By Courtney Deal
[h]is crime seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this. It was no longer a matter of dumb wonder as to what would happen to him and his black skin; he knew now. The hidden meaning of his life—a meaning which others did not see and which he had always tried to hide—had spilled out. (Wright 106)
Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright’s protagonist in Native Son, only finds “the hidden meaning of his life” after killing his white boss’ daughter, Mary Dalton. Bigger correlates this hidden meaning with his black skin. Bigger’s blackness becomes the reason “his crime felt natural.” However, because race is a social construct designed by those in power to maintain power, any attributes or personality traits seen as natural based on the color of one’s skin are entirely unnatural. Martha C. Nussbaum discusses Native Son in her book, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, saying, “[Bigger] is aware of himself in images drawn from the white world’s denigration of him” (93). This means that Bigger can only see himself through the lens of the white world. In other words, he views all of his actions through the veil of white society, a veil that relies on the perception of black people as less than, and even further that they deserve this fate because it is “natural” for black people to be criminals and, therefore, less than white members of society. Because of this veil, Bigger and other characters are blind to the reality of their world. Wright shows us, as readers, how unnatural Bigger’s crime is and that the idea of anything being “natural” because of the pigmentation of someone’s skin is, in fact, incredibly unnatural. Further, he asks us to question the ideals of both Bigger’s society and our own. Finally, he seeks to helps us remove the veil from our eyes and cure our blindness.
Wright’s novel, which takes place in 1930s Chicago, follows Bigger Thomas, a young black man in a white world. Bigger struggles with a split personality; he hates his blackness, which he describes as “feel[ing] like [he is] on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot hole in the fence,” but he also hates the side of himself yearning to experience the freedom of whiteness (20). He finds a job working for Mr. Dalton, a prominent white businessman, and accidentally kills Dalton’s only daughter. After committing this murder, Bigger comes to realize that others around him cannot see—literally. Bigger repeatedly says everyone around him is blind; they only see life the way they want to see it rather than how it truly is. In an attempt to evade arrest, Bigger kills his quasi-girlfriend, Bessie, because she “know[s] too much” (178). However, as I will discuss later, Bessie’s murder is much larger than Bigger’s desire to not be caught. Bigger’s violent actions drive both the novel and his revelations about both himself and others around him. Once Bigger has committed these two acts of violence, he begins to reconcile the sides of himself that he hates; he begins to come to grips with his whiteness and his blackness.
Perhaps the most obvious motif running through Native Son is the motif of blindness. Every character in Wright’s novel is blind at least once. This blindness comes from each character’s “wan[ting] and year[ning] to see life in a certain way” (Wright 106). With this in mind, it is more accurate to describe blindness, as James Nagel does in his article, “Images of ‘Vision’ in Native Son,” as “an analysis of ‘perception’ which documents the effect prejudice, alienation, oppression, and isolation have on one’s ability to ‘see’ and ‘be seen’ clearly” (109). Bigger considers both the black and white characters blind to the world around them. Most obviously, the white characters are blind because “they [do] not want to see what others [are] doing if it [does] not feed their own desires” (Wright 106). They would rather keep the veil, which separates their perception of black life from its realities, drawn than try to truly empathize with the plight of Bigger and the black people of Chicago. To subscribe to this veil is easier than trying to debunk it because it protects the white society from their fear that they “made [Bigger commit his crime]” (Wright 358).
W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness provides a frame in which to explain both the split in Bigger’s personality and the blindness in the novel. According to Du Bois, there are two sides to the black man in America, the American and the Negro (3). Additionally, the black man has “no true self-consciousness” because he can only see himself “through the revelation of the other [white] world,” as if through a “veil” (3). As Bigger sees himself through the veil of white society, who views him as a threat, he also sees himself as a threat—to the point of believing that he has forged himself a new identity after killing Mary, even as this act fulfills the long-standing stereotype of black men being a danger to white women. The blindness of both the characters in the novel and of the reader is a product of the veil of which we are often unaware.
Bigger begins to realize who he is as an individual after his acts of violence. After Mary’s death, he sees everyone’s blindness and their desire to see him in whatever way works best for their “own desires” and their world (Wright 106). He believes that he is the only one who can see, while everyone else would rather be blind. After Bessie’s death, Bigger feels the lack of “wholeness” in his life because of his black skin (240). He realizes that the two murders he has committed did nothing to solve the twoness he sees in himself, the difference between “something he [knows] and something he [feels]”: his double consciousness (240). This twoness makes him act out in violence; he is yearning to be whole, to find a way for “his two worlds” to join (240). However, the white world around Bigger has a hand in creating this split. Bigger’s double consciousness results from others’ unwillingness to recognize his individuality as a person, exemplified by their blindness. Because Mary and Bessie are the representations of Bigger’s double consciousness, they become the victims of Bigger’s violence.
