“All literature is protest,” Richard Wright shouted at James Baldwin. “You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.” Maybe so, Baldwin countered weakly, but not all protest is literature. “Oh,” Wright said, “here you come again with all that art for art’s sake crap.”
The joke here is that Wright was protesting the label protest novel, which Baldwin had affixed to the front cover of Native Son in his famous 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Baldwin lumps Wright’s novel about a black man who “had committed murder twice and had created a new world for himself” together with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wright’s violence, he suggests, is merely the reverse image of Stowe’s sentimentality, which betrays an “aversion to experience” and is therefore “the mask of cruelty.” So sticky was the label that it would not come off Native Son for years and years. “Wright has come to seem to us a belated writer of the Thirties,” Leslie Fiedler wrote a decade and a half later; “his novels mere ‘protest literature,’ incapable of outliving the causes that occasioned his wrath.”
Few literary critics have thrown up such a brick. Native Son is one of the greatest novels ever written by an American, and is all the greater for the confusion surrounding the “protest novel.” If a protest novel does what Baldwin says it does (safely assigning its “unsettling questions” to the “social arena” and leaving its readers with a “thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all”) then Wright is wrong in insisting that “all literature is protest.” But if a protest novel is aimed not at society but at “art for art’s sake crap” then a goodly portion of American prose fiction, if not quite all of it, is protest literature. And Native Son is the model of its inward greatness.
A better term might be discursive novel, the kind of long fiction (it usually requires some length to say everything it aims to say) that is more concerned with message than technique, more concerned with saying something than with shaping something—the kind of writing in which art is identified with exactitude of the sentences rather than the perfection of the whole. The greatest novelists, with the obvious exception of Nabokov, have all been discursive.
Even James, with his contempt for “such large loose baggy monsters” as The Three Musketeers and War and Peace, “with their queer elements of the accidental and arbitrary”—even James, who demanded to know what these monsters could “artistically mean”—liked to indulge the discursive compulsion. Consider, for example, the “generalization” that Basil Ransom formulates upon meeting Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians: “[T]he simplest division it is possible to make of the human race is into the people who take things hard and the people who take them easy. He perceived very quickly that Miss Chancellor belonged to the former class.” In his later fiction, James is careful to leave the discourse up to his characters, as when he instructs Fanny in The Golden Bowl to observe that a “person can mostly feel but one passion—one tender passion, that is—at a time. Only, that doesn’t hold good for our primary and instinctive attachments, the ‘voice of blood,’ such as one’s feeling for a parent or a brother.” But the source of the generalization does not change the fact that it is a generalization, which asks to be judged as true or false.
The discursive novel is not distinguished by its “queer elements of the accidental and arbitrary,” but by its digressive willingness to follow the scent of a proposition. It hearkens after the adventure of conversation, which neither follows a script nor advances an argument. Consequently, it displays a certain insouciance toward consistency, a quality of the discursive novel that throws critics who have been trained to peer closely at the working of well wrought urns. Sometimes, in fact, it is the contradictions that make a discursive novel such a fascinating thing to read.
That is certainly the case with Native Son. Wright has two messages to deliver in the novel. On the one hand, Bigger Thomas murders the white heiress Mary Dalton to feel a “certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live. . . . The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as a symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of [whites], like a man who had been created, but had now evened the score.” Until Mary’s murder, Bigger had lived with choiceless choices. He is given only what I have called elsewhere the monstrous illusion of choice. Living as a second-class citizen in a racially intolerant society, he is not a moral agent, choosing for himself among a range of options; he is the creature of the racist system that reduces his “choices” to two—whether to take a demeaning job or to starve, for instance (p. 12). The act of murder creates his moral autonomy: “It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him” (p. 105). For the first time in his life he is a man and not a slave, for only he is a man who has choices he can freely make.
On the other hand, Wright offers a Marxist determinist account of Bigger’s experience. Like Dreiser in Sister Carrie, Wright goes to great lengths to establish that the crime was involuntary, unwilled, accidental. Bigger finds himself alone with Mary in her bedroom—the treatment of black men accused of improper advances toward white women from the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 to Emmett Till in 1955 suggests why the very situation was fraught with terror for him—and to escape detection, he quiets Mary with a pillow over her face, which ends up smothering her. Boris Max, the Communist Party lawyer who defends him, convinces Bigger that, even after killing to be quit of them, whites still rule him: “He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death” (pp. 331–32).
In his courtroom speech for the defense, Max argues that it is Bigger who is the real victim—of slavery, which “lasted for more than two hundred years,” and the racial oppression that succeeded it:And it is this new form of life—the lives of twelve million people, “stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights” (p. 397)—which is to blame for the death of Mary Dalton and even for the death of Bessie Mears, Bigger’s own black girlfriend:In short, Bigger was—in Dreiser’s phrase—merely a waif amid forces, powerless to control them. And in fact, the last section of the novel is entitled “Fate,” because the view it advances is a denial of Bigger’s free will.
