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Bigger Thomas: Trapped by Race? Or Mentality?
“We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t”(Wright 20). Bigger Thomas’s comment near the beginning of the novel exposes Native Son to a variety of critical interpretations concerning the racist society in which he lives. While most critics who read Richard Wright’s Native Son believe that Bigger suffers from denied humanity because of his race, a closer and more careful reading suggests that Bigger’s inability to accept the humanity of others as well as responsibility for his own actions traps him not only by his race, but also by his mentality. Why is this common misunderstanding so important? The reality of the situation, in which people tend to accuse someone other than themselves, applies just as much today as it did back in the 1940s in the sense that fear drives people to extreme measures, such as violence and murder. Could the reader fall victim to this intense emotion? Or can they conquer their fear before they become another Bigger Thomas? In Native Son, the white mob does not ultimately kill Bigger; his fear sentences him to death from the beginning of the novel. To prove that Bigger traps himself through his fear and inability to realize the humanity of others, this essay will argue what critics consider crucial scenes in the novel including the deaths of Mary and Bessie, the conversations with his family and gang members, and Max’s final speech. The core of humanity bases itself upon respect of all groups of people. Max’s speech at the trial scene almost had me convinced that the true murderers resided in all
the white people who wanted Bigger dead. After rereading particular scenes and reevaluating the character of Bigger Thomas, however, I later intend to convince readers that the argument that Max makes presents only half of the truth. He purposely avoids another major issue associated with the murders of Mary and Bessie: fear. For example, on the night of Mary Dalton’s murder, Bigger only proceeds to help an extremely drunk Mary up the stairs when Wright comments, “He took his arm from her and she mounted the steps firmly and then stumbled loudly on the wooden porch. Bigger made a move toward her, but stopped, his hands outstretched, frozen with fear” (82). While simply attempting to help a helpless girl, Bigger fears the white people. What would happen to him should he be caught with a drunken Mary? Later, after helping her to her room and wrongly deciding to stay after he should have left, Bigger’s terror seizes him when he discovers Mrs. Dalton standing at Mary’s door. “Bigger held his breath. Mary mumbled again; he bent over her, his fists clenched in fear. He knew that Mrs. Dalton could not see him, but he knew that if Mary spoke she would come to the side of the bed and discover him, touch him. He waited tensely, afraid to move for fear of bumping into something in the dark and betraying his presence” (85). Bigger chose to remain quiet, stereotyping Mrs. Dalton as a typical white who would accuse him of raping her daughter. His ignorance and inability to see Mrs. Dalton as a humane person initially causes Mary’s death. His fear ultimately causes Bigger to accidentally smother Mary with her own pillow. This gruesome incident marks the beginning of Bigger Thomas’s downfall. Like Mary, Bessie dies as a result of Bigger’s fear for his safety. After forcing her to play a role in his ransom note scheme, Bessie’s relationship with Bigger becomes much more apparent to readers. Bigger views Bessie not as a partner in crime, but as an
object used for sexual gratification. After going into hiding with her, Bigger “was conscious of nothing now but her and what he wanted. He flung the cover back, ignoring the cold, and not knowing that he did it. Bessie’s hands were on his chest, her fingers spreading protestingly open, pushing him away…He had to now” (234). Bigger’s mentality tells him that he must have what his mind desires, no matter what the cost. The cost this time: Bessie’s pride and her right to say “no”. Eventually, she emerges as a “burden” for Bigger, and he realizes that he must get rid of her if he plans on escaping from his situation and gain freedom. Unable to take responsibility for his own actions, Bigger must always blame his situation on someone else. Bigger thinks to himself, “It would have been much better if he had not said anything to Bessie about [Mary’s] murder. Well, it was her own fault. She had bothered him so much that he had had to tell her”(234). This inability to recognize his own faults leads Bigger down the same path: murder. He had not planned on Mary’s bones being found so quickly, and in the heat of the moment he decides to smash Bessie’s head with a brick. Wright comments, “He could not leave [Bessie] 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). All the while, Bigger unknowingly remains the cause of all her current problems and because of her knowledge about Mary’s murder, he ultimately causes her death. Again, Bigger’s mentality leads him astray from the correct plan of action. The discovery of Bessie’s dead body helps to convict him and sentence him to death.
