In the heated trial that determines whether Bigger Thomas will live or die, his supportive defense attorney exclaims, “You cannot kill this man, your Honor, for we have made it plain that we do not recognize that he lives! ” Living in the Chicago slums as a poor, uneducated young black man whose only confidence can come from acts of violence, Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son is destined to meet a poor fate. Anger and hopelessness are a daily reality for him as he realizes that his life has no real meaning.
When he accidentally murders a young, rich, white woman, however, his actions begin to have meaning as he accepts the crime as his own, even while he lies to the authorities. Bigger is, of course, taken down by a society who takes offense at the remarks of his supporters and seeks to justify itself. Bigger himself is doomed, but his emotions, his actions, and his motivations all help to give the reader a window into the mind of a criminal and a repressed inner city African American. Fear, flight, fate.
These are the three simple and meaningful words chosen by Wright to mark Bigger’s sad existence. Growing up angry at the white world, he is forced into working as a chauffeur for a rich white family, the Daltons, to support his struggling family. He is frightened and angered by the attempts of Mary Dalton and her Communist friend Jan to be friendly to him and interprets their actions as condescending. As he tries to stifle a drunken Mary to avoid detection after carrying her upstairs, he accidentally kills her.
In a time of panic, he burns the body in the furnace and concocts an elaborate lie imputing the Communist Party. He lies, dodges questions, and even tries to demand ransom, but this can only last for so long before Bigger is named as chief suspect. He brings with him in flight his girlfriend Bessie and later kills her, as she cannot continue with him nor return home. After being caught and brought to trial he is supported by attorney Boris Max who defends him intensely with his own eloquence and conviction.
Bigger discovers that the man, though white, feels genuinely for him, but in the end, as dictated by fate, he is sentenced to death and is granted no clemency by a society refusing to take any responsibility for a member for whom it has failed to care. Bigger is the only truly developed character of the novel, as the book is a chronicle of his downfall. He grows up using motion pictures as a means for him to escape his narrow existence. Meaning is only assigned to his life when he is responsible for Mary Dalton’s death.
He feels a sense of power, of confidence and accomplishment, as he accepts the crime and even when facing death, recognizes that he must have done something significant, even as he cringes in fear and agony while committing his heinous deeds. Though he initially blames the Communist Party for his actions, he doesn’t do it out of any anger toward Communism, but merely views the party as something on which he can pin his actions. He never is fortunate enough to find warm, mutually beneficial relationships, but he comes closest to having true friends with Jan Erlone and Boris Max, both of the white race Bigger has grown to hate.
By the end of the novel, he realizes his end is the product of fate, a fate determined by the life to which he has been subjected by white America. Understanding this, he tells Boris Max to let his mother know he’s all right. At the forefront of Wright’s novel is the clear theme of social injustice. The blacks he describes suffer from inescapable conditions that naturally breed anger and hate set by white society, who won’t even allow them to step onto the lowest rung of the economic ladder through capitalism.
While Wright does not condone violence, he expresses that Bigger’s actions are, in part, the product of a nation wishing to promote equality in freedom on paper but not in practice. Mr. Dalton, for instance, may be generous with money but neglects moral responsibility by not using the power he has to try to change the underlying conditions that hurt black culture. Bigger’s mother, Mrs. Thomas, is a strong black woman trying to do the best she can to provide for her inner-city family.
As long as men like the D. A. Buckley who exploit black culture are working against her to satisfy personal greed, though, she and those like her will not be given the opportunities to which they are entitled. Wright writes with the intention of promoting personal freedom, of promoting a culture that does not actively misshape the lives of a minority. Through vivid contrasting imagery that appeals to all of the senses, whether it be the ringing of Bigger’s alarm clock, descriptions of Mary’s body and the furnace, or images stirred by Bigger and Bessie’s brief physical union, Wright pushes the novel forward with honesty and realism.
Bigger’s perceptions of the wooden cross around his neck and the burning cross outside, of the black rat in his apartment and the white cat bearing witness to his cremation’ of Mary are all brought to life. One can see the complexities of Bigger’s thoughts while being moved along swiftly through Wright’s clear prose in times of action. Through his tale of an ill-fated journey to give existence meaning and find understanding, Wright provokes his audience to true enlightenment.