The arguments are contradictory. Bigger Thomas cannot be both an autonomous moral agent and the plaything of social fate. In the end, he rejects Max’s determinism, saying, “[W]hat I killed for, I am!” (p. 429). He takes God’s name, in the form made familiar by the King James Version (Exod 3.14), because he will permit no other gods before him—no racist system of injustice will be permitted to have caused his actions. Bigger identifies himself with them; he is created by the murders he commits. He may have performed evil, but the evil was a voluntary performance, an act of will. And perhaps the worst thing to be said about the American political system in 1940, corrupted from top to bottom by racial intolerance and oppression, is that violence was the only freedom it granted its black citizens.
Until the end of the novel—until Bigger rejects Max’s defense of him—Native Son is strained by the tension between the two philosophies. As he struggles against Max’s explanations, he feels a “war raging in him,” Wright writes (p. 361). But the truth is that the war is raging within the novel. Native Son is written to settle the conflict between freedom and determinism, to work through the contradictions in Wright’s own thinking. The novel is the record of his inner philosophical torment. When he wrote it, Wright was still nominally a member of the Communist Party, but as he admitted later in the chapter that he contributed to The God That Failed (1950), he had already begun to harbor doubts. Native Son is not merely the transcript of his back-and-forth within himself over his future in the Party; it is an acting out, in public, of his ambivalence and inner division.
In writing his masterpiece, Richard Wright was not dedicated to the perfection of a self-consistent and perfectly balanced work of art. He was dedicated to discussion, to ironing out the vexing tangles of experience in words. And for that reason, Native Son may be the best example of a discursive novel—the best example of the human uses to which fictional discourse may be put—ever written.
 James Baldwin, “Alas, Poor Richard” , in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 257.
 James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in Collected Essays, p. 12.
 Leslie Fiedler, Waiting for the End (New York: Stein & Day, 1964), p. 107.
 Henry James, Preface to The Tragic Muse , in The Art of the Novel, ed. R. P. Blackmur (New York: Scribner, 1934), p. 84.
 Richard Wright, Native Son: The Restored Text, ed. Arnold Rampersad  (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 164. Subsequent references in parenthesis.
 The term choiceless choice was introduced by the literary scholar Lawrence L. Langer to characterize the moral circumstances of the Nazi death camps: see Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), p. 72.
A critical lens essay is a type of essay aimed at providing a personal interpretation and analysis of a certain quotation or statement, proving one's opinion with the help of literature references. Though it contains a word “critical” in its name, it is not meant to be a critical piece. As a matter of fact, a critical lens essay is focused on highlighting strong and weak points of a given quote. Thus, the word “critical” stands for the demonstration of critical thinking skills of the author by means of supporting his claim with certain arguments taken from literary works. Linking one's opinion to reputable sources makes a convincing effect on the reader, proving your ideas to be true.
How is a critical lens essay used?
Writing such type of essay appears to be quite a challenging assignment for students. First, while studying at high school, college, or university, one has to obtain and develop such essential skills as critical and analytical thinking; ability to compare facts, theses, quotes, and ideas, make one's own statements and prove them, draw right conclusions. Second, a profound research on the given topic should be done, as it determines the further direction of your writing. Finally, a student needs to have an excellent command of grammar, spelling, and punctuation in order to express his/her thoughts clearly and academically correctly.
Thus, critical lens essays are perfect opportunities for professors to check students' skills and abilities. No wonder this specific type of essay is often one of the tasks on the Regents, a New York State set of exams required for graduation. For this reason, one should know how to write a critical lens essay at the high academic level, because it reflects the general level of education of a student. Hence, the student is evaluated accordingly.
What is a critical lens essay format?
Typically, a critical lens essay follows a standard essay format pattern. Therefore, it consists of five paragraphs, including introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, so it should not be long like a research paper. In order to develop the critical analysis, a student has to use examples from two literature pieces, each one discussed in a separate paragraph. The book titles need to be underlined and capitalized, written in accordance with the capitalization and punctuation rules. As for the language and general tone of writing, it should be objective, without revealing any of the author's personal beliefs. All the claims need to be referred to reputable literature sources that would support the author's thesis and present the evidence of its validation. In order for the tone to sound objective, one should avoid using personal pronouns, for example, "I", "me", "my", "you", "your", "we", "our". On the contrary, it is recommended to replace them with third person pronouns or general words like "people", "readers", "audience".
