Native Son

 

Book Two: “Flight”

 

New Consciousness   (pp. 97-116)

Improvisation            (pp. 116-129)

Bessie                         (pp. 129-149)

Interrogation              (pp. 149-172)

The Ransom Plan       (pp. 172-184)

Discovery                    (pp. 184-220)

Flight                          (pp. 220-241)

The Manhunt             (pp. 241-270)

 

I. Review Book One: “Fear”: Why? Fear of what?

 
Think about the curious artistic choices Wright makes to dramatize the terrible impact of racism on the thoughts and actions of its victims.

  • "He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.”(10
  • Later, he strikes his gut and declares,“Every time I think of ‘em, I feel ‘em.” (21) 
  • He can’t breathe, yet he reflects on this deeply felt anger and declares, “It ain’t like something going to happen to me. It’s…It’s like I was going to do something I can’t help...” (22) 

 

What are the key moments of Book One?

  • Terrorizing Gus: making him lick the knife: Why?  Because Gus has Bigger figured out. He knows that Bigger is just as scared of robbing a white man as he is:

In their first argument, Gus had called Bigger out:

"I'll
 
help  just  like  I always  help.  But  I'll  be Goddamn if I'm taking orders from you, Bigger! You just a scared coward! You calling me scared so nobody'll see how scared you is!" (27)

After the movie as the moment for robbing Blum's approached, Bigger thinks to himself:

"...the thought of  the  job  at Blum's and the tilt he had had with Gus had snared him into things and his self-trust was gone. Confidence could only come again now through action so violent that it would make him forget. These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger-- like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force. Being this way was a need of his as deep as eating. He was like a strange plant blooming in the day and wilting at night; but the sun that made it bloom and the cold dark­ness that made it wilt were never seen. It was his own sun and dark­ness, a private and personal sun and darkness. He was bitterly proud of his swiftly changing moods and boasted when he had to suffer the results of them. It was the way he was, he would say; he could not help it, he would say, and his head would wag. And it was his sullen stare and the violent action that followed that made Gus and Jack and G.H. hate and fear him as much as he hated and feared himself." (28-29)


  • Killing Mary: working through his attraction to this rich, white girl takes a terrible turn

Jan and Mary squeeze into the front seat:

"There were white people to either side of him; he was sitting between two vast white looming walls. Never in his life had he been so close to a white woman. He smelt the odor of her hair and felt the soft pres­sure of her thigh against his own."  (68)

Enroute to Ernie's Chicken Shack:

 "The car sped through the Black Belt, past tall buildings holding black life. Bigger knew that they were think­ing of his life and the life of his people. Suddenly he wanted to seize some heavy object in his hand and grip it with all the strength of his body and in some strange way rise up and stand in naked space above the speeding car and with one final blow blot it out-- with himself and them in it. His heart was beating fast and he struggled to control his breath. This thing was getting the better of him; he felt that he should not give way to his feelings like this. But he could not help it. Why didn't they leave him alone?" (70) 

In both cases, Bigger’s natural affection for his friend and his attraction to a pretty girl take a terrible, perverse turn.

Just before Mrs. Dalton's entrance into Mary's bedroom, Bigger and Mary are on the verge of making love:

"He tried to stand her on her feet and found her weak as jelly. He held her in his arms again, listening in the darkness. His senses reeled from the scent of her hair and skin. She was much smaller than Bessie, his girl, but much softer. Her face was buried in his shoulder; his arms tightened about her. Her face turned slowly and he held his face still, waiting for her face to come round, in front of his. Then her head leaned backward, slowly, gently; it was as though she had given up. Her lips, faintly moist in the hazy blue light, were parted and he saw the furtive glints of her white teeth. Her eyes were closed. He stared at her dim face, the forehead capped with curly black hair. He eased his hand, the fingers spread wide, up the center of her back and her face came toward him and her lips touched his, like something he had imagined."  (84)

Write a paragraph about Wright’s intention in the first movement of Native Son’s action:

            Don’t simply say that he is depicting the consequences of racism.

            What are those consequences?

 

II.  In a just world, would you charge Bigger with having committed a crime? What crime?


Aristotle’s Nicomachaean Ethics:

Intention: Did the accused intend to do the crime?
Knowledge:
- Was the accused aware of the circumstances under which it would come about?
- Did the accused understand that what he did was wrong?
Volition: Did the accused have the ability to do otherwise?

In a just trial, a good lawyer would have a decent shot of convincing a jury that Bigger did not commit murder. The charge would probably be pled out as manslaughter.

 

But, and here is the masterstroke of the novel, how does Bigger regard his actions?

He turns what happened into a revolutionary, subversive, and heroic act. In Bigger’s mind his actions were not determined. (Does anybody recognize the model for this kind of a protagonist? Where did Wright got the idea for his hero?) [Raskolnikov in Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: perhaps the greatest murder mystery ever written.]  No, in Bigger’s mind, Mary did not die accidentally. He brutally murdered her, and he seeks to convince himself that he feels fine about the whole thing. He sets out to top that crime. In the second ‘movement’ of Native Son, Bigger commits crimes that are much harder to defend.

What are they?

            1. Fraud and extortion.

            2. Pre-meditated murder.

 

Does he have any defense?

 

III.  Book Two is titled “Flight” From what? [Himself.]

 

What is Wright’s overall purpose in this ‘movement’ of the action? You need to have a solid idea about how you plan to write about this section of the novel before you leave class today. How does Bigger’s behavior fit into Wright’s overall intention: depicting the consequences of racism?

