The Native Son by Richard Wright centers on the character of Bigger Thomas and the violent acts that he commits out of discontentment with his position in society. Throughout the novel, he rapes, murders and fights his way through life. His thoughts are constantly consumed with violent and sadistic imagery. It is the author’s intent to portray Bigger as a mere product of the ghetto. Although there is some development as a character later in the novel for Bigger, he is still a failed human being. His actions and decisions are ghastly and his lack of options ultimately leads to a life of crime. Society is responsible for the criminal behavior of Bigger Thomas.
Violence and cruelty are two characteristics that apply to Bigger and support his role as an unsympathetic character. An early scene introduces us to the cruelty that Bigger is capable of. Bigger violently chases a rat and kills the animal with an iron skillet. He terrorizes his sister with the dark body and she faints out of fear. The violence escalates as the narrative continues on. Although Jan and Mary attempt to relate to him, he reacts with violence. While Mary’s murder is not planned, the gruesomeness in the disposal of her body is indisputable. “The head hung limply on the newspapers, the curly black hair dragging about in blood. He whacked harder, but the head would not come off…He saw a hatchet. Yes! That would do it…” (Wright 70). His brutality continues on after Mary’s death and his most vicious act occurs when he later flees with his girlfriend Bessie. Sensing her fear, he rapes and kills her in an abandoned building. Not only is his behavior violent, but the allusions to his thoughts are sadistic as well. “He felt suddenly as though he wanted something solid and heavy in his hand: his gun, a knife, a brick” (Wright 154).
The setting of the novel is crucial in understanding the reasons that society is to blame for his violence. The urban areas of the United States during the Great Depression are a place where success is possible for only those who are white and rich; a category that Bigger does not fit into. The novel particularly focuses on the feelings of social unrest that were occurring during this time period. This focus allows the reader to understand how naturalism plays a primary role in the creation of Bigger. Naturalism can be defined as the way a character’s environment influences the character and his actions. Naturalism sets forth the notion that a character is formed and makes choices in response to the environment in which he lives. Bigger has been predestined to become the criminal that he becomes over the course of the novel. Yet he does not embrace this destiny, he is fearful of it. “The moment a situation became so that it excited something in him, he rebelled. That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared” (Wright 44). In this particular scene, Bigger realizes that he has picked a fight with his friend Gus out of fear of robbing the white shopkeeper.
Bigger is angry at his position in society and incensed by the helplessness that he feels. “I’d soon as go to jail than take that damn relief job” (Wright 32). He is intimidated by whites and reacts with anger when he is forced to deal with them. He does not know how to behave in front of the Daltons and he is unsettled by their manner of speaking. They attempt to be kind to him, but this just fuels his anger and adds to his discomfort. His fury with his family is also apparent. He hates them because they suffer and there is no hope for an improvement in their situation. His hatred derives from the fact that he has the inability to make a better life for them.
Bigger allows the crimes that he has committed to give meaning to his life. “For a little while I was free. I was doing something. It was wrong, but I was feeling all right…I killed ’em ’cause I was scared and mad but I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while” (Wright 185). The reason that Bigger kills is out of fear. After putting a drunken Mary Dalton to bed, he is about to be discovered in a very bad situation: alone with a helpless white girl in her bedroom. Bigger is so afraid of the consequences of being alone with Mary that he kills her. After the murder, he discovers he has finally accomplished something and he is in a way proud of the murder. “He felt that he had his destiny in his grasp. He was more alive then he could ever remember having been: his attention and mind were pointed, focused toward the goal” (Wright 141).
Symbolism is a device that Wright uses to depict the relationship between blacks and whites in Native Son. The novel opens with the scene of Bigger killing a rat that he has found in his apartment. This act is a summary for the rest of the novel. Bigger and his family are the cornered animals, forced into a situation by the whites of the society. The rat and Bigger are violent with each other as are blacks and whites. Bigger is a mere by product of this relationship that had been the standard in this society. Racism and hatred have caused him to act out in a violent manner.
The last section is especially pertinent to the idea that society is responsible for Bigger Thomas. The lawyer Max’s effort is not to deny Bigger has killed, but is instead to clarify his own vision of how Bigger became who he is and of how he therefore did what he did. Max tries to explain to whites, the judge and jury, why Bigger is the way that he is. Max tries to make it clear the reasons that society is to blame for Bigger’s actions. The jury proves his point because they will have no part of Max’s argument and decides to execute Bigger rather than imprison him.
This sentence is virtually anticlimactic in its predictability. “Although he could not put it into words, he knew not only had they resolved to put him to death, but they were determined to make his death mean more than a mere punishment; that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control” (Wright 257). This scene when Bigger realizes that everyone is against him, merely reinforce his awareness of the way that blacks and whites are split within American society.
The Native Son is undoubtedly a powerful work that depicts the relationship between blacks and whites in society. This static relationship that is constantly repressing black people is the cause of the criminal actions that those who are reticent commit. Bigger Thomas is an example of the effect of this relationship. He can not be blamed for his actions because he felt cornered and reacted the only way that he knew how. Unfortunately, the novel ends on a pessimistic note. The whites of the jury do not realize their part in the making of Bigger Thomas and decide to sentence him to death.
George, Stephen K. “The Horror of Bigger Thomas: The Perception of Form without Face in Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son.’.” African American Review 31.3 (1997): 497+.
Hamilton, Sharon. “Wright’s Native Son.” Explicator 55.4 (1997): 227-229.
Tuhkanen, Miko Juhani. “”A (B)igger’s Place”: Lynching and Specularity in Richard Wright’s “Fire and Cloud” and ‘Native Son.’.” African American Review 33.1 (1999): 125+.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper and Row, 1940.
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