Native Son by Richard Wright: Representation of the Black Men in a Violent System
Native Son questions
According to Wright, what did Bigger Thomas represent?
Bigger Thomas represents all black men existing in a system where it is impossible for them to exist without crime or violence. Their behavior was dictated by their hatred of white people. They were an oppressed community full of anger and frustration that they could not achieve what whites could achieve. The American Dream was off limits to them. The limitations of the black American culture were extremely evident in Native Son. Bigger mentions early in the novel that he was “sick of his life at home…but what could he do?” (Wright 22). Bigger felt trapped by society.
Bigger thinks at one point, “why should not this cold white world rise up as a beautiful dream… in which it would be easy to tell what to do and what not to do” (Wright 198). Even though he was talking about snow, it can be symbolic of the white oppression that he was surrounded by. Bigger, as representative of all other black men in his situation, longs for a world in which he can succeed and move freely without hatred or discrimination, but he is instead given a world in which is is despised at every corner and denied the freedoms that other white men get.
Black men still endure oppression in today’s society. Whether it is from police brutality, racial profiling, or racists acts of violence, black people still do not possess the complete and unlimited freedom that white people get just because of their skin color. Black people must surpass many more obstacle stacked against them than black people. Even in the decades since Wight’s novel’s publishing, the racism in this country still lingers on.
What two events inspired Wright to create Bigger Thomas?
Wright explains that Bigger was created based on real life people he had met in his lifetime. He describes 5. The first Bigger was was a bully who terrorized Wirght as a child. The other Biggers were people who violently reacted against the white system that held them down in some way or another (Wright 10). These black Biggers reflected the “failures of modern civilization” (Wright 10). The other event that helped Nixon to create Bigger Thomas was the Nixon trial that occurred in 1938 (Wright 11). Essentially a black man named Robert Nixon was arrested and charged with the murder of a white woman. Wright used many details from the case and the white racism portrayed in it as material to help him create Bigger.
A revealing moment in the mentality of Bigger is when he thinks to himself that he “hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them…and the moment he allowed himself to feel to feel to its fullness of how they lived…he would either kill himself or someone else” (Wright 20). The extreme despair and frustration displayed in this quote allows us to sort of understand Bigger to commit the horrible crimes that he did.
When people feel boxed in, ignored, hated, or any other array of negative feelings, they often feel no other way out than by violence. Why should they bother following the rules of a society that hates them? When a person is treated so badly, they oftentimes resort to extreme measures to feel some kind of worth or achievement, like when Bigger killed Mary. Even though it was accidental, afterwards he felt like he had accomplished something great because it was an act out against the white race that had oppressed him.
Why is Book One entitled “Fear”?
Book one is entitled Fear because it is referring the fears that Bigger is experiencing throughout the first part of the novel. The same fears that contribute to him committed the heinous crimes later in the novel. In one particular instance, Bigger becomes so scared with the thought of robbing Blum’s that he attacks one of his own partners to keep it from happening (Wright 42). Bigger is scared of his life never getting any better than it is when the novel begins, he is scared of being a black man in the society he lives in, and it is fear that eventually drives him to accidentally kill Mary.
The manic intensity with which Bigger attacks Gus in the store is a direct result of his fear at robbing the white man’s store. Wright describes Bigger throughout the scene as having “hard, bloodshot eyes” and a “twisted, crooked smile” (Wright 44). Wright gives us the feeling that Bigger is enjoying the torture of Gus, which is scarier than the idea of Bigger attacking Gus just to get out of the robbery. The cruel way in which the attack on Gus is described may be indicative of how Bigger feels personally attacked everyday by society.
Many acts of war today are a result of “shoot now, ask questions later.” Some people are so fearful that they may be attacked in some way that they attack first themselves. This can also be related on a smaller scale, like in bullying. A student is so scared that they may be picked on that they start a rumor about someone else first in order to draw the attention away.
Why does Wright bring in the confrontation with the rat?
In the opening pages of the novel, we are presented with the image of a large ugly black rat clinging to Bigger’s trousers. Right in the first few pages, we are made aware of the conditions Bigger and his family live in. A shabby apartment ridden with rats and filth is indicative of the poverty they endure. Bigger feels trapped by the life he has in that apartment and it contributes to his overall frustration and despair.
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.