 

Paragraph: Is Bigger’s flight determined?

 

Has the situation into which Bigger was born led inexorably to this catastrophe?

 

Marxist Thesis: Bigger’s actions are all predictable considering the disturbed nature of his mind which has been induced by the extremity of his situation. Bigger’s actions are not extraordinary. Crimes like these are the determined result of forcing people to live in an impoverished economic and racist psychological environment.  

 

Existential Thesis: During the second movement of Native Son’s action, we observe a perverse birth into adult consciousness. (We can trace the shape of an authentic birth into consciousness by analyzing Bigger’s perverse flight into crime.)

 

 

New Consciousness (pp. 97-115)

           

 First Reaction:

panic, horror and terror…. but Bigger quickly pulls himself together:


"Then, in answer to a foreboding call from a dark part of his mind, he leaped from bed and landed on his bare feet in the middle of the room. His heart raced; his lips parted; his legs trembled. He struggled to come fully awake. He relaxed his taut muscles, feeling fear, remembering that he had killed Mary, had smothered her, had cut her head off and put her body in the fiery furnace." (97)

The ‘cunning idea’ of framing Jan occurs to Bigger in a flash (98)

"He put on his coat and found stuffed in a pocket the pamphlets Jan had given him. Throw these away, too! Oh, but . . . . Naw! He paused and gripped the pamphlets in his black fingers as his mind filled with a cunning idea.  Jan had given him these pam­phlets and he would keep them and show them to the police if he were ever questioned. That's it!" (98)

(Think of the political implication: first reaction of the oppressed to crisis is to take advantage of people in similar situations.)

He will not run. (98)

Yet the image of Mary’s severed head appears in his mind,


"He pulled open a dresser drawer and took out his clothes and piled them in the suitcase. While he worked there hov­ered before his eyes an image of Mary's head lying on the wet newspapers, the curly black ringlets soaked with blood." (98), 

and it will revisit him throughout his few hours of 'f'reedom'.

              

 
Perverse Birth of Consciousness: (105)


Describe Bigger’s reaction to the killing once he has gotten control of his emotions? (106)  The killing gives him a new sense of security: why? (105)


"Bigger sat at the table and waited for food. Maybe this would be the last time he would eat here. He felt it keenly and it helped him to have patience. Maybe someday he would be eating in jail. Here he was sitting with them and they did not know that he had murdered a white girl and cut her head off and burnt her body. The thought of what he had done, the awful horror of it, the daring associated with such actions, formed for him for the first time in his fear-ridden life a barrier of protection between him and a world he feared. He had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him. Yes; he could sit here calmly and eat and not be concerned about what his family thought or did. He had a natural wall from behind which he could look at them. His crime was an anchor  weighing  him safely in time; it added to him a certain confidence which his gun and knife did not. He was outside of his family now, over  and beyond  them;  they  were  incapable  of even thinking  that  he  had done such a deed. And he had done something which even he had not thought possible." (105)           

 
Why does he feel whole for the first time in his life?


His crime felt natural; he felt that all his life had been leading toward something like this. (106) He has violated the taboo of standing up to the whites (like robbing Blum's Delicatessan) which has tortured him for so long. It no longer exercises any power on him. 


"Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in a room where a white girl had been killed; therefore he had killed her. That was what everybody would say anyhow, no matter what he said. And in a certain sense he knew that the girl's death had not been accidental. He had killed many times before, only on those other times there had been no handy victim or circumstance to make visible or dramatic his will to kill. His crime seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this. It was no longer a matter of dumb wonder as to what would happen to him and his black skin; he knew now. The hidden meaning of his life-- a meaning which others did not see and which he had always tried to hide- had spilled out. No; it was no accident, and he would never say that it was. There was in him a kind of terrified pride in feeling and thinking that someday he would be able to say publicly that he had done it. It was as though he had an obscure but deep debt to fulfil to himself in accepting the deed." (106)

  

 What stereotype does Bigger now incarnate?

 

The act of killing, its horror, daring, and intensity, has enabled Bigger to find confidence for the first time in his fear-ridden life. What crime has Bigger committed? (manslaughter, not murder) (106)


"Things were becoming clear; he would know how to act from now on. The thing to do was to act just like others acted, live like they lived, and while they were not looking, do what you wanted. They would never know." (106)

"The whole thing came to him in the form of a powerful and simple feeling; there was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted and never be caught at it. Now, who on earth would think that he, a black timid Negro boy, would murder and burn a rich white girl and would sit and wait for his breakfast like this? Elation filled him." (107)

 

Bigger’s response to this crime is profoundly ambiguous: his actions will destroy him, but temporarily they give him a feeling of wholeness and autonomy for the first time in his life. He is no longer afraid. He sees the world with new eyes. He sees others in his situation struggling, but instead of feeling solidarity or compassion for them, he feels power over them.

How does he see his family with new eyes? (108)

Vision of his family as shapeless and passive: Buddy is a ‘chubby puppy’; his mother is ‘soft and shapeless’; Vera is ‘shrinking from life’. What makes their suffering now seem pathetic to Bigger?

 

Others may be blinded by their hunger to believe that they are just like others.  Now Bigger knows differently.

 

Yet, when Buddy runs down the stairs to give him the roll of blood stained bills that Bigger has dropped without knowing, Bigger’s response is chilling:


“Bigger stood brooding in the shadows of the stairway. He thrust the feeling from him, not with shame, but with impatience. He had felt toward Buddy for an instant as he had felt toward Mary when she lay upon the bed with the white blur moving toward him in the hazy blue light of the room.” (111

True knowledge brings compassion and empathy for the ones we love.
Perverse knowledge brings the desire for power over others.

