Similarities Between Bigger Thomas And Richard Wright
Wright Discussion Board
Review Richard Wright’s background and, in two at least two paragraphs, discuss similarities between Native Son and his life. Make sure you bring in examples from the text.
Both Bigger Thomas and Richard Wright endured jobs that they did not want in the face of poverty. Bigger Thomas was stuck working common jobs because of his lack of an education. He was unhappy and disappointed with where he was in life. Similarly, Richard Wright had to work many dreadful jobs, such as dishwasher and delivery boy, as a result of the economic crash due to World War I. Both were just biding their time until something seemingly better came along. For Wright, he was just saving money until he could move to Chicago. For Bigger, it was anything that could save him from working for the Dalton’s.
Another similarity I noticed was that both men became entangled with women who were ultimately bad for them. In 1939, Wright married a Russian-Jewish Ballet dancer named Dhimah Rose Meadman. They were only married about a year before they called for divorce. The marriage failed and Wright returned to New York. Bigger also became involved with a woman who would eventually, though unintendedly, send Bigger on a crime streak that would lead to his death. Bigger was uneasy around Mary and her communist boyfriend, both eager to prove their progressiveness. Their disregard for the social norms at the time and the appearance of Mary’s mother resulted in Bigger killing Mary and the array of other crimes he committed in the act of trying to get away with it.
In the opening pages of the novel, we are presented with the image of a large ugly black rat clinging to Bigger’s trousers. I believe that this confrontation with the rat is symbolic of the racism Bigger experiences in society. When the rat comes into the apartment, obviously hated, it rears up in defense. When it realizes that it is trapped in the apartment and cannot run, it tries to attack the dominating force and is ultimately killed. This event is similar to Bigger entering Mary’s room. When Mrs. Dalton enters the room, Bigger does the only thing he knows to do out of fear and even though he manages to escape that night, he is ultimately killed by the confrontation.
The most prominent color in the story in my opinion is white. White represents the oppression faced by Bigger and other black people. White people were viewed to Bigger as a single, swooping force that could easily overpower them. This is why he becomes fearful during the robbery of the white man’s store. Bigger also views the world as a place where only the white man rules. He mentions one time during the novel that he and his friends “guffawed… at the vast white world that sprawled and towered in the sun before them.” One can easily assume that this whiteness represents the power of the white man. This color is persecution, bigotry, and racism in the eyes of Bigger.
Bigger’s mother was extremely religious. She participated in it in Bigger’s eyes much as Bessie participated in alcohol consumption. Bigger saw both as an escape from the world. Bigger even wishes at one point to be able to receive the same comfort from religion that his mother did but knows it will never result in a concrete escape form the racist hatred he endures everyday as a black man. He inherently wishes for a life far removed from his own, but unfortunately he never gets to experience it. Even in the face of execution, he still refuses the religion and faith Rev. Hammond offers him. The hatred of his world has corrupted everything for him, even the sanctity of Christianity.
Bigger struggles with identity throughout the entirety of the book. He constantly feels like he is playing a part to escape ultimate despair, like playing tough for his gang. He would rather attack one of his own members instead of admitting his fear. Bigger faces perhaps one of his lowest moments of identity loss when he is reflecting on why he cannot admit to the murders of Bessie and Mary. Bigger thinks, “the telling [of why he killed them] would have involved an explanation of his entire life.” Here he knows that he will forever only be known for his crimes and his existence of a black man, not what drove him to the murders or who he was. He knew he could never admit the crimes because an admission would never bring with it “a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life, a hate that he had not wanted to have, but could not help but having.” The sadness felt by bigger in this passage was heart wrenching.
It is Mrs. Dalton’s physical blindness that prompts Bigger to murder Mary. He believes that if she cannot see him and he can keep Mary quiet, Mary will not reveal his presence. Metaphorically, this represents the racism that Bigger experiences as a black man. Mrs. Dalton is unable to literally see Bigger, but she also simultaneously represents other white people who fail to see black people (Bigger, specifically) as a human beings. The stereotypes of black people were so potent at the time that it caused them to live their lives in fear. It is why Bigger reacted in such a terrible way to Mary’s mother walking into the room. He was fearing for his life and did the only thing he could think to do that would save him. The crime then sent him tumbling down a road of no return.
Segregation And Inequality in Native Son
The Consequences of Fear That Resides Within
In Richard Wright’s Native Son, racism becomes the norm of an oppressed community through the fears of the unfortunate. In 1930s Chicago, segregation and discrimination are predominant, where blacks are forced to live in destitution and the whites live in luxury, which is justified through corruption. The blacks are ultimately suspected and convicted for crimes whether they are accidental, deliberate, or not committed at all, and they have no say in the court. The reader can see through the hatred for Communists such as Jan and through blacks, primarily Bigger, that the laws of the society demonstrate inequality. Bigger’s only chance of hope for freedom is Max, the lawyer who speaks up for him and speaks to him as a real person. He tells Max his story of his crime, and his justification is mainly fear. Through the upbringings and internal conflicts of the characters, a racist society can drive degraded beings to acts of aggression out of fear, eventually creating a rival.
Through Bigger’s internal conflicts about being subservient in his society, anger slowly builds up inside of him due to the oppression that he experiences. In the beginning of book one, he is talking to his friend Gus, and he imagines all the opportunities he could have if he was white. He essentially feels sorry for himself and complains, and he tells Gus of an internal fear that he predicts, which foreshadows Bigger’s downfall at the end. He feels “. . . like something awful’s going to happen to me . . . me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there . . .” (Wright 20). This mindset of oppression instills a deep apprehension in Bigger, which leads him to feel hostile towards the white people. He begins to question his poverty and the reason behind it. However, his fear of his own destruction holds him back from his ambition.