Bigger’s violence and his blindness act as a reinforcement of Bigger’s double consciousness and, therefore, the veil. The belief in this veil shows a “refusa[l] to imagine one another with empathy and compassion” (Nussbaum xvii). This refusal, as Nussbaum argues, is a hallmark of our society and would have only been truer in Bigger’s society, a society that blatantly relied on inequality. Nussbaum argues that literature functions in developing “the ability to imagine the concrete ways in which people different from oneself grapple with disadvantage” (xvi). This is particularly relevant in Native Son because even as the reader is actively engaged in developing empathy for Bigger and his plight, the characters are not. Part of the blindness of the black characters comes not from the inability to empathize, but rather an inability to recognize the veil being placed in front of them—especially in the case of Bessie and Bigger. In an interesting and telling excerpt from the novel, Bigger can recognize this blindness in Bessie but cannot recognize it in himself:
She did not answer; he turned from her and got a chair and pulled it up to the dresser. He unwrapped the package and balled the paper into a knot and threw it into a corner of the room. Instinctively, Bessie stooped to pick it up. Bigger laughed and she straightened suddenly. Yes; Bessie was blind. He was about to write a kidnap note and she was worried about the cleanliness of her room. (Wright 175, emphasis mine)
Bigger recognizes that Bessie “instinctively” acts, reinforcing the notion put forth by the “Nation,” saying “[b]e content to be servants and nothing more” (Du Bois 7). Bessie’s instinct to clean up after him reinforces the veiled perception of black women as servants. However, and perhaps part of the reason that Bigger views Bessie in such contempt, he sees himself through that same veil when he feels that his crime is natural and predestined.
Despite believing that he can see clearly where others cannot, Bigger is also blind to the veil, something he realizes just before his trial when he wonders if “he [had] been blind all along” (Wright 362). Bigger’s blindness comes from his inability and unwillingness to see white people as individuals, as well as a blindness to how he is viewed in his society. Nagel argues that blindness on both sides “is operative throughout the novel as a metaphor of a lack of understanding and of a tendency to generalize individuals on the basis of race” (110). Bigger is unable to see people like Jan and Mary as individuals who on some level, although they are blind, are trying to understand him. He is more comfortable with white people like Britten, the outwardly bigoted prosecution lawyer, because “he had met a thousand Brittens in his life” (Wright 154). Just as the white world is content to group all black men together, so Bigger is content to believe that all white people are the same and like Britten.
Bigger’s blindness to his own struggle is most evident when he reflects upon his family’s living situation:
He hated his family because he knew they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness 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. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. (Wright 10)
Although he hates people for their blindness, Bigger seems to choose blindness as a response to his own suffering. He turns a blind eye to his family and how they live because he does not want the full weight of their suffering on his back. He would rather be blind because, even in this early section of the novel, Bigger can see his reaction to complete consciousness would be to “kill himself or someone else.” Eventually, however, Bigger is inevitably forced to open his eyes—and these foreshadowed murders do actually happen.
While the characters in the novel are blind, the reader is also blind. Bigger’s blindness is cured through his violence; the reader’s blindness is meant to be cured through the reading of the novel. Jane Gallop, in “The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading,” discusses the destructive tendency of readers to look for “timeless universals” rather than practice close reading (182). Wright makes it impossible for the reader to subscribe to these universals when reading Bigger. Regardless of his violent actions, readers are forced to see him in a sympathetic light.
This sympathetic portrayal complicates the idea of the “bad nigger.” Although Bigger’s killing of Mary and Bessie, Mr. Dalton’s daughter and his girlfriend, respectively, makes him a “literalization of their racial expectations,” the reader is forced to empathize with him because the novel is written from his point of view (Felgar 70). Watching Bigger commit these heinous acts, but at the same time struggle with them, makes the reader see that Bigger is not acting fully of his own free will. His belief that he could not stop himself from committing violence comes from his inability to see himself outside of the perceptions of the white world around him. As Robert Felgar describes in his teaching of Native Son, the reader, and—according to Felgar—particularly his white students, must “disrupt their (often unstated and unrecognized) belief” in the veil that both makes Bigger act and struggle with his actions (70).
Because the readers see Bigger in a sympathetic light, they can begin to see other oppressed black men who may or may not act out in violence in a sympathetic light as well. Wright intended Bigger to represent “the Negro’s uncertain position in America” (Wright 455). In his mission to accomplish this, he constructed Bigger out of the “many” Biggers he met in his life (Wright 434). Wright mentions that “the white folks called [Bigger No. 3] a bad nigger,” which was combined to make “Bigger” when referring to him (435). With this in mind, it is important to note that “nigger” is not just a racial slur, but also a socially constructed identity for black people. This identity is characterized by a slew of generally negative stereotypes. Because society trains us to be familiar with these stereotypes, Wright’s narrator writes in a way that suggests the reader knows them. Further, Wright counts on the reader going into the novel understanding these stereotypes and even possibly believing these so-called Truths, which will initially color their view of Bigger.