Many Americans today still live in poverty or starvation. It can seem nearly impossible to achieve dreams when your every thought is consumed by need money or food. Financial hindrance is a huge obstacle to overcome and it kept Bigger working menial jobs just to make ends meat. It is the reason we still need programs and initiatives to combat poverty and starvation numbers in the United States, and larger scale than that, the world.
Who was Bessie? What was pathetic about her life?
Bessie was Bigger’s girlfriend, even though they had a prostitution-type relationship. Bessie was an overworked black woman who only wanted to drink when she had time off. “[Bessie] wanted liquor and he wanted her. So he would give her the liquor and she would give him herself.” What was so sad about Bessie was that she felt like she “lived their lives when she was working in their home” and that was the reason for why she drank (Wright 119). She was so unhappy and so desperate for a drink that she would give herself to Bigger in exchange for money.
Bigger described Bessie’s life as working seven days a week with only Sunday afternoons off. When Bessie was off work for that singular afternoon, Bigger said she wanted “hard and fast fun, something to make her feel that she was making up for the starved life she was living.” Wright is able to create the image of a girl worked hard every single week just to survive. Bigger uses a metaphor to describe her saying “she was very blind.” Maybe Bigger thought she was being blind, but I believe it was just her way of coping with the sadness in her life.
Alcoholism is a relatively common way to deal with depression and unhappiness/anger in American society. Alcoholism kills thousands every year by itself and with the help of drunk driving. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and others help people cope with their addiction. More people need to understand that alcohol is a depressant and is not a long term solution to the problem they are experiencing. In Bessie’s case, she reached out for the only thing that she felt could take her away from her problem.
Why does Bigger kill Mary Dalton?
Bigger kills Mary Dalton because he is gripped by a “hysterical terror” of being caught by Mary’s blind mother, Mrs. Dalton (Wright 80). Bigger was certain that if he didn’t keep Mary from making noise or mumbling, he would be discovered. He does the only thing he can think to do. He grabs the pillow and pushes it down over her face with all his might. It appears he doesn’t intentionally kill Mary by his surprise that her bosom isn’t moving anymore, but one can imagine that he may have subconsciously wanted to kill her when he continued to press down the pillow even after she stopped resisting.
Wright describes Bigger’s attack as being “dominated by frenzy,” which is a use of anthropomorphism. Bigger didn’t feel in control of his own emotions, rather, they were in control of him. He acted without thinking and without contemplation. He was like the rat in the apartment in the first scene of the novel. Once cornered, he felt his only choice was to fight back.
The ‘fight or flight’ response is a very real phenomenon in humans. When cornered or under intense stress, a person will have to choose immediately whether to prepare to fight or run away. Bigger in this instance chose to fight. He mentions having the idea to “knock her out of the way and bolt form the room” (Wright 80). Today, many crime of passion murders of attacks are a result of the fight or flight response. A person choosing in the exact moment to fight it out rather than run. Bigger’s instincts told him to attack Mary because he was legitimately in fear for his life.
How does the concept of blindness relate to the work?
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. Bigger thinks to himself, “Mrs. Dalton was blind; yes, in more ways than one” (Wright 94). Metaphorically, this represents the racism that Bigger experiences as a black man. Mrs. Dalton is unable to literally see Bigger, but she also simultaneously representing 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.
Many people are in denial today that racisms till exists. They prefer to turn a blind eye to the signs around them that indicate mistreatment of blacks and other people of color. In order to move forward as a society, we need to openly address the problem that racism still exists. We must remove the figurative blindness from our sights and understand race relations for what they are and begin to take action.
After Mary’s murder, what drastic action does Bigger take? How did the community respond to the murder?
After killing Mary, he is convinced he must get rid of the evidence. He brings Mary’s body down to the basement to shove into the furnace to burn, but it won’t quite fit. In is insanity, we decides he must decapitate the head off of Mary’s body so that it can go into the furnace. Some imagery and recurrence of the color white is brought back in when Bigger “look[s] at Mary’s white throat. Could he do it? He had to” (Wright 84). Once he realizes that his pocket knife will not cut of the head, he reaches for a hatchet to hack it the rest of the way off. Once he got the body shoved into the furnace, he lit it ablaze and left for home. Eventually the body is discovered, and the media descends into a frenzy. Their news headline read, “HUNT BLACK IN GIRL’S DEATH” (Wright 198). Bigger hears that nearly 8000 men are on the hunt for him. The community falls into a mob mentality and when they finally capture Bigger, they beat him until he is secured by police.