At the same time, Bigger displays aggression due to his upbringing by showing violence towards his own friends. For instance, he and his friends, Gus, Jack and G.H., plan to rob a store owned by someone named Old Blum. Gus shows up late, which is unusual because he is said to be the toughest out of the four men. When Bigger expresses his anger towards Gus, he becomes forceful and he “. . . placed the knife at Gus’s throat . . . Bigger pushed the knife harder into Gus’s stomach” (Wright 38-39). The reader can argue from Bigger’s behavior that he feels a sense of power when he acts insensitive towards people of his own kind because he tries to compensate for his inferiority to the whites. His friends conclude that he does this out of fear (Wright 36-37). Bigger’s lack of education, going to school only up to the eighth grade, shows that he does not know how to effectively communicate in public because he displays uncontrollable fear and anger.
Without doubt, the reader can visualize the poverty-stricken life that Bigger is forced to live through, and he strives to find meaning in his life; this meaning is achieved through violent, relentless murder. While he is given the opportunity to work for a rich white family, the Daltons, he becomes entangled in a dilemma where he accidentally smothers and kills drunken Mary while trying to sneak her back home late at night without anyone’s knowledge (Wright 87). Bigger reflects back on his crime the next day and he comes to an epiphany that “. . . he had created a new life for himself . . . It was something that was all his own . . . a kind of terrified pride . . . that . . . he would say publicly that he had done it” (Wright 105-106). Bigger feels that he can create a better reality for himself away from his family without remorse because he finally feels that surge of power as if he can stand on equal grounds against the whites. This in turn, leads to Bigger being pressured to become more malevolent and vengeful later on. On the other hand, the murder of Mary Dalton is because of Bigger’s guilty fear of him being fired from his first well-paying job. He realizes that he has come out of his deprivation of feeling like an individual human being, and his killing Mary is justified through him being ashamed and scared for all of his life.
Segregation can cause the oppressed to revolt against the superior in a racial community, which is represented by the protagonist’s attempt to escape from fear and the hope to find new meaning to life. The background of someone’s life contributes to how he/she acts in society, which the reader can see in Bigger. His aggression is the effect of him being degraded for the color of his skin, and he takes it out on his own kind to feel strong and hide his fear. The character’s fears become the roots of low self-esteem because of the lack of opportunities presented in a racist society. From this, the reader can become drawn into the minds of the oppressed that being on the lowest level of society can instigate conflict and the feeling intimidated.
Native Son: a Tale Of Race, Psychology And Skewed Morality
Native Son: A Simple Question and an Unraveling Answer
Nearly everyone stands at odds with Bigger Thomas in the novel Native Son, from the family he never loves to the social hierarchy he hates. The majority of 1930’s-era Chicago seems to view him as worthless if not reprehensible, and his actions by the book’s end support this in the public eye; Bigger, as the newspapers report, brutally rapes and kills two women without batting an eye. As ideologies duel in court over the black crook’s case, readers and characters alike may wonder, “What “created” Bigger? What gave rise to the mindset allowing this young man to act the way he acts and kill how he kills?” Those whites ready to lynch and threaten Bigger – the vocal and most violent facets of an oppressive majority – place the blame squarely on his shoulders; the opposition begs to differ, as the readers, having “experienced” the tale from their eyes, likely will. When it comes to revealing what contributed to Bigger’s mindset, author Richard Wright offers a slew of answers which turn what could have become a one-sided thriller detailing an open-and-shut case into a tale of race, psychology and skewed morality in the United States at large.
Perhaps by taking into account what did and didn’t form Bigger’s mindset, we can more easily answer the question at hand. Those long-standing, somewhat stereotypical standbys of the African-American experience pass Bigger by; he feels nothing for religion, he lacks a sense of unity or family for the longest other than an awareness of his familial burdens and a desire for simple fun with his friends, and music plays no substantial part in his life. A dream metaphorically demonstrates the lack of power these things hold over him; in an effort to “[protect] him” from reality, Bigger’s mind presents various images in his dream, including a playing phonograph, his mother, and a crowd of black people hundreds strong moving in rhythm, none of which calm him or “answer the question,” and as if to cap the symbolism off, he soon after wakes and turns to a black church with little more than a quibble in response to its song and dance: “Aw, them folks go to church every day in the week, he thought” (253). Bigger’s experience, for the most part, is visceral, a life wherein the strongest escape proves an escape he forges with his own strength; the most exhilarating, fulfilling world he inhabits during at least the first portion of the story is one in which he, via shattering his world’s convention and will for stability through two murders, “[has] created a new world for himself” (241).
In the minds of Native Son’s white community at large, the motives for Bigger’s crime appear as blatant as the color of his skin. As he combats Bigger’s defender in court, Buckley, already a skilled lawyer and politician in his setting, serves as a mouthpiece for, if not that white society’s most common beliefs, then what he perceives as pandering to those deep-seated values: “How that poor child must have struggled to escape that maddened ape!” he shouts of Bigger’s victim, among many other racially-charged insults likening Bigger to beasts (412). The newspapers, too, reveal various whites’ racist verdicts when they publish claims that segregation and limits on education might have kept Bigger’s “poor darky family of a shiftless and immoral variety” (280) out of trouble, as do the yells in favor of his death by lynching. In the context of nature-versus-nurture arguments, the root of the crime, as these people would say, dwells in Bigger’s nature.
However, even readers living within the social mores of the day could use Bigger’s story in its own context to disprove such statements. For one thing, Bigger feels and acts like a human, not a mindless beast; he shows himself fully capable of thinking his actions through and thoroughly; he knows the rules of the land full and well, and thus feels intense fear when he becomes aware of his first murder and knows that “the vast city of white people” will seek to trap him for it (87); he writes the ransom note which policemen declare “too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind” (245).
