World Literature 12.2.

2007 Beyond Boundaries

Sheryl Soo Theta

People’s lives are definitely influenced by their environments in one way or another, but their actions cannot simply be the result of their environment. There are contradictions in life because there is always more than one way of seeing reality. In Native Son, Sigmund Freud’s theory of defense mechanisms is evident in the actions of the protagonist, Bigger, throughout the book. Growing up in the Black Belt community, everything was an impossible dream until the murder of Mary gave a new sense of freedom to Bigger. Bigger’s reaction to his lack of choices made it difficult for him to understand the perspectives of people from different walks of society. It is for this reason that Bigger had a hard time accepting Jan and Max’s offers to help him when he was desperate. Bigger is a unique character, but he was crafted from a pool of black people who struggle to survive just like him. What made him stand out was not just how he lived, but also how he dealt with reality. The Black Belt community of Chicago, Illinois in the 1930s had developed its own stereotypes and also drew a distinct line between the black and white races. This environment gave Bigger the impression that his actions were limited to an extreme. “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 peering in through a knot-hole in the fence.’” (Wright, 20). Bigger seems to have set his own boundaries based on the society he lived in. There are other black people in his community that did not bother to remind themselves of the racism in their world. Bigger was different; he didn’t think optimistically and assumes that things were impossible because of his racial identity. The idea of segregation between the two

World Literature 12.2.2007

Sheryl Soo Theta

races became a solid concept in his life. Each day he lives, the more he realized he was being pulled back from being successful in his life. While having to deal with the persistent begging of his family for a better life, Bigger was trying to fit in and act tough with his gang friends so that he could forget his true identity. “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. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain” (Wright, 10). This is a sign of repression, where Bigger held back this strong aggressive feeling inside him. He certainly did not like his life, and neither was he trying to make it any better. Running away by pretending things didn’t matter was how he approached the problems in his life. He used defense mechanisms, denying the truths he didn’t want to accept in his life. The “hate” he has was only because he was humiliated due to how self-conscious his skin made him feel. Identifying with the black race did not make him proud at all, but more ashamed. The act of hating his family and his own people, was an act of displacement. Even though everyone in his community felt the racism that haunted their lives, they did not choose to live it the way Bigger did. They resided in the inferiority, beared with the inequality, and didn’t rebel because they feared the possible negative outcomes. The way Bigger felt self conscious about his racial identity can be related to the way Sylvia reacted towards Sugar near the end of the short essay, “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara. “Miss Moore is besides herself and I am disgusted with Sugar’s treachery. So I stand on her foot one more time to see if she’ll shove me. She shuts up, and Miss Moore looks at me,

World Literature 12.2.2007

Sheryl Soo Theta

sorrowfully I’m thinking. And something weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest” (Bambara, 94). When Sugar told Miss Moore how she felt about the toy prices in the store, she brought up the issue in society people were segregated based on their wealth. Sylvia did not like that, from the way she acted, she did not want Sugar to elaborate on her ideas. In other words, Sylvia felt self-conscious about her social status and she was not proud of it. Being reminded the major difference between wealthy and non-wealthy people made Sylvia uncomfortable. She didn’t like the feeling that she “felt in her chest.” Bigger wasn’t conscious of what drove him to do the things he did because he viewed his actions as “the right thing to do.” “’She….It was….Hell, I don’t know. She asked me a lot of questions. She acted and talked in a way that made me hate her. She made me feel like a dog. I was so mad I wanted to cry…’”(Wright, 350). Bigger’s natural instinct was to automatically hate Mary because she was different from the other white people he had met. He was definitely scared, as well as humiliated, and the clash of the two things made him develop anger. The murder of Mary was caused by this unleashed anger, when Bigger finally stopped holding in all the chaotic emotions and feelings inside him. He had a sense that anything was possible because his actions were rebellious and beyond imaginable for a black person. Being able to kill a white woman, the way he did, made Bigger feel like he had accomplished something big and didn’t regret any of it. Mary was the first to have unleashed the twisted and aggressive emotions in Bigger. The tedious acts of deceiving, killing, and escaping had all started with one fortunate encounter with her. Bigger had little experience with white people, and having met Mary did not help with his repression of the society he lived in. When Mary and Jan began to express their acts of kindness, Bigger couldn’t accept or understand them. He