Most critics might say that Bigger’s unremorseful killings derive from his inability to express his inner emotions because of the limitations placed on his race; however, I argue a different reason. I believe that Bigger’s inability to see the women as humans with thoughts and feelings led him to believe that he had the right to overpower them. He saw the women as obstacles on his path to freedom and nothing more. After doing some research, I came upon a quote that fully supported my stance. Stephen K. George, an assistant English professor in Maryland comments, “Concerning Mary and Bessie, the two women Bigger murders, his totalization of them as "things" to use or be used by is especially significant, for it enables him to dispose of Mary's body and to smash Bessie's head with little feeling of remorse or conscience; instead, he blames and categorizes them both as obstacles to his own plans for freedom and future happiness” (George) in his article entitled “The Horror of Bigger Thomas: The Perception of Form Without Face in Richard Wright’s Native Son.” Why would Bigger rape Bessie and then decide to kill her? Bigger knew that there was no way to keep Bessie from talking, except in her death, so he overpowered her, raped her, then brutally wounded her and left her for dead. Another major depiction of Bigger’s mentality occurs in several different conversations with his fellow “family” members, including his true family as well as his gang. In a conversation with Gus near the beginning of the novel, Bigger’s innermost thoughts expose themselves to readers regarding his situation as a black man in a white world. He says, “We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping through a knothole in the
fence”(20). Instead of trying to do something about his situation, Bigger proceeds to sulk in his own mind. He traps himself in his reality by resorting to extreme pessimism. Later when the issue of robbing a white man’s store comes up, Bigger must put on a face for his gang in order to appear tough, but really fear lodges deep within him. He accuses his gang of being scared, but “Even though Bigger had asked Gus to be with him in the robbery, the fear that Gus would really go made the muscles of Bigger’s stomach tighten; he was hot all over”(25). Readers can see that Bigger’s mentality opposes his actions toward everyone else in the novel. He plays tough; however, readers know that he fears doing something outside of the norm, like rob a white man. Bigger thinks, “…they had never help up a white man before. They had always robbed Negroes. They felt that it was much easier and sager to rob their own people…” (14). Now Bigger directs his thoughts to oppose his own people, thinking that they make much easier targets. Had it never occurred to him that “other Negroes” reside in the same situation as he? Bigger stereotypes his own people in the sense that all Negroes make easier targets. He appears to place the same racism on the white people as he claims they place on him because of his inability to see the humanity and individuality of others around him. When Bigger accepts but never follows through with the challenge of robbing a white man, readers can only expect and anxiously wait for something more to happen in the following pages. Another example transpires when his mother tells him to get a job, and Bigger reluctantly and unhappily agrees. Stephen K. George makes another crucially valid point when he comments, “the people of [Bigger’s] life, both black and white, are no longer people but things: his mother someone to deceive and put off concerning his employment, his girlfriend Bessie someone to "use" for sex and as a partner in crime, and
white people another entity altogether” (George). Wright comments, “He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair”(10). Bigger, however, incorrectly assumes powerlessness. Getting a job would allow his mother to “fix up a nice place for [the] children” so they would not have to “live like pigs”(11). The mentality that Bigger cannot help his family presents an issue that again traps him in his version of “reality”. Bigger, in this case, remains trapped not by his social status, but by his mental choice not to do something about his situation. Again, critics might argue that Bigger refuses to succumb to his reality because he gets caught up in a world where he has a limited existence. Damon Marcel DeCoste, Professor at Concordia University, comments, “Everywhere Bigger’s aspirations turn, these same lines loom, keeping him, in every sense, in his place, and he knows only too well the risks attendant upon straying from this place”(DeCoste). What “lines” is DeCoste referring to? No “place” holds Bigger back from the life he talks about except for inside his own mind, having the mentality that he will always be looked upon differently by the white population. If he fears death by “straying from this place,” then why risk life by murdering? When he proceeds to “play white” with Gus, he denies his own reality by impersonating someone else. Why would he want to pretend to act like something that he hates? Because now Bigger becomes the impenetrable force, and this acting gives him a sense of power and also a sense of fear. He continues life not actually limited by his race, but by his fear to actually become what he hates.