Even if these tidbits fail to sway some, Wright offers plenty of reason directly addressing the central question of what formed Bigger’s mindset through the mouth of Bigger’s lawyer at the podium, Max. This character delivers answers with confidence, along with fair reason for it; readers witness his discussions with his client for their utility as well as their sympathy. When he asserts that Bigger “[has] got to fight” (346), snaps that Bigger must care for his own future, and exchanges life lessons with him, he speaks on even, person-to-person terms with no money and unforeseeable fame to come from his efforts. With this more personal link established, the character already holds more credibility in terms of recognizing Bigger’s deeper character than the faceless masses furiously opposing the criminal’s race. Society, as Max puts it, forms the real crux of Bigger’s crime, because had the prejudice between the ethnicities of Bigger and his victim not existed, no crime would have taken place: “What would a boy, free from the warping influences which have played so hard upon Bigger Thomas, have done that night…?” (395) After deciding that Bigger would have simply explained his situation, Max claims that as a result, “there would have been no murder” (395). White “guilt-rage” combined with black “fear-hate,” in Max’s words, form a potent and deadly mix that riles and disorients ordinary citizens: “Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times…and you have the psychology of the Negro people” (397).
Native Son proclaims that the same society which labels Bigger’s entire race inferior should take the largest fall for his crimes. Those concepts and activities which kept many blacks “docile” in that era failed Bigger, leaving discontentment with life – discontentment not with his lack of these things, but with his lacking lot in life and the knowledge – which strikes him with more force than it might strike those with a strong faith in another life or a hobby they dedicate the self to – that his world accepts whites and turns away people like him.
Existential Ideas and Themes in Native Son
Existentialism emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. Contrarily, environmental determinism suggests that society shapes individuals, allowing for little personal motive. In Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, a young black man named Bigger is faced with constant fear from oppressive societal tendencies, yet is inclined to define himself by his actions in order to find identity. An existential sense of morality elicits behavior which opposes societal norms, while natural moral code results in conformity. Although Bigger is the product of an oppressive, fear stricken society, his fundamental need for self determined identity prompts him to embrace his actions.
Wright suggests throughout the novel that ingrained societal tendencies determine Bigger’s existence and behavior, implying that environmental determinism supersedes and corrupts his free will. Max, Bigger’s communist lawyer, insists that society has instilled fear in blacks and stripped them of their individuality: “they are powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces” (390). Through this Communist perspective, Max argues that white society is to blame for Bigger’s fear, which ultimately results in his hateful behavior and crimes. These social forces are the result of a universal desire for power and superiority, which comes at the expense of blacks’ pride and individualism. Rather, blacks become “powerless pawns,” dispensable pieces of a social game, seen by whites merely as leverage to elevate their own social standing. Bigger is conditioned to hate himself and fear whites from a young age, as shame defines and controls him: “They made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him, one holding his hand and the other smiling. He felt he had no physical existence at all right then; he was something to be hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin” (67). Bigger is the product of a degenerate, oppressive society which promotes self-hatred and ultimately causes him to commit the crimes that he does. Living in constant fear, he is born with this “badge of shame” into a world in which he can never win, belittled and degraded by a fear mongering white society.
While society may be at fault for Bigger’s behavior, he is compelled to subsequently take accountability for his actions in order to establish individualism and his own identity. Claiming personal motive, Bigger embraces and defines himself by his actions: “What I kill for I am . . . When a man kills, it’s for something” (429). Rather than blame societal tendencies for his faults, Bigger adopts a mentality of intentionality to establish individual identity. Claiming that he kills “for something,” Bigger convinces himself that his actions were justified, manifesting this existential ideal to his reality. However, he does not realize that the “something” that he kills for is the deep fear and hate that he has always lived in. Instead of blaming society for his transgressions, Bigger says that he is what he kills for, defining himself by actions that most people would be ashamed of. Adopting this mentality of accountability, Bigger “felt that he had his destiny in his grasp” (156). Now that he does not allow himself to be controlled by society, he feels responsible for his own future and past. Bigger decides to disregard what others think, separating himself from society by fully accepting his actions and their significance: “He had done this. He had brought this all about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think” (239). Bigger has lived his whole life constantly shaped by the fear and hate that society has instilled in him. However, he sheds his previous self conscious mindset in order to rid himself of this fear. Wright utilizes this shift to existentialism in order to exhibit Bigger’s desire for identity. Ultimately, Bigger takes responsibility for his actions to escape the social constraints and stereotypes which had always made him feel inferior and worthless.
Bigger adopts an existential view of morality in order to justify his actions and embrace his individuality. Shedding society’s standard view of morality, he creates his own system of ethics based on feeling and intuition in order to justify his actions and identity. He exhibits this by refusing to go to church, saying that “there is nothing in it,” and that “it don’t get ‘em nothing” (339). Church provides security and identity for all of the other black characters in the book, yet Bigger creates an existential view of morality rather than conforming to his peers’ views. He finds identity not in forgiveness and hope, but rather in the certainty and comfort that he committed the acts of murder with his own free will and conscience, and that he is not confined by anybody’s standards. Furthering his commitment to living in the present, Bigger decides that he wants to “be happy in this world, not out of it” (339). Taking full accountability for his own actions, he does not want to be wiped of his sins, for he embraces them. With this, Bigger justifies his actions by creating his own set of morals, one that does not align with society’s.
While Bigger may truly be the product of a twisted, racist society, his fundamental need for identity and individualism compels him to fully embrace actions which most would be ashamed of. Richard Wright contrasts existentialism with naturalism and environmental determinism in order to expose the effects of a racist society as well as the essential human need for identity. Ultimately, Native Son reveals that the natural human desire for power and superiority often comes at the expense of others and furthers the reign of hate in the world.
African American Women and Their Representation in the Novel
In the Native Son, Richard Wright cultivates supporting characters as threats to the main character Bigger in ways that range from being highly significant to extremely minimal. In analyzing the way the African American women are represented in the novel we see a common negative feeling shared by Bigger towards them. Feminist scholar Trudier Harris argument that the black women in this story are portrayed as a “stifler’s for Bigger’s dreams for freedom and success” is something that entirely true and is sexist as well as demeaning on Wright’s behalf.