World Literature 12.2.2007

Sheryl Soo Theta

found Communism as something absurd, and immediately questioned the situation before giving into his anger towards the white race. “Did not white people despise a black skin? Then why was Jan doing this? Why was Mary standing there so eagerly, with shining eyes? What could they get out of this” (Wright, 67). This could be an act of intellectualization, where Bigger tried to emotionally detach himself from the situation, and observed it critically instead. It is not clear whether all black people at that time would have reacted the same way Bigger did, but it is clear that Bigger could not understand Mary and Jan’s abnormal actions. Emotions such as fear and even hate rose inside of him, while Mary and Jan were only trying to befriend him with a different approach than Bigger experienced most white people doing. All his life, he had been taught from living in his society that a white person should be highly respected and doing activities such as eating, sitting, or talking casually with them was intolerable. Fear came from the fact that Bigger felt like Mary and Jan were trying to make him do something faulty and disrespect them so that he would be fired from his job. Bigger couldn’t find a reason behind their actions and was afraid to do something wrong, causing him to lose his job. He did not understand what Mary and Jan were thinking, and the unknown brought fear in him. He began to despise them because he felt like he was being teased, and the way they acted gave him a stronger sense of inferiority. The meeting of Mary and Jan was only one example of Bigger having difficulty understanding or even accepting people with different perceptions of reality. Later on in the story, a complete stranger opened up Bigger’s mind to a new reality when he was in a state of hopelessness. “He wanted to believe; but was afraid. He felt that he should have

World Literature 12.2.2007

Sheryl Soo Theta

been able to meet Max halfway; but, as always, when a white man talked to him, he was caught out in No Man’s Land” (Wright, 347). Slowly Max was beginning to expose Bigger to a new way of viewing life. Unfortunately, a part of Bigger was still being pulled back by his natural instinct of feeling different when approached by a white person. White people made Bigger feel alienated. He automatically felt that he did not belong amongst them and stood out so much that any small mistake he made would be a huge crime in eyes of a white person. In “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara, Sugar had the same feeling of living in fear of setting her foot in the wrong place. “So me and Sugar turn the corner to where the entrance is, but when we get there I kinda hang back. Not that I’m scared, what’s there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody (Bambara, 93).” The toy store was expensive, way out of reach for Sugar and her friend, therefore her self-consciousness seemed to have stopped her before going through the door to the toy store. Throughout Native Son, Bigger has grown from an ordinary black boy into a different and unpredictable young man. He had separated himself from the other people of his race by standing out from his actions. The struggles he went through with his family, with working at the Dalton’s, and the pressure he was getting from the society were all building blocks of his actions. The way he dealt with everything in his life was typical for an oppressed black boy, but on the other hand, his actions made a bigger impact. As may be expected of any black man in a society such as Chicago in the 1930s, hatred was the major thing that came to mind when encountering a white person. Even so, it is rare that this hatred would evolve from just a small sign of resistance into the

World Literature 12.2.2007

Sheryl Soo Theta

cause for murdering a young white lady. Bigger had gone further, exceeding the expectations of his kind from any white or black person, and strongly negatively impacting lives. After letting out his emotions and feelings, Bigger felt like he had saved himself from being locked up in his cage all those years. For the first time, he was able to do what he thought was “right”, not letting the consequences of his actions pull him back. In life, it is a natural thing to act the way we think is appropriate after learning from experience. When something different comes up, we are unsure of what to do, and that was exactly how Bigger felt when he encountered those “different” people.

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