Not all Blacks behaved as these two did. In a passage that probably reflects Wright’s own internal struggle, he describes the fugitive Bigger, lonely and afraid, watching the singing, clapping men and women in a nearby church.
Would it not have been better for him had he lived in that world the music sang of? It would have been easy to live in it, for it was his mother’s world humble, contrite, believing. It had a center, a core, an axis, a heart, which he needed but could never have unless he laid his head upon a pillow of humility and gave up his hope of living in the world. And he would never do that. (NS 215)
As Nelson Manfred Blake states, “Negroes who chose the path of accommodation hated the rebellious Negroes whose misdeeds intensified the racial prejudice of the whites”. (242)
During his flight Bigger overheard a conversation in which a hard working Black laborer complained bitterly at being laid off because of the murder of Mary Dalton.
Yuhsee, tha’ Goddamn nigger Bigger Thomas made me lose mah job. He made the white folks think we’s all just like him! When another Negro protested that he would die before he would betray Bigger to the police, the realist painted out that this was crazy talk. The Negroes were so far outnumbered that it would be futile to fight; the whites could kill them all. “Yuhgotta learnt live’n’ giterlongwid people”. (NS 213)
Asked by Max why he had not appealed for help to the leaders of his race, Bigger showed how little the Black masses trusted the small Black elite. Bigger felt that these successful ones would not listen to him. They were rich. They almost like white people, when it comes to guys like him. They say that guys like him make it hard for them to get along with white folks.
As Nelson Manfred Blake puts it, “The most frightening thing about Bigger Thomas was his complete divorce from the values of common humanity”.( 242) Feeling no remorse for his terrible deeds, he was humiliated by the sight of his sobbing mother and terrified brother and sister. He thought that they ought to be glad. It was a strange but strong feeling, coming from the very depths of his life. He had taken fully upon himself the crime of being black. He had done the thing, which they dreaded above all others. Then they ought not pity him and cry over him. They should look at him and go home, contented, feeling that their shame was washed away.
A life of fear and confusion about the White race caused Bigger to be tense all the time. Throughout his life, he had been oppressed and controlled by the Whites. Bigger’s father was killed while fighting for equal rights. Whites prevent Bigger from getting education and being given the chance to make something to him. From his birth to murder of Mary, Bigger comes to know for himself that what he can and cannot do. Bigger’s murder of Mary Dalton was an accident, but it freed him from incapabilities. After his crime, Bigger no longer felt the same fear in the presence of the Whites. From the two murders he committed which induced in him a feeling of freedom and which he had never experienced before, Bigger realized that he had become what he wanted to become. He is also proud of his freedom to choose his own action.
Bigger does not find friendship or love with his companions or his mistress. With Gus he can articulate his bitter frustration over the racist society. Bigger feels that, his crime makes an attempt to break himself from all the ties and taboos in a racist society. In the course of time, Bigger changes into an existential man, alienated and victimized by the society, which he hates. He feels that he will regain his identity only by sacrificing himself. Katherine Fishburn states it clearly as follows:
With skill, Wright moves his character out of a deterministic situation into an existential one, simultaneously protesting against a society that forces men to crime in order to express themselves. To appreciate the unity of native son it is necessary therefore to establish the relationships in it between naturalism and existentialism, two such opposing philosophies. (72)
If the theme of trust comes late in the novel and causes skepticism, the same cannot be said of the major theme-fear. Not only do the killing of the rat and the fight with Gus foreshadows Mary’s death, but they are also motivated by fear. Bigger fights with Gus to cover up his fear of robbing Blum’s store. He and his friends are used to preying on other blacks, but to rob a white man’s store is taboo. Thus, the killing of Mary demonstrates how Bigger’s emotions of fear, hate, rage, and shame culminate in increasing violence.
On a much larger scale, Richard Wright seems to be saying that a hostile white environment determines the fate of blacks. Determinism, then, is an important theme in Native Son .For the Bigger Thomases growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930’s, there is no escape; they will end up in jail. The only question is, for what crime? Other blacks are confronted with a Hobson’s choice-dehumanizing submission.