Beginning with Bigger’s interactions with his mother, readers are able to recognize Bigger’s feeling that his mother’s sole purpose is to scowl at him and ridicule him for his shortcomings. He has constant feeling of hate towards his mother and feel as if she is the reason that he isn’t destined for greatness because it is her “foul attitude” towards him that keeps him in a state where he is mentally oppressed ultimately making him settle for being physically oppressed as well. In the novel Bigger always describes her as if she is a bother to him and nags a lot about the things he lacks. In the little moments that Ms. Thomas is shown in the story she always portrayed as having some type of animosity or anger towards Bigger, due to Wright portraying her this way he is reinforcing the racist and demeaning idea of the “ angry black woman” stereotype. Also, Ms. Thomas’ sole issue with Bigger is that he is not financially providing for their family, reinforcing the idea that women need to be dependent on men and are unable to efficiently provide for their family. Although Bigger’s interactions with his younger sister Vera are very short, readers are able add these interactions to the growing case showing Bigger’s and Wright’s underlying sexist attitudes specifically to African American women. In the story Vera is represented as a very scared character who also represents someone who is a nuisance to Bigger.
Bessie’s character also falls into the similar persona that Wright has made for all of the female characters in the novel. She nags at Bigger and ridicules him of his shortcomings, and mistakes. She shows a great amount of dependence on Bigger like all the other black women in the story however, Bessie proves to not only be the weakest black women but the weakest character in the whole entire novel. Throughout Bigger’s scheme to get money from the Daltons and run away from his crime Bessie is portrayed as a crying wreck, who does nothing but sob and sob about the mess Bigger has gotten her into. “ She ran to the bed, fell upon it and sobbed.” With her mouth all twisted and her eyes wet, she asked in gasps” ( pg 225) Although her reaction could be considered reasonable for someone in her position I see it as Wright intentionally making her as a weak character who does not know how to deal with problems in a way that will benefit her.
For the sake of such character analysis, it is also important to consider what Bigger and Bessie’s relationship is based off on – a fulfillment of one another’s personal wants. Bigger only comes to Bessie when he need comfort and sex and Bessie only seems to be invested in Bigger when he provides her with alcohol or money. Although the relationship is detrimental to both characters Wright frames the story to make it that Bessie is the weaker one who brings a larger sense of harm onto Biggers path. For example in the novel it states “ A woman was a dangerous burden when a man was running away. He had read of how men had been caught because of women, and he did not want that to happen to him. But, if, yes, but if he told her, yes, just enough to get her to work with him?”. Bessie proved to be the “ burden” he thought about prior to him making the choice to run away from the murder he’s committed. Also on page 225, Bigger acknowledges that if he were to leave Bessie behind he knows that she is too weak and naive to keep her guard up against police if they questioned her about Bigger whereabouts, this also shows the weakness of Bessie’s character.
When thinking about the overarching idea of survival that is shown in this novel we see that Wright believes that black women stand as an obstacle in the progression of black men. He writes these black women not as actually characters but reasons- reasons as to why Bigger acts the ways he acts and why Bigger views the world as he does. In doing this Wright proves himself to be extremely sexist by subtly pushing the message that black women (or even all women in the story) prove to be burdens, and roots of failure in Bigger’s life.
The Essential Role of Mary Dalton
In Book One of Richard Wrights novel “Native Son,” Mary Dalton is, to her parents’ disapproval, a member of the Communist movement set in 1930’s Chicago. Mary attempts to achieve her dream of extinguishing the barriers between African-Americans and Caucasians by treating Bigger Thomas in an extremely warm and informal manner. This sparks a sense of bewilderment in Bigger, who is accustomed to being treated inferiorly by the whites, and grows uncertain in how he should behave around her. Mary’s ignorance, naïve nature, and “good intentions” ultimately condemn her to a blazing furnace, metaphorically comparable to her form of “hell,” and her gruesome death proves to haunt Bigger in the form of searing flashbacks throughout the remainder of Book One.
Mary Dalton unwittingly induces her own demise in several ways. She brands her first impression on Bigger when she appears in a movie he watches. Her leisure lifestyle is characterized by abundant wealth and squandering, which fills Bigger with “a sense of excitement about his new job.” The fact that she has indirectly persuaded Bigger to accept the job vaguely, yet eventually results in her murder. On a more precise scale, a majority of Mary’s numerous actions also act as tinder that sets alight to her death. For example, she constantly moves within very close proximities of Bigger. He is able to “smell the odor of her hair” and at one point, Mary even has “her face some six inches from his.” Although Miss Dalton feels that these actions exude a welcoming feeling, it inevitably evokes an attraction in Bigger, with Mary being the object of interest. In addition, she also allows herself to become heavily intoxicated by drinking large quantities of rum with her Communist beau, Jan Erlone. When Mary arrives home with Bigger, she cannot reach her bedroom without assistance. Bigger escorts her, which leaves him alone with Mary in her room, presenting a troubling situation. As a result, Mary’s recklessness and overtly inviting manner contributes to her unfortunate fate.
Although Mary attempts to help African-Americans, she knows little about them. As a result, she immediately attempts to befriend Bigger just because he is black, not for who he is as an individual. She exemplifies this when she asks Jan if he knows any African-Americans, then states “I want to meet some.” In addition, she attempts to sing their “spirituals” but Bigger secretly acknowledges that it is the wrong tune. Afterwards, she further demonstrates her lack of knowledge when she states that she wants to see a black home and claims that they “must live like we live.” She later generalizes African-Americans by praising that they “have so much emotion.” Although she does not realize it, Mary’s stereotypical view of blacks stems as a form of just what she is trying to combat with Jan-racism. Instead of making Bigger feel equal, she does the opposite, by making him feel more aware of “his black skin.” As a result, Bigger develops a sense of mild contempt, along with fear and confusion, towards Mary and Jan.
Although Mary Dalton’s character only briefly appears in the story, she plays a vital role. Her political affiliation with the Communists provides an outlet for escape for Bigger Thomas. Her murder also eternally changes Bigger’s life, and now he is constantly burdened with his crime. However, this provides him with a sense of satisfaction, and he now feels his life has purpose. Bigger’s character transitions from feeling as if his life as an African-American is “just like living in jail” to now having the responsibility as well as the thrill of dodging the consequences of his committed atrocity. In addition, Mary Dalton’s character also provides a focal point for comparison to Bigger. Mary is a rebel who goes against her parents’ wishes by dating a Communist and supporting their cause. However, she feels as if there is little hope in the success of this “revolution” and expresses that she feels “helpless and useless. On the other hand, Bigger rebels against society, and its racial standards. He also feels as if he has no hope as an African-American. Their nonconformist and hopeless personalities eventually clash and yields Mary’s death as a result, emphasizing her effect on Bigger, the main character.