 

Bigger decides that he is not going to have anything to do with his gang anymore. He is beyond those teenage antics now.

 

Why doesn't Bigger fear Gus or his friends any more? (113)

"He walked over the snow, feeling giddy and elated. His mouth was open and his eyes shone. It was the first time  he had ever been in their pres­ence without feeling fearful, He was following a strange path into a strange land and his nerves were hungry to see where it led."  (113)

 

He recognizes how whites had conditioned him to hate himself and therefore, other blacks, but now he has the upper hand. As he looks out the window of the street car at the white faces passing, Bigger is thrilled at the idea that he has just killed a millionaire’s daughter and burned her body and nobody knows! He now knows how he can control whites: you confirm what they think about you, you act like a ‘nigger’, but once they are convinced you are too ignorant or scared to act, you are free! You can do whatever you want to do.

 

How does Bigger re-invent what happened the night before to fit his new consciousness?

Bigger de-humanizes Mary and convinces himself that he murdered her on purpose, that she provoked him to do it by making him feel fear and shame. Yet Mary’s severed head still haunts him: "that lingering image of Mary's bloody head lying on those newspapers from before his eyes" (113)


"Gee, what a fool she was, he thought, remembering how Mary had acted. Carrying on that way! Hell, she made me do it!  I couldn't help it! She should've known better! She should've left me alone, Goddammit! He did not feel sorry for Mary; she was not real to him, not a human being; he had not known her long or well enough for that. He felt that his murder of her was more than amply justified by the fear and shame she had made him feel." (114)

 

What political ideas enter Bigger's mind as he rides the street car to the Dalton's? 


New Political Consciousness: (114): 

 

As he rides the street car,  Bigger watches the blacks on the snow covered sidewalks, going to work: He feels a longing for solidarity with them… but his longing takes a perverse form. He thinks, that whites are like “a great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet.” (114), but the only way to counteract this force would be to “make all the black people act together, rule them, tell them what to do, and make them do it.” (115) He dreams of being “a black man [like Hitler or Mussolini] who would whip the black people into a tight band and together they would act and end fear and shame.” (115)


"As he rode, looking at the black people on the sidewalks, he felt that one way to end fear and shame was to make all those black people act together, rule them, tell them what to do, and make them do it. Dimly, he felt that there should be one direction in which he and all other black people could go whole-heartedly; that there should be a way in which gnawing hunger and restless aspiration could be fused; that there should be a manner of acting that caught the mind and body in certainty and faith. But he felt that such would never happen to him and his black people, and he hated them and wanted to wave his hand and blot them out. Yet, he still hoped, vaguely. Of late he had liked to hear tell of men who could rule others, for in actions such as these he felt that there was a way to escape from this tight morass of fear and shame that sapped at the base of his life. He liked to hear of how Japan was conquering China; of how Hitler was running the Jews to the ground; of how Mussolini was invading Spain. He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong; they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape. He felt that someday there would be a black man who would whip the black people into a tight band and together they would act and end fear and shame. He never thought of this in precise mental images; he felt it; he would feel it for a while and then forget. But hope was always waiting somewhere deep down in him." (115)

 

True: one man is no man; we only exercise power in groups, as a class

Perverse: end fear and shame by forcing all these black people to act together, like one; tell them what to do… like Hitler or Mussolini

 
Arrival at the Dalton’s:
(116)

 

Bigger trembles with eagerness: “a confidence, a fullness, a freedom; his whole life was caught up in a supreme and meaningful act”

 

He is ready to kill Peggy again if necessary as she opens the furnaace grate.

                       

Yet the image of Mary recurs again and again, “her bloody neck just inside the furnace and her head with its curly black hair lying on the soggy newspapers” (116) (118) (126 nightmare1)


"He went over the story again, fastening every detail firmly in his mind. He would say that she had been drunk, sloppy drunk. He lay on the soft bed in the warm room listening to the steam hiss in the radiator and thinking drowsily and lazily of how drunk she had been and of how he had lugged her up the steps and of how he had pushed the pillow over her face and of how he had put her in the trunk and of how he had struggled with the trunk on the dark stairs and of how his fingers had burned while he had stumbled down the stairs with the heavy trunk going bump-bump-bump so loud that surely all the world must have heard it . . . . He jumped awake, hearing a knock at the door. His heart raced." (125)

 
 Write a paragraph that explains Bigger’s transformation:

 

Bigger accepts what he has done. He accepts what racism has made him into, and he has been liberated from the anxiety and humiliation of self-hatred. He has become the black monster who steals whatever he wants and kills without remorse. Bigger has confirmed the racist prophecy and he accepts it. All his life he has struggled to avoid accepting this terrible truth, but now he is liberated from that struggle. The act of killing has defined him. Of course, he is wrong, but if Bigger is not a killer, the manifestation of white guilt and fear, then what is he? 

 

Improvisation (pp. 116-129)

How well does Bigger manipulate white preconceptions about him to his advantage? (127)

 

Mrs. Dalton won’t question him too much because she does not want to admit to him that her daughter was plastered. (126) White folk feel ashamed when forced to speak with inferiors, the master with the servant.

 

Bigger can just hang out in his magical listening closet and eavesdrop on the thoughts and emotions of white people. (123)

 

How does this new found skill make him feel?

 

He trembles again with excitement. (128)

He thinks to himself, en route to Bessie’s, that he could have gotten more money out of the murder if he had planned it.

“Next time things would be much different.”

