Cross underestimates people and, consequently, his own fate as well as Eva's, his final love.


[1] Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Chapel Hill, 1983) 301.

[2] Robinson 302.

[3] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993) 147, 163.

[4] Sarah Relyea, „The Vanguard of Modernity: Richard Wright's The Outsider,“Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin (New York and London: Routledge, 2006) 67.

[5] Franz Neumann, The Democratic and the Authoritarian State: Essays in Political and Legal Theory (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1957) 270. The political scientist Neumann, who was affiliated with the Frankfurt School, worked out the role of psychology for intellectual and political freedom, and analyzed the workings, perceptions, and misperceptions of political power in the Western tradition.

[6] Richard Wright, The Outsider (1953) (New York: Perennial, 2003) 37.

[7] Wright, The Outsider 57.

[8] Wright, The Outsider 43.

[9] Wright, The Outsider 38.

[10] Wright, The Outsider 51.

[11] Wright, The Outsider 54.

[12] Superiority complex refers to a subconscious neurotic mechanism of compensation developed by the individual as a result of feelings of inferiority. The feelings of inferiority in this specific complex are often brought on by real or perceived social rejection.


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Humboldt-University of Berlin – Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Alienation The Outsider Richard Wright African American Literature Cold War Civil Rights Identity Formation



Title: Alienation in Richard Wright's The Outsider