When Bigger is finally captured, “two men stretched his arms out, as though to crucify him. This is an obvious allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus. Here was Bigger, a black man, dying for the wrongs of so many white people that drove him to commit heinous acts of violence. Except in this case, no redemption was to awarded to the people who eventually sentenced him to death.
Mob mentality occurs when everyone is influenced by other people in the mob to adopt certain, usually outlandish, behaviors. A recent example of mob mentality is Cologne attacks. Essentially hundreds of men gathered at train stations in Frankfurt, Cologne, and Hamburg, Germany and proceeded to harass, rob, and sexually assault hundreds of women. Mob mentality is so dangerous because the members of the group continue to justify each the group’s actions.
What happened to Bigger’s personality after the murder and at what point did he give up on religion?
In a sense, after imprisonment for the murders, Bigger felt a sense of relief. He tells Max, his lawyer, that it may sound bad, but “I ain’t worried none about them women I killed. For a little while I was free…I was doing something (Wright 278). Bigger describes how he felt a little deeper when he says, “I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while” (Wright 278). Bigger was less tense, he was more or less at peace with his fate.
Bigger talk about his abandonment of religion with Max as well. Max asks Bigger if he could be happy in religion right then, would he be? Bigger replies curtly, “Naw. I’ll be dead soon enough. If I was religious, I’d be dead now” (Wright 280). This is a stark contrast metaphorically saying that religion effectively aids white people in the manipulation of blacks. Essentially, it helps soothe their existence in the hateful society so that white people could more easily take advantage. Like Bessie’s alcohol, religion helps people cope but doesn’t solve any problems.
Who is the insane man? Why does Wright bring him in as a character?
The insane man was a young black man who was brought to the prison from his university screaming. All of the other cell mates just tell Bigger to leave him alone because he is crazy. They say that he was crazy because he was “studying too much at the university…[and had] got to the bottom of why colored folks are treated bad” (Wright 270). I believe Wright brought him into the novel to give the reader and idea of the weight of the burden that the truth about all of the injustices done to black people must have weighed. To be fully conscious about all of the wrongs that had been done to you and your people and why was enough to drive this young man insane.
When witnessing the insane man’s rant, Bigger was fearful that “the man’s driving frenzy would suck him into its hot whirlpool.” The whirlpool represented the overwhelming, drowning sense of truth the insane man was feeling. I believe Bigger knew this, and felt that if he too succumbed to the whirlpool he may never come back.
Today we have much better care facilities for the insane and mentally disabled. In the time that this novel was written, mental health facilities were virtually non existent. Mental health is taken much more seriously today and cases such as the insane man’s would have been handled with more care instead of just strapping him down and carting him away.
How is religion brought out in the work?
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. Religion represents to Bigger, as mentioned above, a coping mechanism, not a solution to a problem. That is why everyone around him seems to be blind.
Religion is a topic of discussion frequently today. Recently, there was much debate on the religious affiliations of the presidential candidates. People value religion. Religion is a deciding factor for a lot of people for even simpler things than their presidential choice. People curb their choices in partner based on religion. And it can affect their school choice. The importance of religion certainly is still very much relevant today.
Point out examples of animal imagery in the work. What do the images represent?
There are two black rats mentioned in the story. One is in the beginning of the piece that was described earlier. The other rat is mentioned Bigger feels trapped in the city after Mary’s bones are found. The rat leaps across the snow and escapes into a hole in the wall where Bigger watches after it “wistfully” (Wright 202). Both of these rats are symbolic of Bigger.
The other significant animal that was described in the piece was Mrs. Dalton’s white cat. The white cat follows Dalton around and he feels watched and pressured by it. When Bigger is disposing of Mary’s body, the cat is there to watch him. In his frenzy, he considers throwing the cat into the furnace too because it knows what he did. Later, the cat seems to look at Bigger with “big round black eyes [with] twin pools of secret guilt” (Wright 186). The white cat is symbolic of the white society. It is also a good symbol because in most of the novel white society takes the body of a singular character; Doc, Mary, etc.
Animal imagery continues to still be widely used. For instance, the republican party is represented as an elephant and the democratic party is represented by the donkey. Animals take on our projections in many other ways, like in the way as the United States’ national bird is the Eagle. Another example of animals taking on other roles are dogs taking on more of a support system role. Many people find support and aid in guidance dogs or emotional support dogs.
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