In conclusion, the incorporation of Mary Dalton’s character in Richard Wrights, “Native Son,” is essential. Mary’s role in the novel is essential to the development of Bigger Thomas’s character. Her short-comings also shed light upon the difficulty of overcoming racial obstacles in the 1930’s. Although she desperately wanted to help African-Americans, she was simply not educated enough about issues regarding their race and their positions among society. Through Mary Dalton’s character, Richard Wright demonstrates that even if one intends to do well, their attempts are futile where ignorance exists.
The Importance of the Contrast
In his novel “Native Son,” author Richard Wright depicts the struggles of Bigger Thomas, whose life reaches a major turning point after he kills Mary Dalton. The difference between Bigger’s dreams and the “illusion” of reality plays a significant role throughout the novel. Bigger’s dreams and innermost desires symbolize the longing of African Americans as a whole; however, they are oppressed by the reality of their situation. This crisis enhances Richard Wright’s overall message of the novel. His use of this conflicting theme in addition to innocence and brutality and other points of contrast subtly coincide with the central theme of the racial strife experienced between two very different worlds.
The fact that Wright compares Bigger’s life to a nightmare or dream during intense moments supports the notion that Bigger’s perception of life lies on the line where reality and illusions merge together. In addition, the coma-like state that Bigger seems to live in is existent from the birth of his crime to his death. For example, when Mrs. Dalton walks in on Bigger alone with Mary, a terror seizes him as though “he were falling from a great height in a dream”(85). When he wakes up the day after Mary’s murder, he remembers as if it was a mere nightmare that he had “killed Mary, had smothered her, had cut her head off and put her body in the fiery furnace” (97). However, the actuality of her death interferes with the live Bigger lives in his dreams. On several occasions an image of Mary’s head “hovered before his eyes” and he even dreams of his own head “lying with black face and half-closed eyes and lips parted with white teeth showing and hair wet with blood” (165). As a result, Bigger’s dreams serve to signify his conscience towards his murder of Mary, in which remorse is scarcely expressed. In addition, as Bigger is in his cell he contemplates that after death he would “sigh at how simple and foolish his dream had been.” This further justifies the notion that Bigger’s life alternates between reality and a “dream.”
Bigger’s dreams exist not only internally during sleep, but are expressed externally in the form of his aspirations as well. For example, when he and Gus observe a plane writing in the sky above them, Bigger comments “I could fly a plan if I had a chance” (17). Although he only went to eighth grade, Bigger’s actions in the story prove that he has the capacity to fly an airplane. However, Gus retaliates by saying “if you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school.” These “ifs” dismisses Bigger’s dream as a merely unattainable goal. This proves that his aspiration of becoming a pilot is oppressed by his position in society, diminishing his “chance.” Further supporting Gus’s verdict, when Max asks Bigger what he wanted to do that he was not allowed to, Bigger replies that he wanted to be an aviator, but the school he wanted to attend “kept all the colored boys out” (353). The fact that the white world is so exclusive to Bigger instills a feeling of hostility within him, because he knows he will never be able to experience it. Bigger describes this feeling to Gus as being “on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence.” Nevertheless, Bigger still continues to dream, and he and Gus engage in a game where they “play white.” As they hold back the urge to laugh, they “guffawed, partly at themselves and partly at the vast white world that sprawled and towered in the sun before them” (18). Using the terms “vast,” “sprawled,” and “towered,” Wright’s diction succeeds in creating an image of an overwhelming force against Bigger that reserves the power to distinguish his fantasies from reality.
In her essay, “Urban Racism Causes Bigger’s Irrationality,” literary critic Seodial Deena claims that Bigger falls “victim of city politics and the media.” In contrast to the poverty-stricken world of African Americans, the white world is portrayed to have “plenty of food, comfort, privacy, opportunities, money, and fun” (Deena 135). This is evident when Bigger watches The Gay Woman and Trader Horn at the movies. In The Gay Woman, “gleaming sands” and “a stretch of sparkling water” creates a sense of glamour, and ultimately motivates Bigger to take the job. He begins to fantasize whether Mary Dalton was a “hot kind of girl” who “spent lots of money” and perhaps would even pay him not to tell of a “secret sweetheart.” The Gay Woman’s effect of such persuasion is further enhanced when Trader Horn unfolds afterwards. Images of “naked black men and women whirling in wild dances” are portrayed and African-Americans are viewed as uncivilized compared to the wealthy, aristocratic whites. As Bigger watches the film, these images were replaced in his own mind by “white men and women dressed in black and white clothes, laughing, talking, drinking, and dancing.” As a result, Bigger accepts the job because he expects what is portrayed to him by media; however he learns, as Deena claims, “not all that glitters is gold.”
The theme of innocence and brutality is visible in several aspects of Native Son. The deaths of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears provide an example for these contrasting points. Literature scholar Steven J. Rubin’s, “Native Son is a Novel of Revolt” explains that Bigger’s murder of Bessie is “simply proof of his new ability to act” because it gives him a sense of “control over his destiny.” Unlike Mary, Bigger deliberately and unnecessarily kills Bessie. In addition, although both deaths are equally brutal, Mary’s death generates uproar while Bessie’s murder is used as mere evidence. Richard Wright’s incorporation of these two deaths in such a manner supports the message of racial prejudice set in 1930’s Chicago. Their murders are also symbolic of how innocence is treated with brutality in numerous conditions throughout the novel. Although Mary has good intentions and claimed to be “on Bigger’s side,” he still kills her and cruelly disposes of her body. Adversely, Wright demonstrates that African-Americans were also brutally treated by white police despite their innocence. In his essay, “How ‘Bigger’ was born” Wright explains that in times of crime in which citizens “are clamoring for police action, squad cars cruise the Black Belt and grab the first Negro boy who seems to be unattached and homeless” (455). Although they are innocent, the day they are picked up by the cops, a silent contract is sealed foreboding their sentence or execution. As a result, public tension is relieved at the expense of the innocent-similar to the killings that relieve tension within Bigger from his external surroundings.