Max makes a good point in saying that Bigger’s creation spawned from a hateful society. He makes another ironic point in saying “[Bigger’s] existence is a crime against the state”(400). Max does not appear to take into account, however, the fact that maybe Bigger represents the problem, the symbol of hate. Max places blame on the white population who obviously hates the black people, but what about Bigger and his hate for the white people? Not only do white people appear harsh, but also Bigger takes on an extremely stereotypical perspective of people not like himself, and that defines racism. Perhaps Bigger results as a product of a racist society, but mostly his mentality keeps him trapped in a reality where he remains unable to do what he wants. Max comments, “The hate and fear which we have inspired in him, woven by our civilization into the very structure of his consciousness, into his blood and bones, into the hourly functioning of his personality, have become the justification of his existence”(400). What justification comes from hate and fear? Has Bigger’s existence been justified now that two innocent girls have died a brutal death? Have Mary and Bessie’s parents seen justice? The belief that Bigger could escape punishment for his crimes in the first place signifies fear; however, the fact that he feels no remorse during the trial conveys an even bigger indication of his inability to accept the humanity of others. Max comments in his speech, “[Bigger] says he knew what he was doing and felt he had to do it. And he says he feels no sorrow for having done it”(396). After talking to Max beforehand and revealing some of his innermost thoughts that he had not even consciously recognized himself, Bigger’s mentality changes. Wright comments, “He had no right to feel that, no right to forget that he was to die, that he was black, a murderer; he had no right to forget that, not even for a second. Yet he had”(360). Why now? Suddenly Bigger forgets that he endures
limitations because of his race, because of his crimes. He feels free after having spoken to Max. Could this solution have worked before he committed murder? If Bigger would have pushed down his fear and pride and opened himself up to people, he could have felt this freedom long before he started down the path of no return, the path toward death. Critics will argue that Bigger only hated the white people because he remained limited by the confines of their hate, but I argue that Bigger hated the white people because he feared what he did not know and would never know. He comments in the novel about how his perspective on life changes after his sudden epiphany post-talking with Max. DeCoste writes, “[Bigger sees his potential] as a form of empowerment, an empowerment that stems from acknowledging and working with, rather than mentally and physically blotting out, others like himself”(DeCoste). Bigger now readily accepts the humanity of others like himself; however, time has run out. Wright says, “As the white mountain had once loomed over [Bigger], so now the black wall of death loomed closer with each fleeting hour. But he could not strike out blindly now; death was a different and bigger adversary” (419). Now his fear increases more at the thought of the consequences of his actions rather than at the obstacle that consequently hindered him his entire life. The fear of dying shuts out the “white mountain.” The novel makes a bold statement concerning Bigger’s mentality: “All his life he had been most alive, most himself when he had felt things hard enough to fight for them”(419). Why, then, has Bigger given up the fight for his life when freedom obviously means so much to him? Why let the white people win if he hates them so much for the position that they have put him in? Bigger does not hate the white people for sentencing him to death, but he hates
them because he fears never knowing their “kind.” Most critics do not take this perspective into account. Bigger endures life trapped not only by his race as a black man in a white society but also by his mentality that he will never be able to fully achieve self-actualization in Richard Wright’s Native Son. Critics, as well as readers, remain encouraged to not only look at the racism of a white society, but to consider also the mentality of a black man who refuses to believe that he can make something out of himself if he would simply try. Look at all the famous black Americans who have made a difference without the use of violence, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, just to name a couple. Maybe this tactic would lead Bigger down that same path to death, but he would have made something of himself, made a name for his family. If he knew that “something awful’s going to happen to [him]”(20), he should have tried to make a difference. In light of this new interpretation of Richard Wright’s novel, new research should be done to determine if the problem, refusing to accept responsibility for one’s actions, presents as much of an issue today as in Bigger’s time. Not only has the respect between blacks and whites grown substantially, but the relationships have greatly evolved and flourished. While easy to see that most critics and readers could interpret the novel as depicting a hateful white society limiting the actions of it’s black members, a closer reading will provide that the mentality of it’s main character, Bigger Thomas, played a crucial role in the plot of the story. Readers of Wright’s Native Son forcibly look at themselves from a different perspective and realize that maybe they, too, are on the path to become the next Bigger Thomas.
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