  

Bessie (pp. 129-149)

 
Describe what Bigger’s relationship with Bessie has been like. What will he try to convince her to do in this scene?


Physical release (135); Are these two capable of love? Bigger has sex with Bessie and then a he conceives a plot to get ransom money out of the Daltons, he draws Bessie into the crime. 

OR


"He felt two soft palms holding his face tenderly and the thought and image of the whole blind world which had made him ashamed and afraid fell away as he felt her as a fallow field beneath him stretching out under a cloudy sky waiting for rain, and he slept in her body, rising and sinking with the ebb and flow of her blood, being willingly dragged into a warm night sea to rise renewed to the surface to face a world he hated and wanted to blot out of existence..." (135)

 

Where does Bigger get the idea to extort money from the Daltons? (135-36)

“You remember hearing people talk about Leopold and Loeb … the ones who killed the boy and then tried to get money from the boy’s family…. by sending notes to them.” (136)

 

How does Bigger put his new found self-confidence to use with Bessie? (138)

 

“He turned his head and stared at the dim whites of her eyes in the darkness. Maybe, yes maybe he could, maybe he could use her….” (138)

 

“He felt the narrow orbit of her life: from her room to the kitchen of the white folks was the farthest she ever moved. She worked long hours, hard and hot hours seven days a week, with only Sunday afternoons off; and when she did get off she wanted fun, hard and fast fun, something to make her feel that she was making up for the starved life she led. It was her hankering for sensation that he liked about her. Most nights she was too tired to go out; she only wanted to get drunk. She wanted liquor and he wanted her. So he would give her liquor and she would give him herself…. He knew why she liked him; he gave her money for drinks. He knew that if he did not give it to her someone else would; she would see to that. Bessie too was very blind. What ought he tell her? She might come in just handy.” (139)

He sees their relationship clearly for the first time, yet this insight does not fill him with compassion or affection. Instead, it hands him a weapon: he now knows how to control her. Give her what she wants: money and booze. Play on her feelings for him: if she thinks I am in danger, she’ll do what I want.

 

But is that the whole story?

 

Look at the way he describes Bessie as they are walking to the bar: (140)

 

“As he walked beside her he felt that there were two Bessies: one a body that he had just had and wanted badly again; the other was in Bessie’s face; it asked questions; it bargained and sold the other Bessie to advantage. He wished he could clench his fist and swing his arm and blot out, kill, sweep away the Bessie on Bessie’s face and leave the other helpless and yielding before him. He would then gather her up and put her in his chest, his stomach, some place deep inside him always keeping her there, even when he slept, ate, talked; keeping her there just to feel and know that she was his to have and hold whenever he wanted to.” (140)

 

What do you make of that passage? What does Bigger really want? What does he need to do to get what he wants?

 

Are these two capable of love?

 

Instead, Bigger tries to manipulate Bessie into helping him in the plot he is formulating, and Bessie initially wants to help him. Bigger wants to bind her to him, by suggesting that he is in danger. He now knows how to use fear to get what he wants. He thinks about planting the story implicating Jan as the kidnapper with her so that if the police question her, she will corroborate his own story. He thinks that they can collect a ransom anyway. The police will never suspect them: “They won’t think we did it. They don’t think we have enough guts to do it. They think niggers is too scared…”

 

       But Bessie is too smart. She figures out what he has done quickly.

“Bigger, you know where that girl is.” (142-44) She seems to know Bigger better than he does himself, and she can sense that something has already gone terribly wrong. She has already guessed the truth: “Bigger, you ain’t done nothing to that girl, is you?” (144)

 

       Why does she decide to go along with the plan? (147)

 

She ran over the snow and tugged at his sleeve. He stopped, but did not turn around. She caught his coat and pulled him about. Under the yellow sheen of a strret lamp they confronted each other silently. All about them was the white snow and the night; they were cut off from the world and were conscious only of each other. He looked at her without expression waiting. Her eyes were fastened fearfully and distrustfully on his face. He held his body in an attitude that suggested that he was delicately balanced upon a hairline, waiting to see if she would push him forward or draw him back. Her lips smiled faintly and she lifted her hand and touched his face with her fingers. He knew that she was fighting out  in her feelings the question of just how much he meant to her. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it, telling him in the pressure of her fingers that she wanted him.” (147)

 

     And her fate is sealed.


     Would Bigger have gone ahead with his plan without her?  

 

 

Interrogation (pp. 149-172)

With new confidence (149) that his plan ransom plan will work (153), Bigger returns to the Daltons and is sent to retrieve Mary’s trunk from the train station. He works out the details of the ransom plan and the money drop.

 

   Dramatic Action: Will Bigger crack?

 
Despite Bigger's confidence, the subsequent action focuses on whetheror not  he will crack. Will he let his paralyzed and disoriented response to the way whites see him overwhelm his newly found self-confidence? Or is something else at work in Bigger’s psyche?

 

   What is Bigger’s best defense in his interrogation by Britten?

 

Playing their stereotyped ideas about him to his own advantage. "Yes suh! Naw suh!"  (154)

He’ll play the confused and unhappy colored boy sent by the relief agency: slow, deferential, and unaware of the significance of his words.

He tells his version of the story, implicating Jan.(158)

Alone he elaborates upon his plot, hoping that Jan will lie to try and protect Mary and thus implicate himself. Jan will, afraid to let Mr. Dalton know that he let Bigger take Mary home alone.