Part of empathizing with Bigger, which is the goal of Wright’s novel, is to understand the purpose of his violence against the women. James Butler, in his article, “The Function of Violence in Richard Wright’s Native Son,” combats claims that the violence in Native Son is gratuitous and unnecessary, arguing that Wright “uses violence extensively but as a necessary and powerful reflector of the deepest recesses of [Bigger’s] radically divided nature” (Butler 10). In justifying this violence, Butler continues, saying that Mary and Bessie “represent the extreme poles of [Bigger’s] divided self” (11). Mary and Bessie function within Native Son to externalize the struggle that Bigger is going through internally. While Butler says that the women represent the two emotional sides of Bigger, this paper will argue the two women are the external versions of Bigger’s double consciousness, Mary being the American side and Bessie as the Negro side. Bigger does not feel like he can truly identify with either side, and this causes him to hate and violently murder both women. Bigger’s antagonistic relationship with each woman is a reflection with which the reader can see how Bigger hates the parts of himself.
Mary, despite their differences, is connected to Bigger in his desire for whiteness. Even as she represents the American side of Bigger, Mary wants to learn more about Bigger beyond the stereotypical—whether it is a sincere desire or not. Before the reader ever meets Mary as her own character, she is in the movie Bigger goes to see with Jack. She is shown on a resort in Florida to show how the rich live. Bigger sees her and wonders if the things he had heard about rich white people were true (Wright 33). He then starts to wonder if he “would get some of [that life]” once he begins working for the Daltons (Wright 33). To make the connection between Mary and Bigger clearer, Bigger replaces the “naked black men and women whirling in wild dances” with “images in his own mind of white men and women dressed in black and white clothes, laughing, talking, drinking and dancing” (Wright 33). Bigger automatically takes the media’s representation of what black people are like, a function of the veil, and replaces it with what is more positive in his eyes that have been shaped by the media.
At the same time that Bigger admires the whiteness on screen, he hates the “great natural force” he considers white society and hates it within himself (Wright 114). When he goes to work for the Daltons and experiences Jan and Mary’s interest in his life, he is forced to consider his own whiteness—which he is extremely uncomfortable with. He is forced to think about why they would be interested in his life as an individual person rather than as just one of the ten million black people in Chicago. This recognition as an individual both scares Bigger and makes him think about himself in relation to Mary and Jan. It makes him consider that they are not as different as he once believed.
After killing Mary, Bigger “all but shudder[s] with the intensity of his loathing for [her] house and all it had made him feel since he had first come into it” (Wright 87). He believes that he can escape the whiteness in himself. However, when dreaming about his crime, Bigger sees his own head in the place of Mary’s:
[H]e had a big package in his arms so wet and slippery and heavy that he could scarcely hold onto it and he wanted to know what was in the package and he stopped near an alley corner and unwrapped it and the paper fell away and he saw—it was his own head—his own head lying with black face and half-closed eyes and lips parted with white teeth showing and hair wet with blood and the red glare grew brighter… (Wright 165)
By forcing Bigger to see himself in Mary, he forces himself to see not only the desire for the freedom of whiteness, but also the whiteness within himself. This is also a clear symbol given to the reader by Wright that Bigger and Mary are connected to each other and that Mary is a part of Bigger, to the point that Bigger is able to recognize himself in Mary. Nagel interestingly argues that “without the whiteness [in Bigger] there would be no killing,” meaning that even as Bigger kills Mary to destroy the whiteness within himself, it is also whiteness that forces him to kill her (Nagel 112). This whiteness functions to make Bigger believe that his blackness is evil, which then causes him to believe he could not stop himself from killing Mary.
Alternatively, Bessie represents Bigger’s “Negro” side. While Bigger hates Mary because she reminds him of the freedom he cannot have, Bigger hates Bessie because she reminds him of “the impotence and despair” of the world he lives in (Butler 17). Butler further elaborates, “Bigger sees Bessie as a mirror into which he can no longer bear to look” (Butler 17). Bessie falls into the category of black people that have accepted the narrative the “Nation” endorses, “saying: Be content to be servants, and nothing more” (Du Bois 7). Bigger is fighting against this “Nation,” and therefore is insecure about his own place in the world. He recognizes Bessie’s submission and hates her for it. In what is undoubtedly a rape scene, Bigger’s actions grow more violent and uncontrollable after he hears Bessie give “a sigh of resignation” that he determines to be “a giving up, a surrender of something more than her body” (Wright 233). Bessie, unlike Bigger, is content to give up fighting against the system set in place by the white people in their society that would have them in a subservient position. Bigger sees this contentment as blindness and fights against it in the only way he knows how—through violence.