Who is to be blamed for this state of affairs? For most of the novel, Wright seems to be insisting that it is white society that is at fault. As the novel approaches its end, however, the reader gets the sense that Bigger Thomas is the “native son” of all Americans, black and white. If Bigger belongs to all Americans, he is ultimately responsible for his actions and must be held accountable. By killing, Bigger gets the feeling of power, equality and freedom; by destroying, he has created an identity for himself. Despite his meager choices, he has chosen violence over submission. Even Bigger recognizes this: “But what I killed for I am!” (NS 102).
At the end of the novel, the reader is still trying to understand Bigger. The point of view is sympathetic. Wright manages to convince the reader that this black youth has killed twice and begins to feel only after he has murdered, and this is worthy of understanding and compassion.
Bigger’s troubles with the law had begun at an early age. His tussle with the law only indicates his struggle for acquiring an identity. He thinks that he can atleast find his identity as a criminal. A Mississippi newspaper editor gives an unfriendly description of Bigger Thomas. According to him, Thomas comes of a poor Black family of a shiftless and immoral variety. He was raised there and is known to local residents as an irreformable sneak thief and liar. They were unable to send him to the chain gang because of his extreme youth. Bigger had been accused of stealing tires and sent to a Southern reform school. He had not really done anything wrong. He had been with some boys and the police had picked them up.
Bigger quit school in the eighth grade because he had no money. In trying to earn a living, he suffered the frustration that Richard Wright knew so well from his own experience. “You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets, anything… you don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing” (NS 239).
The Thomases lived in a single rat-infested room. Even during the depression, empty flats were scarce in the Black Belt. Whenever Bigger’s mother wanted to move she had to put in her request many weeks in advance. She once made Bigger tramp the streets for two months looking for a place to live. The rental agencies had told him that there were not enough houses for Blacks to live in; that the city was condemning houses in which Blacks lived as being too old and too dangerous for habitation.
He remembered the time when the police had driven his family out of a building that had collapsed two days later. Bigger had heard it said that black people, even though they could not get good jobs, paid twice as much rent as whites for the same kinds of flats. He knew that Blacks could not find tenements outside the Black Belt; they had to live on their side of the “line”. No white real estate man would rent a flat to a Black in any section other than that which had been condemned to their use. Most of the houses in the Black Belt were ornate, old, stinking homes once of rich white people, now inhabited by Blacks or standing dark and empty with yawning black windows.
The parents of the white girl slain by Bigger Thomas considered themselves as friends of the Black race. They gave millions of dollars to Black schools. They were supporters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They treated their Black chauffeurs generously. Yet Henry Dalton was one of the landlords who kept the Chicago Blacks penned in the ghetto. Dalton owned the south side Real Estate Company and the south side Real Estate Company owned the house where the Thomases paid eight dollars a week for one shabby room. Even though Mr. Dalton gave millions of dollars for Black education, he would rent houses to Blacks only in this prescribed area, the corner of the city tumbling down from rot. As Nick Aaron Ford puts it",
Although he admits that he owns houses in other sections of the city where no shortage exists, he says he will not rent them to Negroes because he thinks Negroes are happier living together in one section. He further admits that, of all the Negroes his philanthropy has helped to educate, he has never employed one in the operation of his vast business enterprises. (29)
This is how even those who sympathized with the lot of the Blacks operated. The basic feeling of discrimination on racial grounds was retained despite outward philanthropy.
There could be little privacy for four people living in a single room, but the Thomas family respected the code of decency. The two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling ashamed; and the mother and sister did the same while the boys dressed. An uneasy tension was inevitable. When Bigger absent-mindedly looked at his sister at an inopportune moment, she hysterically threw her shoe at him and accused him of trying to look under her skirt. As Nelson Manfred Blake puts it, “These pathetic efforts at modesty were largely futile. Slum children learned about sex through raw experience.” (238).
Shut up in an empty apartment house during his flight, Bigger could look through shadeless windows into a nearby tenement. In the morning sunlight, he could see three naked Black children sitting on a bed, watching a man and a woman, both naked, who lay on another bed. There were quick, jerky movements on the bed where the man and woman lay, and the three children were watching. It was familiar, as he had seen things like that when he was a little boy sleeping five in a room. Many mornings he had awakened and watched his father and mother.