Bigger seems to have thoughts things through:

"When Britten questioned Jan, would Jan deny having been with Mary at all, in order to protect her.  If he did, that would be in his favor. If Britten wanted to check on his story about Mary's not going to school last night, he could. If Jan said that they had not been drinking it could be proved that they had been drinking by folks in the cafe. If Jan lied about one thing, it would be readily believed that he would lie about others. If Jan said that he had not come to the house, who would believe him after it was seen that he had lied about his not drinking and about Mary's going to school. If Jan tried to protect Mary, as he thought he would, he would only succeed in making a case against himself." (164)

 

  But in truth his scheme will quickly unravel.

  

(Dream Sequence) (165-66)

From what part of Bigger’s psyche does the dream emanate?

What is he trying to tell himself?

"The warm room lulled his blood and a deepening sense of fatigue drugged him with sleep. He stretched out more fully on the bed, sighed, turned on his back, swallowed, and closed his eyes. Out of the surrounding silence and darkness came the quiet ringing of a distant church bell, thin, faint, but clear. It tolled, soft, then loud, then still louder, so loud that he wondered where it was. It sounded suddenly directly above his head and when he looked it was not there but went on tolling and with each passing moment he felt an urgent need to run and hide as thought the bell were sounding a warning and he stood on a street corner in a red glare of light like that which came from the furnace and he had a big pack­ age in his arms so wet and slippery and heavy that he could scarcely hold onto it and he wanted to know what was in the package and he stopped near an alley corner and unwrapped it and the paper fell away and he saw-it was his own head-his own head lying with black face and half-closed eyes and lips parted with white teeth showing and hair wet with blood and the red glare grew brighter like light shining down from a red moon and red stars on a hot summer night and he was sweating and breathless from running and the bell clanged so loud that he could hear the iron tongue clapping against the metal sides each time it swung to and fro and he was running over a street paved with black coal and his shoes kicked tiny lumps rattling against tin cans and he knew that very soon he had to find some place to hide but there was no place and in front of him white people were coming to ask about the head from which the newspapers had fallen and which was now slippery with blood in his naked hands and he gave up and stood in the middle of the street in the red darkness and cursed the booming bell and the white people and felt that he did not give a damn what happened to him and when the people closed in he hurled the bloody head squarely into their faces dong dong dong . . . .

 

He opened his eyes and looked about him in the darkened room, hearing a bell ring. He sat up. The bell sounded again. How long had it been ringing? He got to his feet, swaying from stiffness, trying to shake off sleep and that awful dream. (164-65)

 

What happens when Jan confronts Bigger? (171)

How is Bigger’s planning already unraveling?  (Did he think that Jan might have an alibi?)

Bigger can’t predict all the contingencies that he will encounter, and when he gets frightened, he pulls his gun on him.

Native Son: Part Two: Flight  (second class)

Last class we talked about two ways of reading Bigger's actions.


The Marxist would argue that Bigger's character is determined after he kills Mary. He has literally become the stereotype that he has despised and resisted all of his life. Relieved, Bigger embraces his new identity and believes that he can now deceive the whites from behind a mask of  ignorance and  fear. Bigger senses a new power in this role and even fantasizes about manipulating black and white prejudices on a huge scale, the way Hitler and Mussolini were doing in Europe in 1940.

But is this the true Bigger? Is he a  cold, socio-pathic killer who will proceed relentlessly with his criminal plan to extort ransom money from Mary's desperate parents?

Or is this a persona Bigger has chosen in flight from his real, authentic self?

What of the terrible visions of Mary's severed head that rise in Bigger's mind whenever he relaxes conscious control of his thoughts? What of the terrible dream he has of holding his own head and flinging it at his accusers? What of the moments of genuine tenderness he feels for Bessie that intrude on his cold reasoning? Is this the real Bigger? A terrified and desperate young man who lashes out at those he loves most because they can see how terribly he suffers.

It's your call, but for me the most engaging aspect of the action of this novel is the struggle between these two different selves deep beneath the level of conscious thought as Bigger struggles into being.

The Ransom Plan (pp. 173-184)

What does Bigger think about when he sees Mr. Dalton’s “South Side Real Estate” sign? (173)

He realizes that Mr. Dalton has enriched himself by jacking the rent within the black belt

He looked round the street and saw a sign on a building: THIS PROPERTY IS  MANAGED  BY  THE  SOUTH  SIDE  REAL ESTATE COMPANY. He had heard that Mr. Dalton owned the South Side Real Estate Company, and the South Side Real Estate Company owned the house in which he lived. He paid eight dollars a week for one rat-infested room. He had never seen Mr. Dalton until he had come to work for him; his mother always took the rent to the real estate office. Mr. Dalton was somewhere far away, high up, distant, like a god. He owned property all over the Black Belt, and he owned property where white folks lived, too. But  Bigger could not live in a building across the "line." Even though Mr. Dalton gave millions of dollars for Negro education, he would rent houses to Negroes only in this prescribed area, this corner of the city tumbling down from rot. In a sullen way Bigger was conscious of this. Yes; he would send the kidnap note. He would jar them out of their senses. (173)

 

What will the police realize when they read the ransom note that Bigger composes? (176-77)

Realize that they are not dealing with a Communist.

 

Bessie’s Blues (180)

                        
Before they go to the abandoned house to carry out the ransom plan, Bessie pleads with Bigger to let her go. She wants nothing to do wiht the whole plan. She is terrified. 