While it is true Bessie is blinded by her comfort in the status quo, she is not blind to the way she and Bigger are perceived by the white world they live in. Bigger “[feels] the narrow orbit of [Bessie’s] life: from her room to the kitchen of the white folks was the farthest she ever moved” (Wright 139). Bessie feels it as well, and even acknowledges Bigger’s statement that the “white folks…done killed plenty of us” (Wright 178). However, Bessie sees where Bigger is blind, telling him that just because the white people have made his life miserable, it “don’t make it right” for Bigger to act out in violence against Mary Dalton (Wright 178). Bigger immediately begins thinking about how “easy” it would be to murder Bessie after she says this to him (Wright 178). He says Bessie “now knew too much”: and at first it reads like she knows too much about the murder, but she actually knows too much about the world around her that Bigger does not see, which threatens him in a way he cannot describe (Wright 178). Bigger hates that Bessie willingly subscribes to the veil that tells black women their place in society is subservient, but he cannot see that he subscribes to the same veil; he believes it was “natural” for him to kill Mary, a side effect of his black skin.
While his acting out in violence is Bigger’s initial way of reconciling his two sides, it is not successful. Even after his murder of Bessie, Bigger realizes he had never and does not “[feel] a sense of wholeness” (Wright 240). Although he recognizes that he wants “to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black,” he does not feel he has accomplished this goal in killing Bessie (Wright 240). In ultimately killing Bessie, Bigger recognizes his double consciousness. He recognizes that because he is black he lacks opportunity, and the social structure of the white world he lives in both denies him this opportunity and tells him he does not deserve it.
The final act of merging his two selves and removing the veil is to recognize that white people are individuals, and not all like Britten. Du Bois tried to resolve the split between black people being both “African” and “American,” by saying that the black man should try “to merge his double self into a better and truer self,” while “losing neither of the older selves” (Du Bois 3). This would require Bigger to recognize both his whiteness and his blackness. His whiteness, the internalized narrative that all white people are the same and hate him, is solved through realizing that Jan is an individual separate from the “looming mountain of white hate” (Wright 289). Initially, Bigger sees white people as “not really people,” but more of a “great natural force like a stormy sky looming overhead” (Wright 114). When Bigger realizes that Jan genuinely wants to help him, he muses:
For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him; and the reality of Jan’s humanity came in a stab of remorse…He saw Jan as though someone had performed an operation upon his eyes, or as though someone had snatched a deforming mask from Jan’s face. (Wright 289)
After coming to this realization, Bigger recognizes that like Jan, Mary was an individual person, and rather than killing the entire social institution that kept him from opportunity, he killed a human being. His blindness seems to be cured, as if being able to see Jan as a human being helped to reconcile the part of himself that is ambitious and wants to be like Mary and Jan.
Bigger’s blackness is reconciled after the trial, when Bigger allows himself to think about the murders he has committed. After being sentenced to death, Bigger tells Max, “It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder…What I killed for must’ve been good!…When a man kills, it’s for something…I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em” (Wright 429). This moment is Bigger’s final cure to the blindness he employed when thinking about his family’s situation. Bigger no longer prevents himself from feeling the “fullness” of his family’s struggle (Wright 10). Because he is able to feel this fullness, he is able to locate within himself a reason for his crimes. Because their suffering comes from their blackness, Bigger can locate this blackness within himself and come to peace with it. He no longer has to hate his family because he can understand that they go through the same things he does, and they must feel the same hate he feels.
Bigger’s reconciliation of his two sides comes at the cost of two women’s lives. However, it was not simply an act of his blackness to commit these crimes. Nussbaum believes that it is the duty of “the reader, while judging Bigger culpable” of his murders, to also be “inclined to mercy in the imposition of punishment, seeing how much of his character was the product of circumstances created by others” (Nussbaum 95). While we are not supposed to excuse Bigger’s actions, we should acknowledge how the social structure played a part in facilitating these murders. We are meant to recognize that Bigger’s society and its forcing of “reductive generalizations” on black people through the veil of narrative and oppression play a role in Bigger’s violence (Gallop 185). Native Son encourages readers to see past what we believe to be “natural” about others and question the social structures that create people like Bigger Thomas, as well as the role we play in reinforcing these structures.
Butler, Robert James. “The Function of Violence in Richard Wright’s Native Son.” Black American Literature Forum 20.1/2 (1986): 9-25. JSTOR. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Books, 1989. Print.
Felgar, Robert. “Native Son and Its Readers.” Approaches to Teaching Wright’s Native Son. Ed. James A. Miller. New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 1997. 67-74. Print.
Gallop, Jane. “The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading.” Profession (2007): 181-86. Print.
Nagel, James. “Images of ‘Vision’ in Native Son.” The University Review 35.2 (1969): 109-115. Print.
Nussbaum, Martha C. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. Print.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.