To the women, the rodents who gorged on garbage and invaded the tenement were a special terror. Mrs.Thomas and Vera climbed onto a bed and clung to each other in hysterical fright while Bigger and Buddy chased a foot-long rat around the room, finally killing him with an iron skillet.The two brothers stood over the dead rat and spoke in terms of awed admiration, ‘Gee, but he’s a big bastard’. ‘That sonofabitch could cut your throat’. (NS 6)
Institutionalized virtue could not touch boys like Bigger. One of Henry Dalton’s deeds of kindness had been to give a dozen Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boy’s Club; but Bigger asked bitterly that a guy could do nothing, with Ping-Pong. When Lawyer Max asked him if the Boy’s Club kept him out of trouble, Bigger replied that, that was where they planned most of their jobs. The church was even less effective. All the church goers did, as Bigger complained, was to sing and shout and pray all the time. It did not get them anything. Only rich people received happiness from the church.
According to Nelson Manfred Blake, “The only noble characters in Richard Wright’s disturbing novel are the two communists, Jan Erlone and Boris Max”. (247) Bigger Thomas knew very little about communists and accepted the stereotypes of the day. He remembered seeing many cartoons of communists in newspapers and always they had flaming torches in their hands and wore beards and were trying to commit murder or set things on fire. People who acted that way were crazy. All he could recall having heard about communists was associated in his mind with darkness, old houses, people speaking in whispers and trade unions on strike. Jan Erlone, Mary Dalton’s boyfriend, scarcely fitted this description.
Pressing his friendship on the suspicious Black, Jan had remonstrated when Bigger called him “sir”. When he learned that Bigger’s father had been killed in a southern race riot, Jan explained that this was what the communists were fighting. ““Don’t you think”, he asked Bigger, “if we got together we could stop things like that”. Bigger was unimpressed. “There’s a lot of white people in the world”, he pointed out”. (NS 65)
Some critics insist that in the book’s concluding section, the pace of the novel slows to a crawl. These critics regard the final section as a major flaw in the novel, viewing it as contrived and serving only to put forward Wright’s communist views. Others concede that, although perhaps too didactic in tone, the concluding section is necessary to show the extent to which Bigger’s life is fated. Still others argue that this material should have been integrated into the rest of the novel.
If critics are divided about the effectiveness of Wright’s narrative structure, his symbolism is less controversial. The snowfalls and blizzards that occur throughout the novel represent a hostile white society. Similarly, Mrs. Dalton’s physical blindness is indicative of the psychological blindness of the other characters.
Time, too, has symbolic significance in the novel. Whether it is the cacophonous sound of the alarm clock in the opening line of the novel or the clock ticking at the head of Mary’s bed, the references seem to represent Bigger’s meaningless existence. Most critics grant a measure of effectiveness to these symbols. The wooden cross, however, does not fare so well. This is the cross that the Reverend Hammond, Bigger’s mother’s minister, gives Bigger when he visits him in prison. Those who bother to mention it regard it as too obvious. Bigger throws the cross away after seeing the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan; he cannot absorb the differences between the two symbols. In discarding the wooden cross, however, he is rejecting his mother’s religion and, ultimately, his mother.
By killing Mary Dalton, though inadvertently, Bigger Thomas gains a sort of spurious identity. The Blacks have been confined to a dungeon cell of the mind and forced to suffer. As James Baldwin goes on to say",
It is only he (Bigger Thomas) who, by an act of murder, has burst the dungeon cell. He has made it manifest that he lives and that his despised blood nourishes the passions of a man. He has forced his oppressors to see the fruit of that oppression. (243).
After he had killed Mary, Bigger concerted a scheme for pinning the blame on Jan. He deliberately left in his room some communist pamphlets on the race question that Jan had given him. He planned to show them to the police if he were ever questioned. He would say that he had taken them only because Jan had insisted. He would tell them that he was afraid of Rods, that he had not wanted to set in the car with Jan and Mary that he had not wanted to eat with them. He would say that he had done so only because it had been his job. He would tell them that it was the first time he had ever sat at a table with white people.