Look at Bessie’s speech after Bigger has told her the truth about Mary and even threatened to kill her. (177)

 

“Bigger, please! Don’t do this to me! Please! All I do is work, work like a dog! From morning till night. I ain’t got no happiness. I ain’t never had none. I ain’t got nothing and you do this to me. After how good I been to you. Now you just spoil my whole life. I’ve done everything for you I know how to do and you do this to me. Please, Bigger…” She turned her head away and stared at the floor. “Lord, don’t let this happen to me! I ain’t done nothing for this to come to me! I just work! I ain’t had no happiness, no nothing. I just work. I’m black and I work and don’t bother nobody….” (180)

Later, after the body of Mary has been discoverd, Bessie again laments:

"Oh, Lord," she moaned. ""What's the use of running? They'll catch us anywhere. I should've known this would happen." She clenched her hands in front of her and rocked to and fro with her eyes closed upon gushing tears. "All my life's been full of hard trou­ble. If I wasn't hungry, I was sick. And if I wasn't sick, I was in trouble. I ain't never bothered nobody. I just worked hard every day as long as I can remember, till I was tired enough to drop; then I had to get drunk to forget it. I had to get drunk to sleep. That's all I ever did. And now I'm in this. They looking for me and when they catch me they'll kill me." She bent her head to the floor. "God only knows why I ever let you treat me this way. I wish to God I never seen you. I wish one of us had died before we was born. God knows I do! All you ever caused me was trouble, just plain black trouble. All you ever did since we been knowing each other was to get me drunk so's you could have me. That was all! I see it now. I ain't drunk now. I see everything you ever did to me. I didn't want to see it before. I was too busy thinking about how good I felt when I was with you. I thought I was happy, but deep down in me I knew I wasn't. But you got me into this murder and I see it all now. I been a fool, just a blind dumb black drunk fool. Now I got to run away and I know deep down in your heart you really don't care." (229-230)

 Has she decided to go, or is she afraid of what Bigger will do if she does not? (Can you convert this speech into a blues song?)

If you are building a case that Bigger's motives for killing Bessie are premeditated, the cold logic of a sociopath, then this scene provides tons of evidence that Bigger is planning a 1st degree murder. He threatens her verbally. He even picks up a kitchen knife and threatens her with it. (179-80)


Bessie exclaims, "If you killed her you'll kill me," she said. "I ain't in this." (178)  

Later, she says, “I was lost when I took up with you.” (184). True?

Describe the abandoned house that Bigger chooses for the drop point. (181)  


A once elegant middle class home. Note the way that Wright composes the setting for this terrible crime. How might the setting describe the true forces driving Bigger and Bessie towards destruction?

"He saw dusty walls, walls almost like those of the Dalton home. The doorways were wider than those of any house in which he had ever lived. Some rich folks lived here once, he thought. Rich white folks. That was the way most houses on the South Side were, ornate, old, stinking; homes once of rich white people, now inhabited by Negroes or standing dark and empty with yawning black windows. He remembered that bombs had been thrown by whites into houses like these when Negroes had first moved into the South Side. He swept the disc of yellow and walked gingerly down a hall and into a room at the front of the house. It was feebly lit from the street lamps outside..." (181)

             

Discovery (pp. 184-220)

 

How does Bigger’s plan unravel?

 

What mistakes does he make?

Does Bigger forget to clean out the furnace? (190)

What else has he overlooked?

Jan’s alibi (193) (202) (210-11): Jan went to a party after leaving Bigger and Mary the night before.

Did he really believe he could get away with the ransom plan?

Bigger depends upon the whites not believing that a poor black boy is capable of planning such an act.

Is his plan hopeless? Has it been so from the start?

With the arrival of the newspapermen, events whirl beyond Bigger’s control.

Flashbulbs, Mrs. Dalton, and  the white cat leaps on him (202)

When told to clean out the furnace, he pours more coal on the fire. (215)

Discovery of Mary's ear-ring and bones (218-19)

 

Can you explain why Bigger's plan unravels so quickly? What is Wright up to with this furnace? Is the cold Machiavellian self undone by mere chance? Or is their another quality which undoes Bigger? Is he deliberately destoying hemself? Think about the symbolism of the self-feeding furnace. Think about the white cat that leaps at Bigger. 

In this section of the novel, Wright alludes to Poe’s “The Black Cat”.  In that story Poe generates horror as the narrator leads the police to discover evidence of his murder of his wife (whose body he bricked (with the cat) into an alcove in his basement.). Here, Bigger tries to keep his composure together  while the whispering furnace in the basement (which contains the remains of Mary) becomes overloaded with ash and begins to smoke.

After returning to the Dalton's house with the ransom note, Bigger goes down to check the furnace:

He went to the base­ment door, opened it and looked inside; no one was there. Like an enraged beast, the furnace throbbed with heat, suffusing a red glare over everything. He stood in front of the cracks and watched the restless embers. Had Mary burned completely? He wanted to poke round in the coals to see, but dared not; he flinched from it even in thought. He pulled the lever for more coal, then went to his room. (184)

Bigger suddenly realizes that he has forgotten to get rid of  the pencil, gloves, and extra paper he had used to write the note. As he is burning them, he nearly faints.

