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Bigger Thomas and the Feminine Mystique

In Native Son by Richard Wright, Bigger Thomas is portrayed as many things; ignorant, fearful,

a killer, and an inferior human being. Richard Wright left the reader to decide which of these things

Bigger Thomas is, if not all of them. But one thing that really stands out in the story, and is a major part

of the novel is how Bigger reacts and responds to women in the novel. In Native Son, Bigger Thomas

sees and reacts to women as a threat, even when the two most important women in the story nurture

Bigger.

In the book, Bigger reacts to women with fear, dismay, and hate. His mother was never really

understanding of him, and his father died when Bigger was still very young. This leads me to believe

that Bigger's reaction to women throughout the novel, including his mother, stems from the distance

between Bigger and his mother. After Bigger had taunted his sister, Vera, with the rat he had killed his

mother said “Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you” (Wright, 8) to which Bigger replied

“Maybe you oughtn't've. Maybe you ought to left me where I was” (Wright, 8). This is an example of

the distance between him and his mother. They share no common personality traits, and Bigger fears

women although his mother is the biggest female influence on his life. She raised him on her own, as

Bigger's father died when he was still very young, and she knows him better than he knows himself..

She sees where his life is going whereas he's too ignorant to agree with her or take her advice into

account. Bigger has a feeling of hurt and resentment toward his mother because she doesn't understand

his actions and says hurtful things toward him as a result, which draws them even further apart.

Normally with this kind of situation Bigger could go to his father for nurturing, but as he is no longer

with them it puts Bigger in a tough situation. Bigger lacks a nurturing figure in his life in general, and it

takes its toll on him.

When Bigger is introduced to Mary, he is exposed to a completely different type of woman.

“Everything was all right, except that girl. She worried him. She might cause him to lose his job if she
kept talking about unions. She was a funny girl, all right. Never in his life had he met anyone like her.

She puzzled him. She was rich, but she didn't act like she was rich. She acted like... Well, he didn't

know exactly what she did act like. In all of the white women he had met, mostly on jobs and at relief

stations, there was always a certain coldness and reserve; they stood their distance and spoke to him

from afar” (Wright, 59). This passage from the book shows how Bigger had two classification systems,

that of a black woman and that of a white woman. Mary single handedly redefined his views of white

women, and women in general. “He had never seen anyone like her before. She was not a bit the way

he had imagined she would be” (Wright, 52). He generally saw white women as cold and distant, and

on a different level than him in terms of social classification. He saw black women as more familiar to

him, but still distant due to them being female. This is why Mary was such a huge shock to Bigger –

she was not only stepping out of Bigger's bounds for white women, but she was also treading into his

idea of a black woman. She was filling in the role of the mother that Bigger never really understood.

This doesn't mean that Bigger understood her better than his own mother, but her intentions were very

unclear to Bigger, and he thought she was trying to trick him or harm him in some way. This caused

him to be even more fearful toward Mary than he was toward his mother.

Bessie also played a big role in Bigger's life. She played a passive motherly role to Bigger more

than anything. She tried to keep him from doing drastic things such as writing the ransom note to the

Dalton's, and did more simple motherly things for him such as warming his milk for him. She was

always by his side, even though sometimes she didn't feel that he was worth being with, and although

she was an alcoholic she took surprisingly good care of herself. She cared for Bigger, but he didn't

really care about her. When he killed her in the story he didn't feel any remorse for doing it, he was just

kind of more shocked about the situation than anything. This is why I believe that Bigger didn't really

care about Bessie. Killing her had no significant meaning to him, unlike how it did with Mary where he

was constantly thinking about it and feeling somewhat free and accomplished for doing what he did.

Despite this, he found strength in seeing her. “He wanted to go see her very badly; he felt that he would
be stronger to go through tomorrow if he saw her” (Wright, 129). Although Bigger didn't “care” about

Bessie, her presence still calmed him to an extent, which offers us a deeper glimpse of Bigger's

personality and how the women in his life have affected him.

I think the combination of factors that lead to Bigger's killing of Mary and Bessie were based on

his upbringing. The way working women were raised in that time period (to find a husband and to be a

housewife) is a big part of why Bigger grew up the way he did. His mother knew how to take care of

her kids, and how to take care of the home they all lived in and how to work for them, but she didn't

know how to accommodate her children's feelings. Bigger didn't have a father to fall back on, which is

usually what children (especially boys) do when their mother isn't nurturing them like she should be. In

the Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, the author notes that “For over fifteen years there was no

word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all columns, books,

and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers. Over and

over women heard in voiced of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no

greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity” (Friedan, 58). If this is assumed to be true, then

Bigger's mother was so focused on doing what she felt she needed to do as a woman that she didn't

have time to account for her children's feelings. This can be seen as the reason why Bigger lashed out

violently and feels vastly limited and misunderstood by the world.

Although many factors have affected people's views on Bigger within the story, and while

critiquing the story, there is no doubt that Bigger is a complicated yet easily understood character that

shows the power of stereotypes and their complexity. It may be easy to generate racial and gender-

based stereotypes, but having a good claim as to why those traits are stereotyped can lead to insightful

discoveries about groups of people. That in itself can help us understand them more than people of our

own genders and ethnicities.


Bibliography:

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Norton and Co., 1997

Wright, Richard. Native Son. Harper-Collins., 1940

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