When he wrote the kidnap note, Bigger drew a crude hammer and sickle on it and signed it with the word ‘Red’. It is only a crude attempt to forge an identity for himself. Bigger’s plan was dangerous, because Britten became convinced that Jan and Bigger were both communists. Pushing Bigger’s head against a wall, the detective shouted that he was a communist and that he was going to tell him about Miss Dalton and Jan. Henry Dalton intervened to protect Bigger from this rough interrogation, but Britten took up the idea again later. In questioning Peggy, the cook, he proceeded on the assumptions that most communists were Jews and that they corrupted Blacks. He asked her if Bigger waved his hands around a lot, as though he had been around a lot of Jews or called anybody comrade or if he sat down without being asked or if he took off his cap. “Now, listen Peggy”, Britten said, “Think and try to remember if his voice goes up when he talks, like Jews when they talk. Know what I mean? You see, Peggy, I’m trying to find out if he’s been around communists…” (NS 163)
Things went better for Bigger when Britten began to try to build a case against Jan alone. The detective was ready to believe the worst of a communist, and Bigger took advantage of this. Bigger knew the things that white folks hated to hear Blacks ask for; and he knew that these were the things the Reds were always asking for. And he knew that white folks did not like to hear these things asked for even by whites who fought for Blacks. But in the end, the discovery of the body and Bigger’s panicky flight upset his scheme to pin the crime on Jan. After Bigger was captured, the young communist came to see him. Despite the fact that the Black had killed the girl he loved, Jan still offered his friendship.
“I’m not angry”, he said, “and I want you to let me help you. I don’t hate you for trying to blame this thing on me. May be you had good reasons. I don’t know. And may be in a certain sense, I’m the one who’s really guilty”. He had never done anything against Bigger or his people in his life. “But I’m a white man and it would be asking too much to ask not to hate me, when every white man you see hates you. (NS 244)
Bigger wondered whether this was a trap. He looked at Jan and saw a white face, but an honest face. This white man believed in him, and the moment he felt that belief he felt guilty again, but in a different sense now. For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him; and the reality of Jan’s humanity came in a stab of remorse he had killed what this man loved and had hurt him.
Bigger Thomas gets an unexpected supporter in Boris Max. In pleading for Bigger in the courtroom, Boris Max used a provocative argument. To send this Black to prison instead of the electric chair would not be merely to spare his life, but to confer life upon him. He would be brought for the first time within the orbit of American civilization.
The very building in which he would spend the rest of his natural life would be the best he has even known. Sending him to prison would be the first recognition of his personality he has ever had. The other inmates would be the first men with whom he could associate on a basis of equality. (NS 338)
In Boris Max, Bigger found a second white man whom he could trust. Max was a communist and a Jew. In undertaking Bigger’s defense he defied the world of white respectability. “They hate me because I’m trying to help you, Max told Bigger. They’re writing me letters, calling me a ‘dirty Jew’” (NS 295).
When he entrusted his defense to the communist lawyer, Bigger Thomas deliberately rejected the advice of his mother’s Pastor, Reverend Hammond. The old Black preacher warned that dragging communism into the case would simply stir up more hate. Bigger’s only course was to put his trust in God. “There ain’ but one way out, son, ‘n’ tha’s Jesus way, the way of love ‘n’ forgiveness. Be like Jesus, Don’t resist”. (NS 243)
But Bigger accepted Max’s help and threw away the cross that the preacher had given him. Visiting Bigger in Jail, Max drew out a halting explanation of how the young Black felt toward life. The whites owned everything. “They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They go after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die” (NS 299).
His crimes had given him a sense of accomplishment. “May be they going to burn me in the electric chair for feeling this way. But I ain’t worried none about the women I killed. For little while I was free. I was doing something. It was wrong, but I was feeling all right” (NS 300). He killed them as he was scared and mad. “But I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed the first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while”. (NS 300)
After unburdening himself to Max, Bigger felt good. He could not remember when he had felt as relaxed as this before. He had not thought of it or felt it while Max was speaking to him, it was not until after Max had gone that he discovered that he had spoken to Max as he had never spoken to anyone in his life, not even to himself. And his talking had eased from his shoulders a heavy burden.
By the time that he wrote Native Son, Richard Wright had become disillusioned with the communist party but the novel does not reflect this disillusionment. It may be because Wright still believed in the vision of a world, where color barriers would fall and men would deal with each other on the basis of their common humanity. He had found such idealism in individual communists, and he drew his communist characters, as he wanted them to be, free of the duplicity and calculation so often encountered in the party bureaucrats of real life.
