Richard Wright's Big Boy Leaves Home
Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” addresses several issues through its main character and eventual (though reluctant) hero Big Boy. Through allusions to survival and primal instincts, Wright confronts everything from escaping racism and the transportation (both literal and figurative) Big Boy needs to do so, as well as the multiple sacrifices of Bobo. Big Boy’s escape symbolizes both his departure from his home life and his childhood. Big Boy, unlike his friends, does not have a true name. This namelessness drives his journey, and Big Boy is constantly singled out in one way or another. The moniker ‘Big Boy’ is a contradiction—is he a large boy or is he a grown man?—and drives all of Big Boy’s actions. Throughout the story he hinges between childhood and adulthood, and his actions vary depending on which side he falls on at that exact moment.
The underlying theme of escaping to freedom is first introduced when the boys begin singing a gospel song when they hear a train.
“Dis train boun fo Glory/ Dis train, Oh Hallelujah/…Ef yuh ride no need for fret er worry/ Dis train, Oh Hallelujah (…) When the song ended they burst out laughing, thinking of a train bound for Glory. ‘Gee, thas a good ol song!’ ‘Huuuuummmmmmmmmman…’ ‘Whut?’ ‘Geee whiiiiiiz…’ ‘Whut?’ ‘Somebody don let win! Das whut!’ Buck, Bobo and Lester jumped up. Big Boy stayed on the ground, feigning sleep. ‘Jeesus, tha sho stinks!’”
Though the boys sing together, the words of the song have a different meaning for each. The train, which Wright mentions on several occasions, is a reminder of the trip they will all take to the afterlife. For everybody but Big Boy, this ascension to Glory comes sooner than expected, and via death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “train” can mean “a number of persons following or attending on some one, usually a person of rank; body of attendants, retainers, or followers; a retinue, suite; sometimes, the vehicles conveying the persons and baggage.” This type of train is exactly what is introduced by the song. The boys follow Big Boy and give him their attention mainly because they have to; he is bigger than them and quickly becomes the leader of Bobo after the deaths of the other boys. Also, this “train” of boys is indeed headed for Glory, though they “burst out laughing” when they think of it. The physical train is a metaphor for the escape to the vaunted North (a land the boys assume they will never see). This is important to the text because it sets up Big Boy’s escape to Chicago later in the story.
The image of the train appears several times; including when Big Boy heads home for the final time. “Big Boy slowed when he came to the railroad. He wondered if he ought to go through the streets or down the track. He decided on the tracks. He could dodge a train better than a mob.” In this section, the train serves as the carrier of Big Boy’s adulthood. By...