Hurriedly, he opened the door and dumped the gloves and pencil and paper in; he watched them smoke, blaze; he closed the door and heard them burn in a furious whirlwind of draft. A strange sensation enveloped him. Something tingled in his stomach and on his scalp. His knees wobbled, giving way. He stum­bled to the wall and leaned against it weakly. A wave of numbness spread fanwise from his stomach over his entire body, including his head and eyes, making his mouth gap. Strength ebbed from him. He sank to his knees and pressed his fingers to the floor to keep from tumbling over. An organic sense of dread seized him. His teeth chattered and he felt sweat sliding down his armpits and back. He groaned, holding as still as possible. (185)

Peggy reminds Bigger to clean out the ashes in the morning.  (187)  He will forget and then get trapped by the press of people in the basement as the scene progresses. Throughout the scene the furnace is constantly 'whispering' to him... The sound of air being sucked upward through the furnace mingled in Bigger's ears with the faint whine of the wind outside in the night. (196) (It will do so until it goes silent and then starts to smoke... ) As Bigger is interrogated by Britten next to the furnace, he hears "the muffled breathing of the fire and see[s] directly before his eyes Mary's bloody head with its jet-black curly hair, shining and wet with blood on the crumpled newspapers.

He wishes he could get some sleep if only for n hour or two so that he can gather his thoughts. Then the press arrive.

Back and forth they walked across the basement floor in the glare of the furnace with their hats on and with cigars and cigarettes in their mouths. Bigger felt in them a coldness that disregarded everybody. (198)

Mr. Dalton makes a statement to the press, and then weirdly, Mrs. Dalton edges blindly down the basement stairs. (How many people are in the furnace room now?) Mrs. Dalton's white cat leaps on to Bigger's shoulder, and the  press crew's flashbulbs go off as the cat clings to Bigger's shoulder. 

The silver lightning flashed in his eyes and he knew that the men had taken pictures of him with the cat poised upon his shoulder. He tugged at the cat once more and managed to get it down. It landed on its feet with a long whine, then began to rub itself against Bigger's legs. Goddamn! Why can't that cat leave me alone? (202)

Weird, huh? What is Wright up to? (What do you make of the literary allusion he is making in the discovery scene in Poe's "The Black Cat"? )

When Bigger looks at an article about the kidnapping in the newspapaer,  he glances at a photo of Mary and sees instead:

It was a picture of Mary. It was so lifelike that it reminded him of how she had looked the first time he had seen her; he blinked his eyes. He was looking again in sweaty fear at her head lying upon the sticky newspapers with blood oozing out­ward  toward  the  edges.  Above the picture  was  a  caption:  IN DUTCH WITH PA. Bigger lifted his eyes and looked at the fur­nace; it seemed impossible that she was there in the fire, burning .(208)

.

When Peggy reminds him to clean out the furnace, Bigger instead pours more coal on.  And his fate is sealed.

What is Bigger’s response when the truth finally emerges? (219)

 

“There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong; white men were looking at something with which theu would soon accuse him. It was the old feeling, hard and constant again now, of wanting to grab something and clutch it in his hands and swing it into someone’s face.” (219)


“It was familiar to him: this running away. All his life he had been knowing that sooner or later something like this would come to him.” (220)

 

Flight  (pp. 221-241)

            Why does Bigger believe he must  kill Bessie?

Read (224- 231)

 

            He first had the idea when he had finally told Bessie the truth about the murder.

 

“Coldly, he knew that he had to take her with him, and then at some future time settle things with her, and then at some future time settle things with her, settle them in a way that would not leave him in any danger. He though of it calmly, as if the decisions were being handed down to him by some logic not his own, over which he had not control.” (229)

 

            Why does Bessie insist on going with him?

 

“Oh, Lord, she moaned, “What’s the use of running? They’ll catch us anywhere. I should’ve known this would happen.” She clenched her hands in front of her and rocked to and fro with her eyes closed upon gushing tears. “All my life’s been full of hard trouble. I ain’t ever bothered nobody. I just worked hard every day as long as I can remember, till I was tired enough to drop; then I had to get drunk to forget it. I had to get drunk to sleep. That’s all I ever did. And now I’m in this. They looking for me and when they catch me they’ll kill me.” She bent her head to the floor. “God only knows why I ever let you treat me this way. I wish to God I never seen you. I wish one of us had died before we was born. God knows I do. All you ever caused me was trouble, just plain black trouble. All you ever did since we been knowing each other was to get me drunk so you could have me. That was all! I see it now. I ain’t drunk now. I see everything you ever did to me. I didn’t want to see it before. I was too busy thinking about how good I felt when I was with you. I thought I was happy, but deep down in me I know I wasn’t. But you got me into this murder and I see it all now. I been a fool, just a blind dumb black drunk fool. Now I got to run away and I know deep down in your heart you really don’t care.” (229-30)

 

Does Bigger’s calm rationalization of his decision convince you?

 

"What could he do with her? She would be a dangerous burden. It would be impossible to take her if she were going to act like this, and yet he could not leave her here. Coldly, he knew that he had to take her with him, and then at some future time settle things with her, settle them in a way that would not leave him in any danger. He thought of it calmly, as if the decision were being handed down to him by some logic not his own, over which he had no control, but which he had to obey." (229)

“Her words had made leap to consciousness in him a thousand details of her life which he had long known and they made him see that she was in no condition to be left behind. It was not with anger or regret that he thought this, but as a man seeing what he must do to save himself and feeling resolved to do it.” (230)

 

Why does Bigger rape her before he kills her? (232-34)

 

What is going through Bigger’s mind at the moment of the killing? (234-37)

"He could not take her with him and he could not leave her behind." (235)

"He could not leave her here and he could not take her with him. If he took her along she would be crying all the time; she would be blaming him for all that had happened; she would be wanting whiskey to help her to forget and there would be times when he could not get it for her." (235)

He saw her breath as a white thread stretching out over a vast black gulf and felt that he was clinging to it and was waiting to see if the ravel in the white thread which had started would continue and let him drop to the rocks far below. (236) 

He straightened and lifted the brick, but just at that moment the reality of it all slipped from him. His heart beat wildly, trying to force its way out of his chest. No! Not this! His breath swelled deep in his lungs and he flexed his muscles, trying to impose his will over his body. He had to do better than this. Then, as suddenly as the panic had come, it left. But he had to stand here until that picture came back, that motive, that driving desire to escape the law. Yes. It must be this way. A sense of the white blur hovering near, of Mary burning, of Britten, of the law tracking him down, came back. Again, he was ready. 