In addition, Bigger treats innocence with cruelty due to the sense of shame or helplessness that it instills within him. This can be detected from early on in the novel. When Mrs. Thomas complains of their living conditions briefly after Bigger kills the rat, it is revealed that Bigger “hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them” (10). As a result, he prevents himself from feeling “to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives.” In addition, when Reverend Hammond visits and asks Bigger to accept God, the Reverend made him “feel a sense of guilt deeper than that which even his murder of Mary had made him feel” (284). The innocence and salvation Reverend Hammond tried to preach to Bigger was what he had “killed within himself…even before he had killed Mary” (284). Consequently, Bigger treats the Reverend coldly throughout the remainder of his life.
Two opposites on the color spectrum, two opposites in Native Son. Black and white. Through “Native Son” Richard Wright manages to successfully create an accurate portrayal of an African American caught in the gray between these two worlds, through the use of Bigger Thomas. A fruit beared by the society he has been forced to live among, Bigger falls victim to false perceptions of what it means to be on the other side. The muddled line between dreams and realities as well as the cause and effect of innocence and brutality that affected both colors highlights the inequality and racial corruption of 1930’s America. In conclusion, Wright’s central theme of an African American’s role in a white society as well as its involvement in their outcome powerfully radiates through Bigger Thomas.
The Analysis of the Novel “Native Son”
In Native Son, the main issue for the main character, Bigger, is that he has killed Mary Dalton. However, just like many other elements throughout the novel, this issue is simply a surface level issue. The deeper problem is that Bigger wants to be free, but racial oppression prevents him from having it. Bigger is having to live a life that he has been forced into, and this causes him to become angry. He lives in a world saturated in racist propaganda, constantly being told that he is a jungle ape who will amount to absolutely nothing. He is a pessimistic character who does not have high hopes of overcoming these systematic injustices. He fears white people because they have the power to manipulate him and decide how he will live his life.
The narrator of the story even states that, “to Bigger and his kind, white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead or a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark,” (110). And while the conflict of the story is not white versus blacks, it is oppressors verses the repressed, and what the psychological implications of that are. For Bigger, this means killing a woman because he has no other choice, and actually feeling a moment of empowerment in that decision because it is the first decision made out of free will for the first time.On the surface, this is a novel about crime, and bringing a murderer to justice.
Abstractly, it is much more. This novel is about race and justice and what years of racist oppression does to a person. To understand this, the reader must decide for themselves whether or not Bigger is truly guilty. While he is the one who held a pillow to Mary’s face, causing her to suffocate and die, it is important for the reader to question why Bigger murdered her. Mary was not a targeted victim and the murder was not premeditated. So why does Bigger murder her? If he had been caught in Mary’s room while she was intoxicated, he would have been accused of rape, which is just as severe as murdering her.
Bigger even mentions this to Max, stating that it does not matter whether or not he raped her, everyone thinks that he did and that is all that matters. This does not excuse murder, but it does highlight the impossibly situation the Bigger fell into. However, killing Mary empowers him. After killing her, he says that he feels like, “a man rebor he wanted to test and taste each new thing now to see how it went; like a man risen up well from a long illness,” (107). For the first time in his life, Bigger is able to make a choice of his own. He did something that he doesn’t have to tell anyone about, and because of that, he feels like he has finally taken control of his own destiny.
This novel is divided into three different sections, titled “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate,” respectively. In the exposition, the author describes and incident concerning Bigger, his family, and a rat that got into the apartment. The events that take place in this scene are a direct foreshadowing of what happens to Bigger. At first, the rat is terrified that it has accidentally entered the apartment, and realizes that it is trapped. This is how Bigger feels constantly because he lives in a world where is always constrained and must do what other people tell him to do. This fear and shame that he feels eventually turns into rage, causing Bigger to see those against him as nothing but a force of evil.
Next, the rat attempts to escape. It scurries around, looking for a hiding place, but ultimately fails and begins to attack its chasers. After Bigger kills Mary, he must escape the damage he caused, and he does this in a very messy, unorganized way that eventually gets him caught, all while going about this in a violent manner. He even takes another innocent life as he tries to hide his tracks and avoid getting caught.
Finally, the rat is caught and killed, just like Bigger. Both are executed somewhat publicly, pleasing those who are disgusted by them. The difference, however, is that Bigger gains a great degree of wisdom as he nears his death. As he becomes physically restrained, he becomes more mentally and emotionally free. By talking to Jan and Max, he sees that white people are not all evil, and starts to see them as both individuals and equals. Bigger also comes to realize that his feelings were not his fault; the hate and rage that he felt was actually misrepresented fear and shame, and that he is not the only one who feels this way.
Literary Analysis of Richard Wright’s Book, Native Son
Jim Crow laws in 1930’s Chicago created a segregation system which prohibited African-Americans from restaurants, water fountains and even bathrooms that “belonged” to whites. In this setting, Richard Wright places his novel, Native Son, with one of the most monstrous characters to ever derive from the oppressive system of Jim Crow, Bigger Thomas. Whites employed the system of Jim Crow to force African Americans, like Bigger Thomas, into socio-economic positions of inferiority. The socio-economic conditions of Jim Crow also damped the opportunities of African Americans compared to white citizens which stands as a representation of how an environment of oppression and inferiority, controls and oppresses the violent desires of individuals like Bigger Thomas, with threats of violence. Critic Foucault describes the panopticons as:
“Those in authority rule by surveillance, by watching, by an evasive cultural observation that leads us to internalize the surveilling discipline and regulate, police, ourselves.”