Tips to make a critical lens essay outline
As it was mentioned above, a critical lens essay template coincides with the fixed classic essay pattern.
The first part of an essay is the introduction. This is the first thing that makes an impression upon the reader. So, the intro part should be captivating enough to get the reader really interested in what you have to say. The introduction starts with the quote, which is not just an ordinary sentence from the text, but a significant statement that holds considerable value. It should be universally acknowledged and meaningful; the author's name should also be provided.
After introducing the quote, a writer has to interpret it in one sentence using his/her own words. Such an interpretation is called the thesis. It plays a role of the foundation of the entire essay, which makes it a crucial part of the paper. Therefore, a key to a high-quality critical lens essay is arranging the thesis in a wise and profound way, as it presents the criteria for the further analysis.
Having provided the thesis, the writer needs to support or refute it. Though, the decision whether to agree or disagree is based not on his personal opinion, but on two literature references related to the quote. Connecting the essay with relevant references affirms the objective approach. The titles and authors of the chosen literature works have to be underlined. The intro part ends with adding a few words about the chosen reference texts topics.
There should be two body paragraphs introducing two literature works mentioned in the introduction. The writer needs to use the references as the means for supporting his thesis. Both topic and concluding sentences demonstrate and prove the connection between the reference examples and the thesis. There should not be any summarizing; just highlighting and analysis of the main points of both literary texts explaining their relevance to the core statement. Moreover, there is no need to retell the plot of the chosen texts. On the contrary, the writing should be laconic, but clear. To convey the arguments in the most appropriate way, some literary elements from the reference texts should be chosen, such as the following:
- Characterization (direct or indirect way to describe the character);
- Conflict (opposition of the ideas, forces, views);
- Figurative language (metaphor, simile, hyperbole, alliteration, personification);
- Flashback (describing the past event that is necessary to know at present);
- Foreshadowing (hints on the events to come);
- Setting (describing time and place of action);
- Symbolism (representing something through another thing);
- Theme (main idea, message of the text);
- Tone (author's attitude towards the audience or subject).
The last essay part summarizes the arguments and proves the initial thesis right or wrong. The quote and the thesis should be restated here, but the thesis has to be rephrased, not taken from the intro part word by word. If the essay is written in a right manner, then the conclusion would follow in the most logical way and the readers would totally agree to it. While body paragraphs persuade the reader of the correctness of the thesis, the conclusion just states the fact: the thesis is true and it is absolutely confirmed. So, the reader is satisfied, though intrigued to investigate the topic more.
How to choose the right quote?
This is not an easy task to do. The quote determines the quality of the essay, depending on whether it's relevant or not. Below there is a list of possible quotes that are approved to be used for critical lens essays as they are widely applied at the English Regents.
English Regents critical lens quotes list:
- “Courage is never to let your actions be influenced by your fears” (Arthur Koestler);
- “Individuality is freedom lived” (John Dos Passos);
- “Obedience is the mother of success and is wedded to safety” (Aeschylus);
- “Nobody can acquire honor by doing what is wrong” (Thomas Jefferson);
- “Do what you can, with what you have, and where you are” (Theodore Roosevelt);
- “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get” (Warren Buffet);
- “Some books leave us free and some books make us free” (Ralph Waldo Emerson);
- “The final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands” (Anne Frank);
- “Prejudice is the child of ignorance” (William Hazlitt);
- “If there is no struggle, there is no progress” (Frederick Douglas);
- “It is impossible to go through life without trust” (Graham Green);
- “Fear is simply the consequence of every lie” (Fyodor Dostoevsky);
- “No two persons regard the world in exactly the same way” (J. W. von Goethe);
- “We pay a price for everything we get or take in this world” (L. M. Montgomery);
- “Men are at the mercy of events and cannot control them” (Herodotus);
- “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it” (Helen Keller);
- “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it” (Rene Descartes);
- “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened” (Dr. Seuss);
- “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough” (Mae West);
- “In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on” (Robert Frost);
- “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results” (Albert Einstein);
- “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans” (John Lennon);
- “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not” (André Gide);
- “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving” (Albert Einstein);
- “The real hero is always a hero by mistake” (Umberto Eco);
- “It is the human lot to try and fail” (David Mamet);
- “You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it” (Yann Martel);
- “The human heart has ever dreamed of a fairer world than the one it knows” (Carleton Noyes);
- “To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else” (Bernadette Devlin);
- “All that is literature seeks to communicate power” (Thomas De Quincey);
- “It is not what an author says, but what he or she whispers, that is important” (Logan Pearsall Smith);
- “What lasts is what is written. We look to literature to find the essence of an age” (Peter Brodie);
- “Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure” (William Saroyan);
- “All literature is protest. You can't name a single literary work that isn't protest” (Richard Wright);
- “The bravest of individuals is the one who obeys his or her conscience” (J. F. Clarke);
- “We do not read novels for improvement or instruction” (Oliver Wendell Holmes);
- “In a dark time, the eye begins to see” (Theodore Roethke);
- “A person is a person through other persons” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu);
- The right good book is always a book of travel; it is about a life's journey” (H.M. Tomlinson).