As historical evidence, the role Wright assigns to his communists is worth serious thought. During the 1930’s, many of the whites, like the Lonigans and the O’Flaherty’s, were treating the Blacks with undisguised hostility. A few, like the Daltons, were salving their consciences by giving ping -pong tables to boys clubs. A few more were supporting the moderate programs of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. But only the communists were championing the Black cause with any high degree of visibility. Had Marxists taken maximum advantage of the situation the post-world War II rights movement might have taken a much more revolutionary form than it did. But in real life not all communists were as humane and selfless as Jan Erlone and Boris Max, nor were all non-communists Blacks as spineless as the Reverend Hammond.
Yet the novel’s communist rhetoric is far less impressive than its grim warning of future violence. More than twenty-five years before rioting Blacks took to the streets in Watts and Detroit, Richard Wright wrote a better explanation of the burning and the looting than has appeared in the ponderous reports of the investigating committees. The problem, as Boris Max somberly told the judge, was the Black’s alienation from American Society. Bigger represents but a tiny aspect of a problem whose reality sprawls over a third of the nation. The white daughters of America would not be made any safer by killing Bigger.
No! I tell you in all solemnity that they won’t. The surest way to make certain that there will be more such murders is to kill this boy. In your rage and guilt, make thousands of other black men and women feel that the barriers are tighter and higher! Kill him and swell the tide of pent-up lava that will some day break loose, not in a single, blundering, accidental, individual crime, but in a wide cataract of emotion that will brook no control. (NS 330)
Bigger dreams the American dreams; but he knows that he cannot realize them since he is a Black. So, he makes his own choice, rebellion against the oppressive white society. He is not at all content with what is available to him from the social set up. His choice is very few. Either he should submit himself to the society or rebel against it. He selects violence and death as a sign of his being, and by rebelling against established authority – despite the impossibility of success—he acquires a measure of freedom. He himself alienates from the Black community by his own choice. Whereas his mother, his sister, his girl – each has made an individual adjustment of some sort to the conditions of black life, he cannot follow either his mother’s religiosity, his sister’s Y.W.C.A virtue, or Bessie, his girl’s Whiskey. Because all these seem to him evasions of reality. “Yet Bigger’s rejection of Negro life was only a negative choice, his acts of murder are positive-thereby to a degree humanizing – since he is quite prepared to accept the consequences.” (Margolies 111)
The book starts with the life of old Bigger and his state of being in an hostile environment- residential segregation, deprivation of educational facility, receiving Jim Crow treatment in Public places, being restricted in participating in the professions and jobs, constantly harping of a racial superiority of the whites over the blacks and the condition to hope for little and to receive that little without rebelling were seen. Bigger’s personality is shaped and conditioned by this environment. His relationship with others is devoid of devotion, loyalty or trust Relationship is simple and nakedly exploitative.
Bigger expects from others Love and Trust. But nobody considers him as a human being. He doesn’t want a mere existence. He wants to live. Trying to live in a hostile environment is a struggle and agony. Agony drives him into action. Action is murder. “They wouldn’t let me live and I killed”. (NS 358)
The murder gives Bigger a sense of freedom. Max, the lawyer, presents this as a means of liberation from the white bondage. Max, in order to understand the full significance of Bigger’s case, urges the judge to rise above emotion. He begins to explain Bigger’s case from a historical standpoint.
The ‘First Wrong’, the enslavement of the Negroes, ‘was’ understandable and inevitable”(327), for in subduing, this “harsh and wild country”(328) men had to use other men as tools and weapons. “Men do what they must do” (329). From that first-wrong came a sense of guilt, in the attempted stifling of which came hate and fear, hate and fear that matched that of the Negroes. Injustice practiced no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life” (330). This fact of life is a system of oppression squeezing down upon millions of people. These millions can be stunted, but they cannot be stamped out. And as oppression on grows tighter, guilt, fear, and hatred grow stronger on both sides. Killing Bigger will only “Swell the tide of pent-up lava that will some day break loose not in a single, blundering, accidental, individual crime, but in a wild cataract of emotion that will brook no control”.(330) Sentencing him to life imprisonment on the other hand, will give him an opportunity to “build a meaning for his life”.(338) (Seigal 109-110)
Max’s speech brings fo