Notes of a Native Son

Paris Symbol Icon

As detailed in the essay “Equal in Paris,” Baldwin leaves the United States for Paris at the age of 24 with only $40 to his name and no knowledge of French language or culture. In doing so, he follows in a major 20th-century tradition of American writers expatriating to Paris in order to indulge in the relatively cheaper standard of living, rich cultural history, and social freedoms that could be found there. At the same time, Baldwin’s experience of Paris does not follow the example set by white American writers such as Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. For Baldwin, Paris is a place in which his own understanding of America and American identity is thrown into relief in a painful manner—Paris is where Baldwin confronts what it means to be a black American. The distance that Paris provides from his homeland, and the new cultural context of being in a city full of Africans (as opposed to African Americans), sheds light for Baldwin on the historical and cultural complexity of the United States, and on the psychology of those who leave the United States for Europe seeking a seductive myth of Parisian freedom. This myth is shown to be specifically inapplicable to Baldwin, who finds himself wrongfully imprisoned for eight days, though Baldwin insists that Parisian freedom as white Americans imagine it isn’t real either. At the same time, Baldwin is also affirmed and matured by his experiences in Paris—he becomes a better writer, and he gains perspective that allows him to create an enduring essay collection at a very young age. Paris, then, is a symbol of using distance to gain perspective. By escaping his home country and adapting to a completely different environment, Baldwin develops a better understanding of himself and of the world around him.

Get the entire Notes of a Native Son LitChart as a printable PDF.
Notes of a native son.pdf.medium

Paris Symbol Timeline in Notes of a Native Son

The timeline below shows where the symbol Paris appears in Notes of a Native Son. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Preface to the 1984 Edition
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Language, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
...was “too young to publish my memoirs.” Baldwin had returned to the United States from Paris in 1954, for reasons that remain unclear to him. He recalls that 1954-55 was overall... (full context)
Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Progress vs. Stagnation Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
...the roaring 1920s, it was relatively easy for black people to become successful entertainers in Paris—at least in comparison to the time at which Baldwin is writing. He notes that there... (full context)
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Progress vs. Stagnation Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
...becomes even more acute when black Americans encounter Africans from the French colonies living in Paris. These Africans harbor a similar sense of bitterness to African Americans, but are less likely... (full context)
A Question of Identity
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Language, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
The “American student colony” of Paris is hard to describe, despite the fact that almost all of these students share the... (full context)
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Baldwin notes that it is easy to adore Paris while disliking the French, who tend to keep foreigners “at an unmistakable arm’s length.” Parisians... (full context)
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
...as these friends remain an undifferentiated “mob.” Baldwin concludes that overall, most American students in Paris eventually lose a sense of their own personalities, and lose respect for other people’s personalities... (full context)
Equal in Paris
Language, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
A year into his time in Paris, Baldwin is arrested for receiving stolen goods. This happens thanks to an American tourist Baldwin... (full context)
Language, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
...photograph is taken. He is then driven to a prison called Fresnes, 12km outside of Paris. The American tourist is sent to another prison, and as soon as he is gone... (full context)