The quotations listed above serve as appropriate examples of the NYS English Regents critical lens essay quotes. Thus, they might be widely used during the preparation for the Regents or any other type of exam where a critical lens essay is one of the tasks.
How to write a critical lens essay step by step?
Below there are detailed steps that may serve as an instruction for writing this type of essay. Each step will be followed by the relevant part of a critical lens essay example to make the guideline even more clear.
Step 1. Choose a meaningful quote and introduce it, indicating its author. Add a few sentences before it to get the readers involved and let them follow the logical flow of your thoughts.
Step 2. Interpret the quote, rewrite it using your own words. That would be your thesis.
Step 3. Agree or disagree with the thesis.
Step 4. Introduce two literary references that prove your thesis. Express in a few words how they support the thesis.
Step 5. Start writing the first body paragraph focusing on the first literary reference mentioned in the intro part. Choose the literary element, through which the text and thesis would be connected. Prove that the text example supports the quote.
Step 6. Do the same thing focusing on the other literary work while writing the second body paragraph.
Step 7. Summarize everything you have written. State the quote and thesis again, the latter should be rephrased, though. The conclusion has to prove the coherence between the thesis and arguments written above.
Below there is a sample of a critical lens essay that may be referred to during the preparation for the English Regents.
Critical lens essay example for English Regents
Human life is a constant alternating between success and failure. Today one may enjoy the abundance of money and opportunities, while tomorrow may bring something totally different. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, and where you are.” One's duty in life is to do one's best, strive to survive and get moving using all the skills and resources available, regardless of the circumstances. Life indeed often forces people to keep trying even in the most unfavorable conditions and teaches that doing this is the only key to win. Both Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Love of Life by Jack London support the idea that all the problems can be solved if the person is well motivated and wise enough to direct all the efforts and chances towards one's goal.
The novel Robinson Crusoe illustrates a strong will of an ordinary man who faced unpredictable circumstances after a shipwreck. He has lost everything and everyone just in a moment. The fate left him alone on the desert island in total despair. Daniel Defoe uses the direct method of characterization showing main hero's desire to survive. He was not expecting such a fatal failure. Robinson got a tremendous challenge that let him acknowledge himself as a miserable creature but also created perfect conditions for self-discovery. On the unknown out-of-the-way patch of the Earth, he found himself completely helpless and alone in his struggle for life. Nevertheless, Crusoe realized the real value of human life and gathered all the possible means he could ever find on the island, which combined with his brilliant intellect and willpower saved him afterwards. The story is narrated in the form of his own diary, which pictures the hero in the most veritable way. He kept trying over and over again while building his refuge place, acquiring hunting and farming skills. The long twenty-eight years way through failures to victory taught him that the main thing in life is the ability to pull oneself together when there seems like nothing can be done. Robinson proved that it is not the setting and opportunities that matter, but a strong goal-oriented approach to the problem.
Love of Life demonstrates another example of overcoming hardships in life. Gold seekers are lost in the White Desert. While one of them leaves his comrade in trouble, he succeeded to survive. Through the tone of the novel, it is evident that Jack London supports his hero picturing him as a symbol of a victorious will power. Physical exhaustion, freezing cold of the White Desert, pain from the betrayal of the only friend, fear of loneliness, hunger, which is not eased with the miserable stuff that cannot even be called food. Moreover, he suffers from the pain in legs, being severely injured. Torturing body ache is combined with the despair of useless attempts to gain food and unbearable exhaustion, which leads to hallucinations. Yet, in spite of all he has encountered, despite being frightened and despaired, the man found enough courage not to give up but went on with a great passion for life, which helped him during struggles with a bear and a wolf. His irresistible desire to live, tranquility, and patience is what removed the fear and saved him from death. The hero was doing what he could: he was able to walk, he walked; he could only crawl, he crawled; he was obliged to fight with wild animals, so he did. As long as there were those primitive means for survival, no matter how adverse the setting, the man continued his difficult path and, finally, he succeeded.
All things considered, it seems sensible to assume that in order to lead the life to the full and survive despite all the troubles, one needs to use each little thing around, notwithstanding the limits. The core of success is human mind and will that dominates over poor conditions, situations that seem to be impossible, fears, and desperate obstacles. Thus, the saying “Do what you can, with what you have, and where you are” serves as the right motto for the general life philosophy.