Critic Michael Foucault sense of the panopticon as a system of surveillance can be extended to an analysis of how Jim Crow was used as a form of surveillance to police the black population of 1930s Chicago. It is here that we begin to recognize not only does Jim Crow operates at a surveillance society but it also forces victims, like Bigger Thomas, to police themselves by internalizing feelings of alienation, shame and inferiority, thus causing a victim to be forced into a dangerous state of mind.
The readers first awareness of Jim Crow as a system of internalized surveillance occurs through Biggers discussion of his recognition of how that very system is used to maintain his position of poverty and inferiority in society, as he metaphorically looks through the knot hole in the fence. In the beginning of the novel when Bigger is talking to his friend Gus about how he is socially handicapped in society by his black skin. The oppression and awareness of his inferiority is shown when he says:
‘Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t, It’s just like living in jail. Half of the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot hole in the fence.’ (20).
His use of the phrase “poking a red- hot iron [down his throat]” signals his internalization of the panopticon, resulting in his consistent fear of being watched by white society and forcing him to constantly fear violating the social crows of Jim Crow. Thus, Bigger’s feeling of alienation are only intensified when he says “whites live in his stomach” revealing a deep sense of inferiority and feelings of fear that literally lives within him.
Interestingly Bigger and his friends have internalized not only the fear of offending white society but also a fear of the consequences of a crime committed against a white individual such as Mr. Blum. Not only is Jim Crow, Bigger recognizes, operating on the outside as a system but Wright reveals that it is something that has been internalized into African Americans such as Bigger and Gus which programs them to be afraid of robbing someone like Mr. Blum because of racial retribution. A prime example of this knowledge of the white society and the self-surveillance of Bigger’s own action is when Bigger says:
‘They had always robbed Negroes. They felt it was easier and safer to rob their own people, for they knew that white policemen never search diligently for blacks that commit crimes against other Negroes, [yet they terrorize and publicly shame blacks that commit crimes against whites] for months they had talked of robbing Blum’s, but had not been able to bring themselves to do it. They had the feeling that the robbing of Blum’s would be a violation of ultimate taboo; trespassing into a territory where a full wrath of an alien white world’ (15).
Wright reveals the internalization of the panopticon in Bigger self- surveillance through his fear of Mr. Blum. Also, it is important to demonstrate that the man, Blum, they are talking about robbing represents not one individual but a white society that will want racial retribution for defying the panopticon or “white world” (14). The imbalance in power between the white communities and African Americans reveals that such oppression is needed to withhold opportunity of socio-economic freedom as well as to maintain power over the black community.
Another example is when Bigger enters the Dalton’s household and while he is sitting in this “white home” (45) Bigger connects this world with what he said earlier about going through the “knot hole in the fence” into white society. When he is sitting in the Dalton’s Household, Bigger holds onto feelings of distrust which is exemplified when he says how the “strange objects challenged him” (46) inside this white home. Bigger then has a sense of realization that this “world would be so utterly different from his own that it intimidates him” (45). Now Bigger is not looking through the knot hole in the fence, he is metaphorically in the white world. Biggers fear of this world is used against him when Mr. Dalton is mindreading Bigger and reading that fear as a sign of respect. Mr. Dalton is now surveilling, reading Bigger’s body language and thinks Bigger is showing the proper deference. Bigger then notices how his fear has overwhelmed him and says:
“Why was he acting and feeling this way? He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this. If not that he wanted to blot himself out. He had not raised his eyes to the level of Mr. Dalton’s face since he had been in his house. There was an organic conviction in him that this was the way white folks wanted him to be when in their presence” (47-48)
Bigger’s internalized fear and conviction to submit to the presence of whites, reveals further that the surveilling of Bigger by Mr. Dalton and the self-surveillance of his own actions further proves the system of the panopticon under Jim Crow.
Lastly, the burning of cross is a representation of the panopticon at the highest level. The Christian cross traditionally symbolizes compassion and sacrifice for a greater good, and indeed Reverend Hammond intends as much when he gives Bigger a cross while he is in jail. Bigger even begins to think of himself as Christ-like, imagining that he is sacrificing himself in order to wash away the shame of being black, just as Christ died to wash away the world’s sins. Later, however, after Bigger sees the image of a burning cross, he can only associate crosses with the hatred and racism that has crippled him throughout his life. He begins to feel betrayed which is shown when he says:
“He had felt betrayed. He wanted to tear the cross from his throat and throw it away. [….] he was feeling the cross that touched his chest, like a knife pointed at his heart. His fingers arched up to rip it off: it was an evil and black charm which would surely bring him death now.”(338)
This reveals that Bigger has come to a point that the white world has crippled him with racism and oppression to a point that his distrusts the cross and believes it will not save him but kill him instead. As such, the cross in Native Son comes to symbolize the opposite of what it usually signifies in a Christian context and instead symbolizes the ultimate Panopticon in the system of Jim Crow.
In conclusion, Jim Crow operates at a surveillance society but it also forces victims, like Bigger Thomas, to police themselves by internalizing feelings of alienation, shame and inferiority of the white world. The socio-economic conditions of Jim Crow also damped the opportunities of African Americans compared to white citizens which stands as a representation of how an environment of oppression and inferiority, controls and oppresses the violent desires of individuals like Bigger Thomas, with threats of violence. It is that very system is used to maintain his position of poverty and inferiority in society, as he metaphorically looks through the knot hole in the fence. It is through the life of Bigger Thomas that a reader can analyze his representation to be a whole community of individuals who are oppressed and forced into self-surveillance of themselves and to constantly struggle against the oppression of the white society.