The  brick was in his hand.  In his mind his hand traced a quick invisible arc through the cold air of the room; high above  his head his hand paused in fancy  and imaginatively swooped down to where he thought her head must be. He was rigid; not moving. This was the way it had to be. Then he took a deep breath and his hand gripped the brick and shot upward and paused a second and then plunged downward through the darkness to the accompaniment of a deep short grunt from his chest and landed with a thud. Yes! There was a dull gasp of surprise, then a moan. No, that must not be' He lifted the brick again and again, until in falling it struck a sodden mass that gave  softly but stoutly to each landing blow. Soon he seemed to be striking a wet wad of cotton, of some damp substance whose only life was the jarring of the brick's impact. He stopped, hearing his own breath heaving in and out of his chest. He was wet all over, and cold. How many times he had lifted the brick and brought it down he did not know. All he knew was that the room was quiet and cold and that the job was done. (236-37)

 

How does Bigger think through what he has done? (238-240)

He had killed twice, but in a true sense it was not the first time he had ever killed. He had killed many times before, but only dur­ing the last two days had this impulse assumed the form of actual killing

 

Has he committed murder?

 

The Manhunt  (pp. 241-270)

 

What is the terrible irony of Bigger’s response to the newspaper accounts of his alleged sex crimes?

Describe the white reaction to news of a white girl’s murder at the hands of a black man. Do you think Wright is exaggerating to make a political point?

Why does Wright use this section of the narrative to expose the injustices of urban segregation and the indignity of ghetto life?

How does the black middle class respond to the spectacle of the manhunt for Bigger Thomas?

Locate the rhetorical climax of Wright’s depiction of the mob closing in on Bigger. What symbolic values are suggested by these final moments?

 

 Paragraphs: Is the action of Book Two determined?

Has the situation into which Bigger was born led inexorably to this catastrophe?

Write your answer from FOUR different political perspactives:

The Radical Left:

Has Bigger always been trapped, like the rat he cornered in the novel’s first scene?

Were his crimes written into him even before he was born?

Waht would a leftist make of the the surge of confidence he felt the morning after the killing of Mary?. What plan of action to achieve social justice would a Communist use to give Bigger and the other members of the ‘lumpen proleteriat’ a chance at achieving social justice?

The Liberal Center’s Inauthentic Compassion

The Daltons earn profits by floating prices in an artificially constructed economy, then salve their conscience by offering jobs and educational opportunities to a select few.

What would be their response to Bigger’s crimes?

Tragedy: An Authentic Liberal View

Can Bigger genuinely take responsibility for his actions?

According to a liberal existentialists,  the individual is responsible for forging his own identity despite the force of nature, society and desire. Life requires autonomous, authentic action; otherwise, we are defined, passive, and unconscious. Elimination of social injustice will not mitigate this existential dilemma. Self-destructive actions like murder or allowing the other to define who you are evasions of the essential natural requirement of life: that is to love others.

The Racist Right:

How will the racist Right interpret Bigger’s actions?

The District Attorney Buckley will exhibit the racist’s irrational frenzy which seeks to stamp out evidence of his own crimes.

 
The Sprago Version:

 

Bigger Thomas’ response to his accidental killing of Mary Dalton depicts a perverse birth into adult consciousness. For the first time in his life, Bigger grasps a powerful, if false understanding of his situation in Chicago’s racist environment. He accepts ‘the fact’ that white racism has determined his identity: he is a violent criminal; even worse, he is a thinking beast set on revenge: the white man’s nightmare. This capitulation enables Bigger, for the first time in his life, to shed his fear of whites. As long as he plays a public role that confirms white expectations about black inferiority, Bigger can do, in secret, whatever he pleases. Instead of feeling compassion for his family and friends, Bigger judges with contempt their pliant, passive, and fearful orientation to the world. How pointless and pathetic! Bigger’s new way of seeing gives him the power to exploit and manipulate others. He recognizes how whites are blinded by racist attitudes, and that understanding enables him to devise strategies to control them. In the course of the action of Part Two, Bigger will confirm his monstrous new identity with a terrible act of violence: murdering the woman he loves.


Of course, Bigger’s birth into adulthood takes monstrous form. Through his use of ambiguity and tragic irony, Wright dramatizes the perverse consequences of succumbing to the fashioning force of racism. He challenges the reader to conceive of a true passage to an authentic understanding of the human situation. Where Bigger discovers opportunities for exploitation, Wright suggests the possibility of achieving solidarity with others who toil in the same socio-economic situation. Where Bigger contemplates the potential of fascism, Wright suggests the potential for political action generated by genuine class-consciousness. Where Bigger can exult only in the fearsome power, which we all possess, to destroy life, Wright suggests that the true passage into adulthood occurs when the individual accepts the shaping force, not of racism, but of love for another.

 

Literary Allusions:

 

from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” (1843)

 

I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart --one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself --to offer violence to its own nature --to do wrong for the wrong's sake only --that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; --hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; --hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; --hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin --a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it --if such a thing were possible --even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.

 

from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”,  part vii (1862)

 

One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy–is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.

 

From Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

 

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips. He's here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.