The Effect of Blindness in Native Son
Blindness is prevalent all throughout human society and more specifically, all throughout human nature. To be blind can mean a myriad of things. Literally and physically, it means to lack proper vision. When taking that definition to a figurative level, it means to fail to see through the perspectives of other people, or it can also mean to overanalyze and fail to see the true form of a situation. Depending on the scenario, the effects of blindness can either be positive or negative, although it is usually the latter. In Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, the theme of blindness recurs a multitude of times, and all definitions of blindness apply at least once within the book. The vast effects of the varying multitudes of blindness are prominent within the mindsets of the characters of Native Son, and ultimately, it teaches a lesson about society as a whole.Blindness appears repeatedly throughout the book within a variety of characters. The first conspicuous conveyance of blindness is found in Mrs. Dalton. Mrs. Dalton is physically blind and, due to the fact that she is not capable of seeing, she is also figuratively blind as well. In this case, Wright portrays this particular kind of blindness to be a positive attribute. Since Mrs. Dalton cannot see the difference in skin color, she is not biased towards people based on their race. She is very kind to Bigger and even takes interests in what he would like to do with his life. In addition, she even offers to pay for him to go to night school to pursue a proper education for himself. “He had a feeling toward her akin to that which he held toward his mother. The difference in his feelings toward Mrs. Dalton and his mother was that he felt that his mother wanted him to do the things she wanted him to do, and he felt that Mrs. Dalton wanted him to do the things she felt that he should have wanted to do,” (Wright 61). Within the moment that these feelings of warmness ran through Bigger’s thoughts, it appeared as if he was temporarily blind to his racism against whites since Mrs. Dalton was blind to any kind of racism against blacks. This can be ascertained, because Mrs. Dalton was one of the only white characters Bigger ever thought somewhat fondly of. By including these details within the story, Wright proved the point that one is not born with innate racism; prejudice is something that must be developed. If everyone were blind, racism would be nonexistent, for no one would even be able to acknowledge the existence of a race if it cannot be seen.Although a positive side to blindness exists, a negative side coexists as well. Up until the end of the story after Bigger had gotten caught and gone to trial, he was one of the most severely blind out of all the characters. Rather than viewing whites as individuals, he viewed them as a mass of people—one that he ardently hated. He hated even those who were kind to him, like Jan and Mary, because instead of believing that they were kind, he believed that they were mocking him or making some sort of joke out of him. This blindness prevented him from taking the steps towards pursuing opportunities—opportunities for progression and advancement, and opportunities for change in his life, as well as in the lives of others. Instead of taking up on Mrs. Dalton’s offer to go to school and better himself, Bigger turned that opportunity down. In addition, rather than truly befriending Mary and Jan and possibly helping them understand exactly how it feels to be an oppressed African-American, Bigger emotionally ostracized them. Due to his ignorant blindness, Bigger also constructed a wall so high, that it was impossible for anyone to get in or for him to get out, thus preventing any kind of personal progression. It was not until the very end of the novel when Bigger finally realized how it was wrong of him all of his life to view whites as a single mass of evil racists trying to hold him back from pursuing what he wanted, when he could have viewed them as individuals, for there were some individuals who actually wanted to help him advance in life.By incorporating this recurring theme, Wright aimed to perhaps make his readers realize their own wrongs, as well as vividly display one of the true roots of racism and prejudice: blindness—blindness to another person’s feelings and perspective—blindness to empathy—blindness to the fact that the victims are human beings as well. By making Mrs. Dalton physically blind and in turn, figuratively blind to racism as well, Wright proves the point that prejudice against another race is not a valid reason to hate another person, because one should be judged by the character content, not by their physical appearance. If everyone were blind, racism would cease to exist, for no one would be able to judge a person by the color of his or her skin if it cannot be seen. By making Bigger figuratively blind, Wright proved another point: being blind to empathy and to the perspectives of others leads onto dehumanization of the oppressed in the eyes of the oppressor. This is the plain and simple reason of how racism can exist in the first place. When one can view his or her victim to be inferior or less than human, only then can he or she inflict harm upon that victim without feeling remorse.No matter what time or era, literal and figurative blindness will always exist in society. First of all, racism and prejudice still exist in society and undeniably, it always will. Even though the racism has toned down and there is now more tolerance, there are many people out there who are still racist against people of certain races. As of right now, there is much hate and prejudice surrounding Middle Easterners as well as the religion of Islam. Due to what happened on 9/11 and also with the varying terrorist attacks, Americans have jumped the gun and have aimed their hate towards Muslims and Middle Easterners. Yes, the majority of the terrorist attacks were made by Muslims and Middle Easterners, but that does not necessarily mean that all Muslims are evil. There are many who practice the religion peacefully through a different interpretation, and due to the blindness of America, there are numerous people who fail to see that. People should be viewed as individuals, not as a mass. In addition, there is also much prejudice and discrimination against homosexuals due to the blindness of today’s society. People boast about America being a country of freedom and acceptance, but how can one brag about something that is not true? In this modern day and age, gays are still not fully accepted in society, and they are also not allowed to get married in certain states. This is due to the ignorant blindness of American society. These people fail to see through the perspectives of homosexuals, and they fail to see that feelings, along with sexual orientation, is something that is neither controllable nor alterable. It is absolutely sickening to see the levels of closed-mindedness and ignorance rise as the levels of reason and empathy decline towards many of the scenarios occurring within society today. Blindness is an innate part of human nature and will always exist within society. A lot of the time, people do not even realize they are blind, so by depicting the blindness of society along with making blindness a recurring theme within Native Son, Richard Wright succeeded in doing the world a favor. On a figurative level, there are both positive and negative facets of blindness. First, Wright portrayed how blindness could have positive effects by making Mrs. Dalton blind within the story. Since she was physically blind, it ultimately made her blind towards racism as well since she could not see the difference in skin color, thus proving that the color of one’s skin is an invalid justification to judge someone upon. On the other side of the spectrum, Wright also displayed the negative side of blindness: the side that ravenously eats away at one’s humanity. Bigger’s blindness towards whites was a major contributor to his downfall in life. Rather than viewing whites as individuals, he viewed them as a single oppressive mass. On the other hand, racist whites viewed African-Americans as a single inferior mass as well, rather than as individual human beings. When one views another person through such a narrow perspective, it dwindles the empathy he or she has for another person; as empathy is tarnished, it slowly disintegrates the degrees of humanity along with it. By vividly exhibiting such behaviors within Native Son, readers might realize the times that they have been blind. Bigger may have realized his wrongs and opened his eyes too late, but hopefully readers can procure a lesson out of this novel and open their eyes from blindness soon enough to right their wrongs.